Ideal Environment for Optimal Learning
Whether you have been homeschooling for just a few months, or for many years, it pays to evaluate the space in your home as it relates to a successful learning experience and the educational journey in which you embark.
A learning environment is a platform in which individuals engage with one another and their surroundings to acquire new knowledge and skills then apply what they’ve learned to exercise higher levels of thinking.
This environment can help or hinder growth, productivity, and transformation. A supportive, safe, and positive environment can help children thrive whereas a coercive, judgemental, or conditional one can squash the natural curiosity and zest for discovery that we all innately hold.
Here are 5 broad categories that need to be considered for optimal learning.
Safety: Of course our homes should provide physical safety for our children where the risk for harm is little to none. Think for example about baby-proofing your home to prevent accidental injury. That of course is what most families prepare and plan for whether homeschooling or not.
But what about cognitive and emotional safety? Above all things children need to feel that their home is a safe haven. A safe haven where they can open their minds, hearts, and emotions free of shame, guilt, fear, or judgement. Have you opened up space for your children to freely and fully express themselves?
We strive to create this safe haven in our house in ways that include leaving space for showing emotions, supporting one another in times of frustration or confusion, and accepting mistakes or missteps as a healthy part of growing and learning. I often emphasize with my children that making mistakes is part of the learning process. In fact, we learn when we make mistakes. So, what can we do to support this growth mindset? I like to share and talk about mistakes. I often model for my children through sharing my own mistakes and discuss how I learn and grow from these experiences.
I also use the power of “YET” where we take a fixed mindset phrase and change it into one of the growth mindset. For example, “I can’t do this” transforms to “I can’t do this yet!” The goal is to make a safe space where all feel welcomed, respected, free to take risks, and express themselves fully.
Culture: A culture is a way of life. The way that a group or groups of people live their lives including their language, religion, diets, social habits, music, arts, etc. Culture connects with the feeling of safety, security, validation, and authenticity.
The culture of the learning space should be one marked by support, inclusion, positivity, respect, and trust. A positive culture cultivates feelings of connectedness where each of its members feels as if they have value to add to the larger context.
In our home, we value our children as individuals who have their own needs and desires. We all understand that we have to work together to coexist respectfully and ensure that everyone’s needs are met. In times of conflict, we work together to negotiate and problem solve that can get us to a solution that everyone is happy with instead of autocratically enforcing our will to coerce our children into what we want to do.
The culture of the larger community is also important to consider when thinking about the learning environment as homeschooling does not just include in-home support, but also the support of the greater community.
Children need to feel the support of their community through mentors, co-ops, support groups, professionals, access to a wide range of community resources, and family and friends. These relationships and experiences will assist the learning process and flow of activities.
The strength lies in a culture that builds each up through missteps and errors, can strengthen one’s resolve, teaches core ethical and moral values, and openly accepts all ideas and opinions. Remember we want our children to be resilient and confident. Culture is a critical element of the learning environment and parents want to be aware of the influence of culture so that they can shape it in a way that supports the type of learning environment that is most effective.
Responsive vs. Reactive Feedback: Feedback that is responsive as opposed to reactive is one of the most effective ways to connect with your child and help them thrive. This applies to their learning interests and goals as well. The right kind of feedback can help your child track their progress toward what they are striving to attain. It can also help both child and parent identify how to change course if something is going wrong or proving too stressful.
A bit of struggle is necessary for growth, but too much struggle can result in frustration to the point of shutting down. I like to work on finding ways to provide feedback in various forms. Think, for example, personal or self-evaluations, peer feedback, or parent/mentor feedback. I often informally conference with my children so that I can provide descriptive feedback that is kind and supportive.
I do my best to respond thoughtfully when my children are overwhelmed or experiencing a challenging emotion instead of reacting without much thought which causes them to shut down. A calm, reflective, responsive feedback process helps to identify strengths and weaknesses while motivating children to continue working toward their goals and solving problems.
Keep in mind, however, that what I am talking about is something different then praise. A large misconception is that praise is needed to build a child’s self-esteem.
On the contrary, praise can actually do the opposite to one’s self-esteem. It causes children to become dependent on what others think and this can derail them in focusing on what is most important which is how they feel about themselves and their actions. In short, praise results in children needing to rely on others for validation which erodes the development of a strong sense of self and self-worth.
So focus on the specific feedback that is sincere, kind, internally motivating, and sparks introspection. For example, instead of “Awesome job!” you might say “Your effort and focus in completing that project paid off! How do you feel about yourself after working hard?” Or, “What do you like most about it?” Or, instead of “Nice job cleaning up” you might say “Cleaning up is fun with you. You help speed up the cleaning process so now we have time to play before bed!”
In the end, stick to the encouragement and authentic feedback verse too much praise or knee-jerk reactions that you may later regret.
Zest for Meaningful Learning: The learning environment should also be one that is in accordance with helping your child meet his or her goals. Part of the beauty of homeschooling is that you can individualize and personalize to the fullest extent so that your child can discover, explore, and learn concepts that match his or her readiness levels, interests, and social or emotional needs.
When content is made relevant to our children by connecting it to the real world and their personal lives they can better relate and therefore more readily acquire new knowledge and skills.
For example, we link literary characters and stories to our children’s personal, cultural, social, and other world experiences to validate their interests, ideas, and strengths. In addition, when the physical environment matches your child’s preferences the learning is strengthened. Some students work best in quiet, individualized settings, while others prefer collaborative group work or discussion. Some students prefer visual and auditory experiences while others prefer kinesthetic or tactile. Most children will learn using a combination of arrangements and environments.
Remember though that discovery, investigation, inquiry, and exploration should be the hallmark of daily interactions and activities. Humans have innate abilities to persevere through challenges, explore new ideas, and challenge previous understandings. Learning can and should occur all around us in diverse settings and circumstances that allow for children to connect with the world in which they live.
When students find real world connections and meaning in what they are learning, they are more likely to engage, remember, and activate higher order thinking skills that leads to deeper more lasting connections to new knowledge and concepts.
Play: It was the beautiful child educator of the last century, Maria Montessori who said that “play is the work of children”(1967).
When children play they are engaged in activities that teach them about the world around them. They develop not only cognitive skills but also language, social, emotional, and physical skills. It is through play that children make sense of the world, learn about themselves, and learn about their relational skills with others.
Unfortunately, many adults marginalize the importance of play. But consider as an adult how you play. Do you garden, cook, walk, run, play tennis? And play elicits practice in all of those skills that we want for our children including imagination, creativity, communication, problem-solving, negotiation, self-control, self-motivation, attention, focus, and more!
It is a biological need of all humans to play so let’s not forget that a healthy learning space includes one that accepts play as a foundational part of learning and growth. Educational theorists and neuroscientists dating back to the 1970s have shown that experiences that evoke enjoyment and are relevant to one’s life and interests permit higher levels of learning, creativity, and discovery (Chugani, 1998; Pawlak, Magarinos, Melchor, McEwan & Strickland, 2003).
When the fun stops, the learning often stops too, so strive to keep your learning environment one that is marked by fun, laughter, and play!
I hope these strategies and tools help provide you with a sense of calm and direction in your learning through living experience!