"Learning German? When am I ever going to use that in a job?!"

As a young language geek, that's the kind of refrain I heard regularly in my high school German classes. And it's an attitude that's often reflected by parents, teachers, politicians and the community at large. We've come to think of education in narrow, often utilitarian terms and — as such — we're in danger of ignoring some of the most important learning opportunities there are.

Here are some examples that involve the youngest (and probably most important) group of learners: kids.

Playing with food

"Don't play with your food! Just eat!"

We've all heard this refrain and, for those of us who are now parents, we're probably guilty of uttering something similar ourselves. But playing with your food can be a learning experience. As the husband of a dietitian, my wife often reminds me that mushing, smearing and generally making a mess can be a child's way of exploring unfamiliar foods. And there's also research to show that children may learn certain words better if they get a chance to play with their food too.


Physical education is getting squeezed out of many schools, in favor of science, math, and whatever else might help get test scores up. Yet we learn an awful lot when we're out there getting sweaty. From the challenging concepts of leadership and team work, to some tangible demonstrations of the laws of physics, exercise can be a great way to see theory in practice. In fact, the simple act of exercising itself can enhance learning and discipline when kids get back in the classroom too, and programs like the Walking Classroom are combining physical activity with core content knowledge at the same time.

Unstructured play

It sometimes feels like we're pressured to have a structured program for every minute of our child's day. But as an excellent article over at Scholastic notes, a frenzy of play dates, after school clubs and extra curricular activities may be depriving our children of something equally valuable:

"There is a myth that doing nothing is wasting time, when it's actually extremely productive and essential," says Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. "During empty hours, kids explore the world at their own pace, develop their own unique set of interests and indulge in the sort of fantasy play that will help them figure out how to create their own happiness, handle problems with others on their own, and sensibly manage their own time. That's a critical life skill."
Playing video games

Video games have become a handy scapegoat for all that's wrong with our youth: violence, obesity and attention deficit disorder. But there's some evidence to suggest that video games may have real cognitive and physical benefits. Educators are now seeking to harness those benefits for improved educational experiences. Education experts are also pushing children to learn computer coding, hoping to encourage a culture where we view technology not just as something we consume, but something we can manipulate and use to shape the world around us.

Getting messy

As I noted above, children learn better if they play with their food. We also know that getting out in nature and getting a little muddy can be a great educational experience. (Heck, breathing in soil bacteria may even make you smarter!) But messiness is not just about physical mess — it has a conceptual element too. According to education writer Ian Flukes, we need to encourage schools to embrace "messy problems," moving away from a pure focus on "right answers" and simple equations to also explore real world challenges that include ambiguity and doubt:

Messy problems have no single, certifiably correct answer. There is no “one right way” to solve a problem like “should I get married” or “what should I study in college?” The answer is the goal, but the answer can manifest itself in many correct ways and lead to a lot of unexpected learning along the way. Ambiguity envelopes us. It begins at birth and follows us through to the last days of our lives. Start to finish, life is messy.
Think beyond facts

Ultimately, we don't need to worry about whether or not our children will learn. It's what they were literally built to do. But we need to think hard about what and how they will learn. In a world where data and knowledge is accessible at the touch of a button, filling a young mind with facts has little to no value in my book. What does sound more interesting, however, is teaching a child how to think — and doing so in ways that explore the full diversity, wonder and challenge of the complicated, ambiguous and often messy world around us.

Related on MNN:

5 surprising ways that children learn
Think your children are is just playing with their food? Think again. They may be learning.