Emily Bradshaw has always tried to create an atmosphere that encourages learning in her home, reading nightly with her young family, encouraging their studies and designing activities to broaden their horizons. She became even more involved three years ago, when a contract stalemate between teachers and the state caused Hawaiian schools to close every Friday. Bradshaw and some neighbors in the Oahu town of Laie decided to step in.
"For a whole year, almost every Friday, the teachers were on leave without pay, which meant kids were not in school," Bradshaw said. "In a community where most families require two incomes to survive financially, this left kids at home, in front of the TV and out of luck." To fill the void, Bradshaw and some friends created what they called Furlough School for kids who lived in the neighborhood.
"I taught creative writing, my friend taught math games, another friend taught ASL," she said. "It was really like being in a one-room school house with kids of all ages. For one morning a week, I thought it was very rewarding to be engaged in this kind of community effort."
Most parents won't need to replace school curriculum as Bradshaw did, but there are many things parents can do at home to help their children learn more effectively at school. Opportunities abound for vacations, family outings, games and activities that boost learning. But many of the most effective ways for parents to support their children's school performance are neither elaborate nor expensive.
The most important way to boost children's school performance is to model a love of learning, said Wallace Goddard, a family life specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service who lectures and writes books on parenting.
"When children see their parents excited about learning — reading books, asking questions or Google searching — they are far more likely to be enthusiastic learners," Goddard said.
Humans can learn a lot from rodents when it comes to creating enriched learning environments, according to The Dana Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic group that supports brain research through grants and education programs.
"Mice and rats that spend their days twirling in running wheels, nosing their way through elaborate tunnels, negotiating obstacle courses or just hanging out with their four-legged friends have provided neuroscience with some of the best evidence yet for how to keep brains healthy," said science writer Brenda Patoine in an article for the foundation. "While the overall message — that stimulating and challenging the brain reaps rewards — is not new, the evidence supporting this message is stronger than ever."
Neuroscientists theorize that the improved learning and memory skills shown by animals that live in enriched environments are the result of a basic brain mechanism that works for humans, too, though human trials that measure this are difficult to design. Children whose parents strive to enrich their lives with learning do well at school, said retired elementary school teacher Debra Gehris, who taught for 37 years in Utah's Alpine School District.
"You can tell when the parents have worked with the kids, even a little bit," Gehris said. "When the kids know the parents are interested in learning, the positive attitude of the parents transfers to the child."
Knowing the curriculum a child is studying at school can be helpful, but is not essential, Goddard said. The best way to understand what your child is learning about, interested in, surprised by or worried about at school is to ask her.
"How we respond to children's normal curiosity will determine how effective we are at becoming important educational figures in their lives and how curious they come to be," he said. Perhaps the best way to enrich children's literacy is to read with them.
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