Practicing powerful interactions with young children

Use powerful interactions to make the most of the teachable moments with your child.

There is no doubt children learn the fundamental concepts about our world from their parents and other family members.
There is no doubt children learn the fundamental concepts about our world from their parents and other family members.

“Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher, and have already taught their children many things prior to entering school.” – Ran and Ramey, 1999.

This quote about the relationship between parenting and learning is used extensively today. There is no doubt children learn the fundamental concepts about our world from their parents and other family members. Even after children enter school, families have a profound effect on what and how their children learn academic subjects. Think back: How did you learn to count to 10 and recite the alphabet?

Child development and early education specialists have been studying how parents help children learn basic and not-so-basic skills for a long time, and many of our current parenting practices are based on the development learning theory of these experts. One such expert was Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He clarified the learning processes as shared experiences. He theorized that learning happens in a social context within the relationships children have with other people. Simply put, the actions of parents and other family members help children to learn things they would not otherwise learn by themselves.

How can we, as parents, make the most of the time we spend with our young children? Should we be giving formal instruction every day and handing out worksheets? Planning lessons around academic subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic?

Most early childhood experts don’t recommend a formal or forced learning approach with our own children, but they do know ways that will help us. “Take what you know about children from observing them…and use it to create an opportunity for you to teach and the child to learn.” Early childhood educators Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon and Charlotte Stetson call these “Powerful Interactions” and have outlined a strategy to help parents and educators make the most of the “teachable moments” that present themselves daily.

The first step, they note, is to be present. This means you put aside distractions and other thoughts that interfere and focus on your child and what they are doing. Our goals is to enter into the activity that a child has already established rather than introduce a new type of play idea or new activity to the child. When joining in your child’s play, you know your child is interested because they chose to be engaged in that activity.

The second step is to connect with your child. Strategies such as sitting nearby, looking at your child, mimicking your child’s play and commenting on what your child is doing will help you focus on what your child is doing. How are they interacting with the blocks and cars? What are they doing with the play dough? What do they already know how to do or understand? What are they learning about as they manipulate the materials or ideas in their play session. We want to start where the child is and make sure the child is also attending to us as adults.

The third step is to extend learning. In a gentle, non-intrusive manner, you want to add knowledge to your child’s process or help your child take the next step in learning about something. It is an opportunity for you to expand the play scenario rather than force new concepts on the child. We should always consider the age and developmental level of the child when we try to extend learning. It is counter-productive to offer several new concepts at once or jump ahead to a phase of learning the child may not be ready for.

The good news is you, as a parent, know your child best. You have seen how the child typically learns things and reacts to new ideas. You know your child’s interests and attention span. When teachers use this method of teaching, they must conduct careful observations of children and develop a relationship before they can expect to be effective teachers. As parents or close family members, you already have a relationship. Using these strategies can build on your relationship in a positive way.

If you would like to learn more about the topics addressed in this article, Michigan State University Extension refers the following:

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