As a parent of three children, I understand the convenience of technology and what a lifesaver smart phones and tablets can be, especially on long car rides, and last minute science projects. Technology is awesome.

But I have a confession: the Midwest has been really cold, and I've let my children spend countless hours on their tablets and video games for far longer than they should. Now I fear they're borderline obsessed and this obsession has some serious drawbacks.

Here's a quick example- my son and his friends are obsessed with getting together, jumping online and watching other children play with THEIR LEGO's, while my son has a giant bin of the SAME LEGO sets in his room! As if it's more fun to watch some strangers play LEGOs, than actually play themselves. How crazy is that? Talk about living vicariously through others"

I've tried to rationalize this though by telling myself that it's cold outside, that they're bored, or that they need to consume electronics if they want to keep up in this technology driven world. I've become a lazy parent too. I've told myself that my daughter has 'all of the right tools' to learn if she has a tablet with Wi-Fi and a data plan. This simply isn't the case.

I'm afraid that my children and their friends aren't alone, and that too often most children would rather have information overload than miss out on experiencing the world themselves.

In this age of information and technology,'experiential learning'is too often replaced with 'informational learning.' It's not that information isn't helpful, but by itself the act of consuming information doesn't lead to fundamental change in children, or adults for that matter.

Not surprisingly, education experts and neuro-scientists aren't crazy about this convenient, yet less helpful, method of learning either. Research suggests that concrete learning requires both 'information processing' and gaining 'real experience.

So, why does it matter?

Our children's brains need more than just information, they need experience. The brain adapts and develops as it encounters new challenges, environments, people, and places.

Let's apply this first to educational learning and then behavioral learning. It's about to get geeky for a minute, so stay with me.

According to Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, PHD, Informational Learning can be described as an indirect method in which your child's brain receives and processes data through a single neural system. This could be lying down reading a science book on electricity, sitting in a desk and listening to a teacher talk about playing a musical instrument, or an example from my childhood- listening to my dad lecture me on how to change the oil in his truck .

Experiential Learning then could be described as the direct method in which the brain processes new information where several neural systems are being engaged. Using the same examples above, experiential learning would then be providing children with supplies to do the experiments themselves, placing musical instruments in their hands and allowing them to play, and giving a child a quart of oil and a few wrenches to try changing the oil on their own.

Ask yourselves these quick questions about these examples of the two learning styles:

  1. How does a child apply the information in both examples?

  2. How much of this 'data' is being stored and remembered in both examples?

  3. Is there a context for where and when the child can use the information?

I read a study in grad school that suggested students will only retain about 30% of what was discussed in class from the previous day. In a week's time, that number dwindles to 10% and after a month- all the way down to 3-5%.

The study suggested that mathematics is retained much longer than grammar, history and scientific concepts because of the repetitive nature of problem solving and the daily homework assignments. The study suggested that the average high school graduate completes 100,000-150,000 math problems during their 13 years of schooling.

Wow-that's a lot of finger counting and carrying the 1's!

Think about it: the student completes hundreds of problems a week, works through them, gets several wrong, rethinks them, asks questions, engages with other students, has a tutor, AND engages several neural systems in a single experience.

And the end result? The student remembers most math concepts long after high school.

The message is clear. Children need experience and repetition to REALLY grasp a new concept and remember it.

According to famous social learning theorist Dr. Lev Vygotsky, learning experiences are created when we get up, we move around, we interact with someone else, we touch things, we problem solve, and we engage two, three, or four different neural systems.

The more neural systems used in a learning experience the stronger the bond will be between the topic and our short and long term memories.

Putting things in 'context'

According to Dr. Perry, neuro-scientists have learned more about the brain in the last 40 years than they did in the previous 400 years.

Here's what they've learned:

  1. Absolutely ALL learning happens in the brain.

  2. All concepts must be given context or applied to something that the brain understands.

Dr. Perry states:

"Engage your children with a story, using humor, fear, sadness and empathy. This will make the 'dry facts' easier to swallow. These neural areas are all interrelated. Weave them together. Continuous presentation of facts or concepts in isolation or in a nonstop series of anecdote will all have the same fatiguing effect. And the child will not learn as much nor will they come to anticipate or enjoy learning."

Dr. Perry goes on to say that our brains can only take 4-8 minutes of information presented in the same format. After that, our brains fatigue and we begin looking for new information and stimuli somewhere else.

Sound like daydreaming? (Reminds me of my entire 5th grade year!)

Parents don't have to become neuro-scientists to understand HOW children learn. The brain is a muscle that needs to be constantly stimulated. After 4-5 minutes of sustained concentration the brain needs to be re-stimulated or neurons become less responsive and the child becomes bored.

As parents, we need to provide a context for our children where they can quickly apply the concept being taught to a practical situation that they can use.

Think back to the mathematics example: a teacher stands at the front of the room and writes a formula on the board. The children then copy the formula and watch as the teacher walks through a handful of practice equations. After asking questions and feeling more confident, the children then practice the new formula on their own.

After a few dozen practices, the children move on to something else, but later go home and complete homework assignments, which reinforce the strength of the bond between the new formula and the child's short-term memory.

Role-playing can be an easy bridge to experimental learning

At first role playing, or practicing positive behaviors, with children can be awkward and uncomfortable. After a few tries though, the light flips on for most parents and they realize what a powerful tool role playing can be for children.

Why does role-playing work?

Role-playing teaches children several different ways to handle stressful situations BEFORE they come up and to be very involved in the brainstorming and problem solving process.

For example, let's say that you have a child who is struggling with bullies at school.

Instead of telling them how to handle the bullies (informational learning) and then wishing them luck, parents use role plays to set up several different situations and possible responses to dealing with a bully (experiential learning).

By role playing, engaging several 'neural systems,' and providing a context, the child pretends to deal with a bully at school, on the bus, or at the movies. Then they practice problem solving, how to deal with confrontation, and then come up with several different responses a head of time, walk through each response from beginning to end, get rid of the ones that make the situation worse, and lastly, decide which response will likely help them the most.

This is textbook experiential learning.

As parents, you can apply role-playing to nearly any situation. After you've done it a few times, it gets easier, I promise. It's rewarding to see your children learn necessary life skills and prepare for stressful situations. A lot of times, it will save you from having to give that longwinded lecture you were planning.

A mother shared this story with me last week about role-playing:

"Instead of dreading going to the dentist and struggling to get my daughter to stay in the dentist chair, after role playing how to sit in a chair at home for a few days, she did great. She didn't flinch when the light came on, and she actually sat there and let the hygienist clean her teeth. It was a miracle!"

My favorite part about role-playing is when families see that it works.

I have a blast role-playing with families. My favorite part is when the families realize that role-playing a possible stressful situation, calms everyone's nerves and increases their confidence. I love having the family come back in the next session and hearing about how using the role-plays helped prepare them to avoid a fight in the home or helped the teenager get the job they wanted, and then role-play a few more times to continue to improve.

We can't simply lecture or talk at children about their behavior and reasonably expect them to change. They need to engage their senses, practice, and have a context of when and where they will use their new knowledge.

Give your child experiences, not just information.

This article was originally published on Smarter Parenting. It has been republished here with permission.

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