How Gifted Kids Can Benefit from Unstructured Learning
Humans learn from play, and playing helps to reduce stress, so why not do more of it? As a therapist for the gifted and 2e community, as well as being the mom of a 2e teen, I understand how important and underrated fun can be. We've all been convinced that kids need rigor, and structure to learn, especially our intense, bright and creative kids. We've been given the message they won't meet their full potential, or will somehow be less successful if they aren't properly challenged from the beginning. I've even been told, if it isn't strictly organized, or if it doesn't look like work, I must not be teaching anything. The truth is, we are all more productive learners when we are having fun. This isn't to say academics can't be fun. I'm only saying, there is more than one path to learning for hungry minds, worth exploring. Play can teach academic skills in a real world, applicable way while increasing creativity, deepening learning, reducing the effects of stress and supporting good mental health.
So, what does this mean for gifted children and teens? The reality is, play may look very different for our kids, than the average child, but is equally important. What interests them and engages them may be unusual and not typical for their age. Exposing your gifted children to the most beneficial activities can be tricky because your child's intellectual age probably doesn't match their developmental stage. This can limit access to camps and classes that can provide fun ways to support their interests, and can make figuring out what "learning" toys and games that are both age appropriate and engaging for them more difficult.
I remember how frustrating it was when my son was younger to find computer programing or robotics classes that fit his maturity level and ability. He was also obsessed with chemistry and physics. Nothing was available within our community that matched his intellect and age at the same time, and he was too young to stay engaged in an online class. For years, he loved Snap Circuits. We taught him the basics of circuitry to keep him from getting hurt or starting a fire, and let him explore on his own. When he wanted to do projects from the book we did those, but mostly he experimented with what worked and what didn't. This became his approach to many things. It was fun, he learned a ton organically, built perseverance and learned how to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn even more.
Now that he's a teen, he can more easily take college courses if he wants to further his knowledge on a subject, be on a robotics team, and access a wealth of information on the internet with the maturity to use it. That said, his path to learning has been anything but traditional, and has been rich, deep and highly effective. The way we found to support his insatiable mind was to allow and enable him to creatively explore at home on his own with supervision. We allowed him to play with the material he was choosing to learn without any expectations from us, other than to be safe. We created a chemistry lab and a maker's space in our home, gave him simple and inexpensive building supplies, helped him to access computer programming tutorials online and explored with him. Because my husband and I are not chemists, programmers or experts in physics, we also had to learn, so we could teach him and keep him safe from some of the experiments he wanted to try. The local library, Khan Academy and EdEx became our best friends. These are some of the ways my child played at home.
Different gifted kids, may need different things. They aren't all like my son, for sure. Creative, gifted kids may create elaborate stories, write and act out plays, or spend hours on art projects. They may have rich fantasy lives, where their toys have intricate back stories, and elaborate day to day happenings. They may have imaginary friends and places that fill their minds. This type of play is important too. It gives them a way to process their emotions, practice and experiment with different social situations, and encourages healthy self expression.
Other gifted kids might enjoy learning and creating languages, making codes and cyphers, solving puzzles or taking apart things to see how they work. Projects and games that incorporate math and language, help them to more intuitively understand these concepts in a real life, meaningful way.
Some gifted children and teens, love to explore nature and the world around them. Some playful ways to support this curiosity is to go on nature scavenger hunts, help them to create plant, animal or rock identification guides, look at things under a microscope, and read books that relate to what they discover in the world around them as they explore, play and imagine. Encourage questions, and help them to find real answers.
This is a great time for your gifted children to make mistakes that have no consequences, with the freedom to learn with abandon. It can reduce the stress of every day life, reduce perfectionism and can deepen their appreciation for learning on their own terms.
Of course, parenting gifted children isn't for the faint of heart. It can be difficult to meet their needs, exhausting to answer the endless questions and challenging to provide logical reasons for everything. It is worth it for them, and for you. It can be an amazing journey. So, sit back. Enjoy the ride, and don't take everything so seriously. Fun is highly underrated.
About the Author:
Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has over 11 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body. If you or your child are struggling, feel free to reach out for the support you need.