Make every moment a teachable moment
While eating a bag of cheese puffs one day, my son unintentionally spilled the bag’s contents on the floor. As I dashed to retrieve the broom and dustpan to clean up the mess, a thought hit me: why don’t I have the boy clean it up? After all he was responsible for it. I held out the broom to my boy, who looked incredulous when informed that he had to do the sweeping this time around. Mildly protesting, he took the broom and started sweeping. I talked him through the task gently while reminding him about the importance of cleanliness and responsibility. Although he did a lousy job of it, he rather enjoyed doing it. He beamed when I complimented him for his effort. From that moment on, he knew what to do whenever he made a mess. Nowadays he mops up spills, dusts the tables and chairs, and helps me clean the glass windows. Not bad for an eight-year-old. Looking back I realize what I’d done that day when my son spilled his munchies. I had seized a teachable moment and made the most out of it.
A teachable moment is an unplanned opportunity to teach something new to a child or relate new information to existing knowledge. In the classroom setting, a teachable moment is a spontaneous, fleeting instance that must be recognized and grabbed by the teacher. The problem I have with this definition is the implication that if you let a teachable moment pass then you’ve lost your chance at imparting insightful knowledge to your child. I rather believe that parents can actively create teachable moments any time, rather than lie in wait for that elusive learning opportunity to present itself. Parents have the advantage of having intimate knowledge of the their children’s interests and learning style, and can work with their kids in an individualized, less structured environment.
Teachable moments abound in daily life. Bath time can be used to teach very young children the names of different body parts. Read-alouds can spark new interests, such as in asteroids (Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”) or the life cycle of insects (Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”). Playtime in the park presents an opportunity to learn about taking turns, playing fair, or making new friends. Let your child order the food the next time you eat out, or make him calculate the bill and count the change. Whenever my son tags along with me to the wet market, I demonstrate how to watch out for traffic when crossing the street. I also make it a point to watch his favorite cartoon shows with him and point out new vocabulary words and idiomatic expressions, in addition to asking him to predict what is going to happen next in the story.
Parents can learn something, too, from teachable moments. One time my son was Googling the real-life car models that the villainous vehicles on Disney Pixar’s Cars 2 movie are based on. I was intrigued to learn that monocled
ringleader Professor Zundapp was modeled after the Zundapp Janus, a microcar manufactured in Germany between 1957 and 1958. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to teach him about the Roman God of beginnings and transitions, after whom the first month of the year is named. But first, I wanted to know why the car was called Janus. Upon further investigation, I found that the Zundapp Janus, was a four-seater, its front and rear seats positioned back-to-back, such that front-seat passengers looked ahead while rear-seat occupants looked back. You do learn something new every day. 🙂 Together we looked up other cars that have been named after mythic gods. A minor fascination with the Percy Jackson graphic novels has familiarized my son with the major gods and monsters of Greek mythology, so I also grabbed the chance to review his prior knowledge on the subject.
Whether planned or unplanned, a teachable moment creates a window to help children connect learning with real-world experiences and recognize relationships among different kinds of knowledge. My advice to parents is to go where their children’s questions and interests take them. You’ll find that “taking the scenic route” on the way to learning often leads to delightful unexpected discoveries.