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Children of all ages benefit from involved grandparents

By Katie Wetherbee

Today’s grandparents are more energetic and community minded than ever. Seniors remain productive in the workplace, and enjoy a wide variety of volunteer and leisure activities. In addition, many grandparents are taking an active role in the daily care of their grandchildren. Often, this includes assisting with homework. Current educational methodologies can seem dauntingly unfamiliar, making grandparents uncertain about how they can assist in their grandchildren’s learning.

Helping with homework may not be the familiar task some grandparents anticipate. Instructional methods have changed dramatically in the decades since their own children were at school.  For example, students’ math assignments often require as much writing as calculation.  Similarly, basal readers and purple dittoes have been replaced by new materials.  This puzzles many seniors, and sometimes raises concerns about what—and how-- their grandchildren are learning.

To remedy this, internet-savvy grandparents can read their local school’s website.  These sites usually contain classroom news and curriculum information.  Reading the school board minutes or attending the board meetings can give further insight into the school programs for grandparents who want to be “in the know.”  Grandparents can also peruse the local papers for updates on the schools.

Sometimes, the easiest solution is talking with children about what they’re learning. Grandparents can do a great service by allowing grandchildren to explain, perform, and present…and even “show off” a bit.  These opportunities provide multiple benefits. First, children are reviewing previously learned information, and responding to questions in a non-threatening, nurturing environment. This can build confidence and extend thinking. In addition, children will need to think differently about the content in order to teach it to a grandparent. As a “teacher,” the students will need to create background knowledge for the “students” and explain information in a sequential manner.  Finally, this activity is tremendous for self-esteem. No one can applaud like a proud grandparent!

If grandparents still feel a thirst to experience today’s classrooms firsthand, they can contact local schools to inquire about volunteer opportunities. Many schools have volunteer opportunities that require little training and allow flexibility for scheduling. Reading and math tutors are often needed to reinforce skills and to assist children who are struggling in these subjects. If travel or work schedules prevent a grandparent from volunteering regularly, helping with a class party or being a “guest lecturer” might fit the bill. Schools are highly enriched when grandparents share their expertise.

Enhancing a grandchild’s education doesn’t necessarily mean adding volunteer hours to the calendar, however. Grandparents shouldn’t discount what they are already doing to fortify their grandchildren’s learning, perhaps without even knowing it! Research proves that play experiences greatly affect development by building a foundation for reading, writing and math skills. Similarly, time spent in conversation reinforces social skills and increases language. Perhaps the most important of these activities is reading.  Nothing compares to the intimate, special experience of sharing a story: slowly turning pages, taking in the artist’s rendering of characters and faraway places while listening to the cadence of a grandparent’s voice reading rich, engrossing text. Video games, television and computers haven’t matched this experience—and they never will.

Some grandparents prefer to extend learning by encouraging hobbies. One gentleman includes his grandsons in a monthly round of golf. Their time on the course provides ample opportunities for conversation and fun, in addition to increasing the grandsons’ eye-hand coordination and scorekeeping (math!) skills. These young men are also learning the value of consistent practice, fair play and good sportsmanship.  Similarly, when her granddaughter expressed an interest in dancing, one grandma not only paid for the classes, but joined in the fun! The two had plenty of laughs while learning about culture and dance.

Many families today are faced with having a child diagnosed with a disability. Whether physical, cognitive or emotional, disabilities can create roadblocks to learning. When this happens, grandparents have a unique opportunity to help. In order to accomplish this, grandparents will want to learn more about the child’s disability. The internet can be an effective tool; attending lectures and reading books recommended by the child’s treatment team can be even better.  One grandfather even attends his grandchild’s school conferences, acting as a support to the family while extending his understanding of the child’s needs.

In the case of a disability, grandparents should be highly sensitive to the struggles the parents and the child are facing.  Grandparents must refrain from judgment statements like “Children just weren’t allowed to behave that way in my day” or “He just needs to stop squirming and concentrate.” Instead, they can offer help, support and respite. Any parent with a struggling child will gladly welcome a cheerful grandparent at homework time; sometimes children will be able to manage their behavior and academics better with a grandparent. Inviting younger children for an outing is another way to support learning; a child with a disability might then have some quiet, uninterrupted time to concentrate on schoolwork.

Whether their grandchildren have special needs or not, grandparents shouldn’t overlook the value of incidental learning experiences. Every day, opportunities exist in the form of errands, meal preparation, and chores. A visit to a farmer’s market or to the gas station may seem mundane, but for young children, can provide a new experience that will result in increased vocabulary.  At the farmer’s market, for example, a child might learn about rutabagas and discover a new meaning for the word “ears” when choosing corn. Similarly, when filling the tank at the gas station, older children can compare prices and practice estimation (“How much do you think it will cost to fill the tank?”)  One grandmother hires her young charges to help with gardening chores. As a result, they have learned names of flowers and understand the tools and processes involved in growing vegetables. Activities like these also reinforce the value of hard work and persistence.

Whatever the activity, all grandparents know that the rewards are great. Nothing compares to a child’s spontaneous hug or proud smile! The efforts grandparents make create a legacy of learning. As they get older, children will be able to verbalize the impact their grandparents have had: “It just makes me feel helpful when I work in my grandma’s garden,” one boy said, “not just to earn money, but to do good deeds. I learned that humming birds drink sugar water, and plants need to have the dead ends clipped so that they can be more healthy.  I know how to take care of plants, so I could be a gardener someday, too.”
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