03/31/2014 01:47 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

Making Time for Children

I recently returned from a three-day trip with our fourth and fifth grade students to the Big Island, an experiential trip they take in order to "bring to life" many of the Hawaiian units they study throughout the year. During our three day tour, we explored lava tubes, visited Kilauea to observe a live volcano, examined ancient petroglyphs, walked through a rainforest, visited a local planetarium and learned a great deal about the history, beauty and culture of Hawaii. I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of nature's bright, eye-catching colors and the dry and barren surroundings left behind by volcanic destruction. Stumbling upon a brilliant red ʻōhiʻa lehua tree in the middle of a lava field made me pause in my tracks. How could something so vibrant sustain itself in these harsh conditions? I repeatedly found myself seeking these various symbols of old and new; birth and rebirth; tradition and innovation. We were surrounded by many wonderful examples, and I couldn't help but question if our young students recognized the significance of these stark contrasts.

Coincidentally, as educators, we are constantly in a similar state of flux with our students. Tradition and innovation are constantly spiraling in motion, as we introduce new ideas and concepts at a time when past theories and philosophies are still embraced. It is an exciting time for students, and their futures seem quite bright.

One of the hallmarks of working in a Progressive School is the opportunity to provide students with thematic and integrated opportunities to learn about themselves, others, and the changing world around them. On our trip to the Big Island, I couldn't have been more proud of our teachers who planned this special event. They truly understood what it meant to create child-centered, developmentally appropriate, experiential learning opportunities. As an educator immersed in project-based learning experiences, I know their planning involved several key ingredients. Research indicates that these elements are beneficial to students in any learning environment, so I would urge parents and caregivers to "make" time for the following when planning educational enrichment for young children.

Make It Relevant, Connected and Fun
This one seems obvious, but it needs to be stated. Children learn more when when they have positive relationships with others in their lives. When relationships in the learning community are positive and create feelings of security and enjoyment, students are more available for learning and as a result, more successful. Likewise, authentic learning experiences are much more valuable when students are able to directly engage and apply what they've learned. As a prime example, our students understood much more about volcanoes and their behavior by walking through an old lava tube and standing next to a live steam vent than the best non-fiction book could ever inform.

Make New Discoveries
One of my favorite quotes, penned by the renowned marine biologist, environmentalist and author, Rachel Carson states:

For the child... it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow... it is more important to pave the way for a child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts that he is not ready to assimilate.

On our recent learning trip to the Big Island, witnessing students sitting in the middle of a rainforest with their eyes closed, patiently listening to the distinct sounds of nature, and later sketching what they observed on their drawing pads were equally inspiring.

Many of us may have grown up in schools where information was "fed to us" through textbooks, lectures, worksheets and assignments. On occasion, we might have been lucky enough to have a teacher who regularly brought the classroom to life, allowing us to learn in multi-faceted ways, using art, drama, and other creative outlets. Those are the learning memories that I cherish most from from my early years, and I have much appreciation for those teachers who understood the impact of "curricular depth over breadth." I learned much more though those personal discoveries, engaging all of my senses. In fact, research supports this, and the more we can structure these opportunities for our children, the more successful they will be in their adult lives.

Make Children Take Risks and Feel Empowered
This generation of youth is often called the "bubble wrap" or "tea cup" generation, as they have grown up surrounded by adults who live in a constant state of fear for their children's well-being. Parents often strive to protect their children from failure, rejection, isolation, sadness, and loss. However, by doing so, we often disable our children in ways we can't imagine. When we swoop in to smooth out every disappointment they face, we are unintentionally sending them powerful messages about our faith in them to bounce back from failure, handle disappointment, or problem solve without adult intervention. These are essential skills our children need in order to lead future productive lives in their families, the workforce, and other environments. Allowing them to experience safe risk-taking now, along with the scaffolding and guidance that comes from positive parenting and teaching, will build a foundation for healthy problem solving and coping skills in the future. Our students on the learning trip were often provided with opportunities to experience setbacks in healthy ways. They were given appropriate responsibilities as class travelers to a new island (i.e. packing essentials, keeping up with flight tickets, being responsible for their class iPads, rising on time each morning). For many of the students, experiencing a first trip away from home, and making it through the night without a phone call to Mom or Dad was a monumental accomplishment. The students knew that the adults in their lives had faith in them, and they rose to the occasion. I believe young people need more of these moments in their lives. If we just give children a chance, the results can be surprising!

Make a Difference
Finally, I believe we need to give our youth ample opportunity to "give back" in authentic ways. Adult modeling is one of the best teachers in a child's life, as our youth are always watching us to learn valuable lessons about compassion, integrity, respect, and responsibility. I suggest adults regularly build in opportunities for children to care about their physical world (i.e. stream or beach cleanups, recycling, edible gardens), as well as the people who populate it (i.e. volunteering, clothing donations, Big Brother/Sister programs). Our trip afforded us with rich experiences to learn about rain forests, native Hawaiian plants, and the environmental reasons for their decline over time. Building in these experiences during the formative years will serve to cultivate compassionate adults in the future. We know the world could certainly benefit from having more of these individuals!

As parents and educators, teachable moments are constantly within reach if we simply seek them. Finding the time to make them authentic and relevant can be a challenging task, but it will pay huge dividends in the future. Enjoy the journey!