The Importance of Learning by Doing

Let your Kids Learn by Doing


It’s unfortunate that so many of us, after mastering walking, talking, counting, reading, and driving, develop the attitude that further learning is to be undertaken only under duress. Why subject ourselves to the physical and emotional difficulties of new challenges? Why bother with audacious long-term goals where we have no guarantee of success? Why risk hearing, “Can’t you get anything right?” or “I told you it wouldn’t work”?


Part of the problem is that we’re taught (!) “safer not to try” attitudes early. The truth of “you learn by doing” is obvious when a child is learning to walk, get dressed, or figure out basic math. When it comes to more complex skills, however, parents and teachers alike often adopt the approach, “I’ll tell you what to do/what to memorize, and I expect you to just do it, or I’ll decide you’re hopeless and leave it undone/do it myself.”

Then they wonder why the kids never seem to learn or do anything.

(More than good grades may be at stake. When society emphasizes “the easy way” and “the best results every time,” people learn to see themselves as incompetent victims with few options beyond cowering in corners or exploding into tantrums. And you only need look at the news to see what can happen when such thinking persists into adulthood.)

The truth is, children are born eager to learn by doing, and a healthy supply of that instinct survives at least into the early twenties. However, it spoils the adventure—and the enjoyment—when adults push learning by theory rather than practice. The more opportunities kids have to master things hands-on, the better.

To raise eager—and lifelong—learners, provide regular “doing” opportunities:

  • Let small children take as long as they need to finish things; don’t get impatient and jump in to button the coat or make the bed. If the final result looks sloppy, leave it—it’ll improve with practice.
  • Don’t tell kids “you’re too little” when they ask to help with chores. If you wait until they’re big enough to handle it easily, they’ll have lost all interest (because it’s no longer a challenge) by the time you want their help.
  • Remember that spilled milk is not a broken glass, and a bruise is not a broken arm. Of course you can’t let kids risk major injury or destruction, but protecting them from any and all minor damage does more harm than good.
  • Ask about their “when I grow up” dreams, and encourage them to invent steps in that direction.
  • Have confidence in them. Say, “You can become anything you want to be,” and believe it!
  • Take a few chances yourself: sign up for those ballet lessons you didn’t take in middle school because your buddies might laugh. Your kids are learning by example as well as by doing!