How to Teach Using Incidental Learning

There are two ways to learn new things – deliberately or incidentally.

Studying a specific topic is deliberate learning. Memorising times tables, historical dates, or scientific formulas are also deliberate learning.

Deliberate learning is important for memorising important facts and information but it is not the only way to learn. Often, things can be learned incidentally – by chance, in connection with something else, or as a result of natural curiosity.

Incidental learning is fun, stress free, and creative.

What is incidental learning?

Incidental learning is learning that happens as a result of naturally occurring “incidents” or situations that create learning opportunities. It is indirect or unplanned learning.

It is based on the idea that children are more willing to learn if the teaching is based around their own interests or if they need the knowledge.

When I was nine my parents moved to an area where a lot of people couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. Within a year I had learned the new language because my friends couldn’t speak English.

I had learned some of the language at school before moving, but because I didn’t need it I struggled to remember basic words. But once I needed the language to communicate with friends, I learned it quickly. Without stress.

Well, the only stress was the urgency to learn so that I could communicate.

Young children learn well this way because there is no pressure to remember or perform, and the knowledge sticks.

When to use incidental teaching methods

All day and every day!

It’s best if the need for knowledge exists before the skill is learned (like me and that need to overcome the language barrier). Emphasizing skills without a purpose can cause stress.

So if there’s something you really want your child to learn you can create the need for knowledge before you teach the skill or you can “set the stage” for learning by placing items around him, or taking him to places that stimulate questions etc.

Related: How to teach multiple kids at once

Examples of incidental learning

Incidental learning is all around you! Here are some ideas:

Help your child start his own business

-then teach him to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.  He can keep his own books for his “business”, and make sure he’s not being cheated. Now there’s a reason for knowing all those math facts!

Teach your child to read

-so she can read the letters that Gran writes just to her. (You may need to arrange for Gran to write those special letters to encourage your child to want to read.)  The child learns fast because they need the knowledge.

Use everyday life

Let your children compare prices while you are grocery shopping.  Shop on a budget and let them help you decide whether you have enough to cover what’s in your cart.

Use gardening, the drunk in the street, caring for a pet, moving house – anything!

Let your children cook with you

Teach them fractions, cups, litres, teaspoons, and tablespoons as you measure ingredients. This is knowledge with a purpose and because it’s relevant they won’t forget it.

Use nature and everyday life

The natural environment and everyday life is perfect for incidental learning. Make use of opportunities that arise while driving, cooking, walking, playing.

Related: How to let go of the traditional school mindset

Use guided questioning to get your children thinking

What is guided questioning?

Asking questions that don’t have a yes or no answer.

If you only ask questions that you know your child knows the answers to, they will not learn how to learn.

Ask questions about things your child doesn’t know. Then, instead of spoon-feeding the answer, help them find it themselves. Read books, ask people, and most important, encourage them to think.

Some examples of guided questions:

  • Why are all the trees bent in the same direction?
  • I can decide to breathe, or not to breathe, but sometimes it just happens.  Why?
  • Why do you feel your heart beating when you’ve been running but not when you’ve been sitting still?
  • Can you think of an easier/faster way to do this?
  • Why do pyjamas make sparks when you get into bed?
  • How does a chicken lay an egg every day?
  • How many cookies can we each have if we have 10?

Some things to remember when asking guided questions:

  • Don’t become irritated when your child doesn’t know the answer.  The question is meant to generate thought and doesn’t have to be answered right away.
  • Don’t make it tedious. Keep it light and interesting.
  • Don’t lecture or explain too much. Trigger interest through your questions.
  • Don’t let intriguing questions get lost. Write them down for later.  If your child asks a question then make a point of finding the answer together as soon as possible.
  • Watch for question burnout.  Don’t over-question.  Let this be a natural, enjoyable process.

Real life is full of learning opportunities. Make use of them!

Learn to be observant so that you can ask your kids thought-generating questions.

Doesn’t this make learning sound like fun? It’s all around us, in everyday things.

How can you make better use of incidental learning opportunities?

About The Author

Jennifer Lovemore

Jennifer homeschooled all three of her kids-with no teaching qualification. Her kids are grown now but she is still passionate about homeschooling. She lives in South Africa.


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