I am a big fan of incidental learning. Incidental learning is using moments that happen during the day and transforming them into learning opportunities. Incidental learning is natural. It goes with the flow and isn’t forced. Most times my kids don’t know they are really learning anything.
Incidental learning can often be utilized during formal schooling in the form of tangents. I always loved when my teachers went off into tangents. Sure it was a deviation from the main topic, but those little antidotes and stories stuck.
Back when my boys were 7 and 5, I recorded some examples of incidental learning that happened in our household:
- When I gave my boys a plate of food for supper, I told them they had a themed supper. They didn’t know what that was so I told them that there was a pattern to the food on their plate. A minute later my son came to me and told me the pattern, but he deduced that it was a sort-of pattern because one didn’t really fit with the others. He was right.
- I purposefully said something to my boys using a “big” word that I knew they hadn’t heard of before. When my son stopped me and asked what that word meant I explained it to him.
- My son was playing around on Google Earth after school and wanted to find Illinois. He asked me how to spell Illinois. I asked him how he thought it was spelled and he guessed incorrectly. I then asked him what he knew about Illinois. Then it clicked. He quickly typed in Chicago and found Illinois. To me learning how to associate and find information is more important than knowing how to spell one word.
- We were reading the story of Mary Breckenridge in the Kentucky mountains. The story started off with an advertisement in a Glasgow newspaper so I went off on a tangent telling about my first time in Glasgow riding on the other side of the car and road.
- After a morning where everyone tried a Tim Horton’s chocolate danish I started a theory that those in our family that like Tim Horton’s chocolate danishes must be from another planet. We then concluded that those who like the danishes sneeze a lot so they must have some trouble breathing air here. The family aliens were said to be from Jupiter. Since Jupiter was made of gas their beds floated around the planet. While this may seem like a foolish exchange, it helps with imaginative skills and story making abilities plus you can add some science facts into the mix.
- When we are waiting in the car at a store, we like to hold a competition to guess how many people will come out the door before Dad does. It is also fun to guess a time frame or estimate what the most common color of car is in the parking lot. We also enjoy guessing which car around us will leave first.
When my youngest was a toddler, most of her day to day living was involved in incidental learning. I prefer to avoid formal instruction before the age of 5. I did start a little formal instruction with two of my kids before the age of 5, but it was optional and at times it was adapted to be play-based. Because I tended to avoid formal instruction that didn’t mean that learning wasn’t happening. My toddler was surrounded with educational materials and toys, learning as she played. Plus our exchanges during the day were full of learning opportunities.
I recorded some instances of incidental learning back when she was 1:
- When I was washing up my toddler after dinner I told my daughter “I’m going to get your nose.” I then headed toward her nose with my little cloth and she giggled in anticipation. At the last moment I said “No, no, no I’m going to get your chin.” I then moved from my position right in front of her nose to her chin. She loved this game so I repeated it for many different body parts. She thought she was playing a game, but I was helping her learn the names of her body parts.
- My daughter liked to sit at the big table and play with her brother’s All About Spelling letters. She picked them up and asked me to name what she was holding.
- Just expanding on what she said gave her more information. For instance if she said “purple” I responded with “purple shirt” or “I like the purple shirt.” or “I have a green shirt on.” This can happen all day.
- When my daughter was in a “no” mood I used that time to model lots of language for her. I carried her around the room and named things, asking her if she wanted to play with them. She usually responded no for the first twenty or so things and then finally she said yes. Meanwhile I modeled lots of vocabulary words for her and all that time she thought she was in control.
Now my kids are older and incidental learning still is an important part of learning in our life. At dinner tonight the discussion bounced around on topics of foreign language, geography, nutrition, and math.
I find that the flow of life brings about many instances where learning is natural. The opportunities are endless.