Learn Like a Kid

Blog-LearnLikeAKid-PhotoWho hasn’t heard, kids learn faster, they remember better, and only the young can master things? Before you wish you were a kid again, realize that these are not full truths. Yes, there are some skills that are best learned when you are young, most notably a foreign or native language. And to achieve the muscle memory to become a professional athlete you’d better start young. Otherwise, don’t sweat it.

There are debates about adult learning and how it differs from childhood learning. Well, the fact is, the similarity of how adults and children learn vastly outweigh the differences.

I have taught every age from kindergarteners to adult professionals, and while teaching techniques change for each audience, the principles that undergird learning and understanding are remarkably similar between adults and children.

Let’s look how the six principles of adult learning theory — advocated by the influential adult educator, Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) — stack up with kids:

Adult learning principle

And kids…

1.  Adults bring life experiences to learning. 1.  So do kids, they just haven’t lived as long, yet.
2.  Adults are more internally motivated and self-directed than externally motivated. 2.  Kids would be more if modern education allowed it. Just look at their work outside the classroom.
3.  Adults are most interested in learning about things relevant to their jobs or personal life. 3.  Consider school as a job for children, and they sure like to learn about things important to them.
4.  Adult learning is problem centered and goal oriented. 4.  Kids like to solve problems and create solutions to things relevant to them (see all of the above).
5.  Adult learners need to be respected and involved in the planning and evaluation of their learning. 5.  Involving kids in the planning of learning and evaluation is effective and motivating.
6.  Adults like to know the reason for learning something. 6.  Kids really appreciate it, too.


Neuroplasticity, or the capacity for our brains to make new neuronal connections, is essential to learning. When we learn something, or experience something new, our brain literally changes. The long held belief that are brains are physiologically static upon reaching adulthood has been disproven. Our brain, continues to build new neural pathways throughout our lives. I don’t know about dogs, but you undoubtedly can teach humans new tricks.

A big advantage adults have over kids is their ability to learn through reading. Keep in mind though, we retain less than 10 percent of what we read, unless it is applied and combined with other learning forms and motivations. Besides reading, both kids and adults learn best from experience, real examples, active discussions, solving relevant problems and hands on activities. Or as Mark Twain said, “If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”

How to learn like a kid…

  • Be patient: You might have forgotten how many hours you put into learning basketball, math or typing when you were a kid. Too many adults want to read a book one time, pick up a banjo and start playing it. Learning takes time.
  • Don’t overthink it: Adults often want to get it done perfectly the first time. Learning a new skill means you’re willing to make errors along the way. Just do it. Knowledge and skills are picked up practicing along the way.
  • Don’t be scared: This is a big one. Too many adults fear being seen as incompetent or struggling. Realize that making mistakes is part of the process. Be courageous and willing to take risks.
  • Be curious: Learning takes place when we are motivated. Explore. When you take in new items and throw it into that neurological hopper we call a brain, you literally build new connections and ideas, which helps you to learn better. Be interested and inquisitive.

Although you may never be a kid again, you can always learn like one. Interested in other ways we learn? Read about our brain’s magic number, three.

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