Lilian Presti

In a country where nearly three million students are receiving special education services for a learning disability, many parents are hungry for ways to support their children's learning.

According to the 25th Annual Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Education, 41 percent of high school students with learning disabilities dropped out of school in the 2000-2001 school year. This is in contrast to the dropout average of all students, which totaled just 5 percent between October 2000 and October 2001.

The key to keeping kids in school in general hinges on their interest in learning, says Nancy Newman, MA, an educator, author, researcher and parent who's been offering workshops on raising passionate learners to New York-area parents since 1995.

When two of her three sons were diagnosed with dyslexia and experienced early reading challenges, Newman instinctively developed some fast and easy techniques that she now shares with others. At the core of what she teaches is the notion that babies are born with a passion for learning.

"When a baby experiments with a rattle or a toddler jumps down a step or an older child builds a dam across a stream, he is doing a mini experiment," she affirms. "Children are no different than adult scientists--they devise experiments that test their skills and test the world. Play allows them to have fun, but in the process they learn."

Newman believes that the problem many children face is they've lost their zest for learning. "What parents need to do is to re-ignite that passion for learning," she says, "and the secret to doing this is through fun."

"Playing with your child is like giving them candy for their brain."


Newman recommends a few key steps to reinforce playfulness:

1) Ensure the child's environment is set-up for play.

This means have paper, empty boxes, scraps of fabric, crayons, paper clips, and other materials handy for creative crafting. The process will allow them to explore and experiment.

2) Protect the child's free time for unstructured non-technology play.

This doesn't mean they can't spend time watching TV; it just means some of their daily playtime should not involve technology.

3) Ensure the child knows you value playfulness.

Praise their creativity and inventiveness.

4) Play with your child.

You don't need to devote hours to play; just incorporate it in your daily routine. Play rhyming games during bath time, or ask your child to use as many adjectives to describe their best friend. Be sure to play with words, as studies show there is a strong connection between parental language use and children's intelligence and ability to read.


Newman's philosophy is backed by research.

Dr. Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute For Play, Carmel Valley, CA, has devoted the last two decades to studying the effects of play on both humans and animals. His research confirms that play is vital to learning because when students have fun while learning they continue to pursue it for its own sake.

In addition to making learning enjoyable, kids need proper sleep to learn. Several studies have demonstrated that when children don't obtain sufficient sleep their ability to learn is compromised, in part because they don't retain information.

But sleep can also affect classroom behavior, says Janice Keener, a Doctor of Clinical Psychology in California specializing in pediatrics.

"When children are deprived of sleep, they lose impulse control capabilities, which can lead to inappropriate behavior in the classroom," says Keener. Sleep-deprived children may become disruptive, interfering with learning opportunities.

To improve their ability to learn, parents should ensure their children are getting the right amount of sleep. Elementary school children need about 10 hours of sleep, kids going through puberty need up to 12 hours, and teenagers require about 8 to 10 hours of sleep daily.


Nutrition is another piece of the puzzle.

Key nutrients such as iron, zinc, and B vitamins, as well as essential fatty acids, support brain health. Current research also indicates that eating breakfast--especially one that contains a good quality source of protein, such as eggs--helps children concentrate better at school.

Sugar and refined grains should be eliminated from lunch meals (or at least kept to minimum) to prevent mood and energy swings that will inhibit learning.

Though it's unlikely we'll transform our children into geniuses, adding some fun, proper rest and good nutrition may very well help our kids reach their full potential.

Lilian Presti is a Registered Nutritional Consultant and NaturallySavvy's Pregnancy and Pediatric Nutrition Expert.