The Benefits of a Pokémon Explosion
How two boys became Readers
I'm way behind with writing up some things that have been rattling around in my brain about the education going on around here. But here's something that may interest those who care about how children learn.
Last year my six-year-old adopted son got a book that was essentially a field guide to the Pokémon. He was obsessed with Pokémon, as was my seven-year-old son. They played Pokémon imagination games with costumes and props they came up with, drew pictures of Pokémon and cut them out to play with, and their screen time was often also devoted to Pokémon. My boys loved the Pokémon book, sometimes fighting over it but often poring over it. The binding didn't hold up to this love-hate relationship, and it soon was falling apart. By the end of the year we started to have pages from the book being scattered around the house as the boys obsessed over just one page at a time, drawing the creature pictured there.
My older son had learned to read when he was six, but was stuck in the stage where reading is hard, which is right before the stage in which reading is fun. He had been stuck there for a year or so, and I was getting a bit stumped as to how to help him. I knew it would come eventually, but as reading is pretty much my favorite thing to do (besides writing), I want all those I love to feel the same.
My younger son was in his first year of homeschooling after being adopted and pulled out of a rather disastrous year of kindergarten in which he was constantly told to stop moving. I had worked with him a bit on phonics, and he could read simple things like Bob books, which I sometimes had to hold upside-down as he sat (upside-down) on the couch next to me. But he was quite resistant to academics in general, which triggered bad memories of desks and teachers.
Then came the explosion. Suddenly Pokémon pages were covering our house, littering the floor and infiltrating stacks of papers and books. Now I "Gotta Catch 'Em All" all over the house when cleaning up.
I was close to the tipping point of telling them I'd be throwing away any pages they left laying around when I noticed something: the amount of time the boys spent reading had gone way up. Their attention was constantly being caught by these pages, and the reading followed.
They would want to know what the Pokémon in the picture was, and they found that the pronunciation guide helped them to sound it out. Then they would want to know what "moves" it could do, so they could put those into their imagination game. So they would struggle, fail, and then succeed at reading those off the page. Sometimes they would come to me for help, and sometimes I would give it. But if it's something I knew they could handle if they applied the simple phonics rules we'd been working on, I would tell them to try again to sound it out.
After a few weeks of allowing pages to cover the house, I saw an improvement in both their willingness to tackle new words and in their ability to do so. This then led to more inquiry-level reading in other books, and then to more fun reading in picture books and then to chapter books (my older son).
So the take-away for me as a homeschooling parent is this: play works. Children have a limited sense of the benefits of a difficult activity on their long-term happiness--practically none actually. They want what pleases them N.O.W. Parents and teachers often fall back on rewards like gold stars or small prizes to motivate a child to do something, but these do little to help a child learn, and less to help him retain what he's learned. There has been much research demonstrating the opposite actually--that when extrinsic rewards are introduced, intrinsic rewards (feelings of satisfaction in the activity itself, mental "pats-on-the-back" for doing a hard thing, etc.) drop off, and so does retention. Some new research shows that the timing of the reward to the activity is key--the more immediately one reaches the goal/receives the award, the more the motivation to do the activity increases. But nothing is as immediate as self-directed play: the instant the boys had figured out enough Pokémon moves to make a game possible, they dropped the paper and began to act.
It's not always feasible to make academics into play--smiley faces on phonics workbook pages offend my youngest son. But as children grow they develop new goals including academic ones, and (for my children and hundreds more homeschooled youth I've known over the 25 years I've been homeschooling) these become the basis of intrinsic motivation as their time horizon widens. And even when they're small, finding ways to increase the play-value of the academics that they're doing is priceless: acting out a scene from the history lesson, meshing art and math, music and writing, and getting out in the world to see all of these subjects in action.
It's not always feasible to make academics into play--smiley faces on phonics workbook pages offend my youngest son. But as children grow they develop new goals, including academic ones, and (for my children and hundreds more homeschooled youth I've known over the 25 years I've been homeschooling) these become the basis of intrinsic motivation as their time horizon widens. And even when they're small, finding ways to increase the play-value of the academics that they're doing is priceless: acting out a scene from the history lesson, meshing art and math, music and writing, and getting out in the world to see all of these subjects in action.
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