Can you spend just 15 minutes a day doing whatever your kids want? It’s a Magic Number that means the world to them, and is a great commitment from you.
I regularly host events (in Slovenian, believe it or not), and one of them featured three early childhood specialists. While each approached advice for parents from a different perspective, they all agreed on one thing: the 15-minute rule.
Every day, even if just for 15 minutes, parents should spend time playing with their kids, in whatever way the kids would like.
If they want to build a snowman, go for it. Draw superheroes? Super. Waggle their finger over their lips and go “Booga-booga-booga?” Bring it on. Let them guide the selection and be completely with them during this brief playtime.
The specialists insisted that this playtime be without any didactic elements. If you’re playing with numbered blocks, parents shouldn’t throw in “what number is this?” too often, or it feels like work to the kids. The pure bliss of parental together-time doing what the kids want is a great gift for young children, who want only the love, comfort and attention of their parents.
But as the discussion continued, I prodded a bit.
Isn’t it good to be a bit didactic? I’m a professor, so this comes naturally. I’m always looking for ways to teach my daughters, age 5 and 7 as I write this, while we interact.
They agreed that this was indeed a good approach, to develop an association with learning as part of parental play, but not at the sacrifice of the free play time, which is what young children crave most.
Parenting in Just 15 Minutes a Day?
So, I proposed, what if I reserve at least 15 minutes for free play, but I also set aside 15 minutes a day for learning play time, for lesson games?
This seemed a good solution to all, but I wanted to take it a step further. My professorial approach meant that I wanted to be structured, rather than random, in what I taught my girls. So, I developed an idea that I planned to execute and document in a series of articles that will then become a book.
The book is currently planned exclusively as a limited edition publication available only through backers of a Kickstarter campaign that runs now until July 4, 2020. The title of the project and the book is Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day.
The idea is simple: pick a lesson, small, miniature, large, complex, sometimes hardly a proper lesson at all—something gently educational, one new thing a day, that I will teach my kids. It can be longer than 15 minutes, but usually it is much shorter—it’s often been a sentence or two, taking a minute or so. 15 minutes seems to be a sweet spot as the general maximum for a few reasons:
a) it doesn’t feel too daunting for parents. Any parents can say to themselves, “You know what, however busy I might be, I really can slice out 15 minutes to be with my kids with 100% of my attention.
b) it doesn’t feel too daunting for children. Doing anything for 15 minutes, even if it doesn’t initially feel particularly exciting, is reasonable enough.
c) it’s all you need—sometimes much more than you need—to feel connected with and inspiring for your kids, to make you feel that you’ve given them a great, intangible gift each day, that you’ve shared special, precious time, and that you are helping them to develop in a positive way.
These are all the dreams of parents, but it’s totally understandable if it can feel tricky to achieve. That’s why a bit of guidance can help.
There is no one right way to do this, or right thing to teach. The things I offer in my book simply use my own experience to offer a soft template for each parent to adopt and adapt however they see fit. The key is to make you and your children feel happy and fulfilled. And to inspire a love of learning at the earliest age. I started with my daughters when they were just three.
The key to Superpower Your Kids in 70 words or fewer? Here it goes:
Teach your kids a single new thing each day through Lesson Games, taking as little as a minute and no more than 15. Then engage in free play with them, doing whatever they want to do, as a reward. The lessonlets are designed like a loose syllabus and presented with some professorial tricks to make them more fun and to better stick. Playing Lesson Games = Superpowers.
Let’s focus on the 15-minute side of the matter
15 minutes feels like a finite, feasible and digestible amount of time to focus on something, even something you might not feel like doing.
nyone can dedicate just 15 minutes to something that’s good for them or those they love, while longer time spans might give us pause, feel more like a commitment.
Neuroscientists recommend 15 minutes as a good amount of time to focus on any one task or learning a new skill. It’s also long enough to feel like you’re really getting something done. To say, “okay, we’ll spend 8 minutes doing this” feels miserly.
15 minutes is particularly good for interactions with children because it feels generous to them, and easy for parents.
The best-known product of the “15-minute school” is TED talks. I’ve done a few TED talks and a TED Ed animated video, and they really do make an art form out of being concise. They believe that 15 minutes should be all you need to make a really strong argument and convey a single powerful idea.
As a professor used to 45-minute lectures or (heaven forbid) 90-minute slots, I know that longer talks do not necessarily make for better ones. Longer, more meandering lessons can be fine, but the mark of a great mind, great writer, great teacher is being able to simplify and convey even the most complex ideas in the simplest, clearest and most concise way.
People simply learn and remember what they learned better this way. And that is talking about adults who are interested enough to voluntarily click on a TED talk on a subject that sparks their curiosity. When it comes to children, very young children, the timeframe must be reduced to accommodate attention spans.
If you’ve only got 15 minutes a day free with your children, then the priority goes to free playing, allowing the kids to choose how they’ll spend their time with you.
But given a bit more time, even just an extra few minutes (or, dare I suggest, an extra 15), we parents can strike the balance of doing one activity that the kids choose, and one that the grownups choose. The ideal routine is start with a few minutes (up to 15) of an activity that the parents pick, that is more educational, followed by the reward of 15 minutes of pure play.
It’s important this short time is proactive and focused
You need to be certain you’re mentally engaged with your kids when interacting.
This means that the TV is not on in the background (though music is fine), and that your phone is nowhere within view (too many parents convince themselves they are playing, when in fact they’re sitting next to their kids while browsing their smartphones).
Dr James Charney, a child psychiatrist and professor at Yale University (and, as you might have guessed from the surname, my father), points out that kids will totally know when you’re pretending to play with dolls but actually watching the game on TV in the background.
Even when we decide to spend quality time with our kids, we may easily be distracted by the things grownups think about—whether worries or enthusiasms—in part because frankly, often activities kids want to do are boring to grownups. And kids are really good at knowing when you are distracted. You can’t fool them.
Choosing precisely 15 minutes is not as important as choosing an amount of time that feels totally doable, an entirely reasonable commitment per day.
You may have noted the shrinking timelines for popular cooking shows. We’ve gone from Julia Child encouraging four-hour, fiddly (but wonderful) recipes to cookbooks and shows that expect an hour’s prep time. Now it’s shrinking even more. Jamie Oliver had a series of 30-minute dishes, then he had 15-minute dishes. Gordon Ramsay has ‘Ramsay in 10’.
What’s much more important is consistency daily (or near daily—it’s very important that you, as a parent, do not stress about this, and if you miss a day or ten, it ain’t no thang).
When you read a story, stop to explain a new word, or ask them what they would do in this situation. Dr Charney (Senior) says, “keep it active—don’t just observe them doing something. Be part of it. When story time is over, suggest they draw a picture or make a comic book from the story. But don’t use that as an excuse for you to go back to your grownup project. If this is still within your 15 minutes, then you keep involved by drawing something yourself, or by sitting with them and commenting on the drawing that they are making.”
We parents often say we’d do anything for our kids, and if push came to shove, we would. But when push doesn’t come to shove, sometimes even a short play session feels like work. It doesn’t have to, because it needn’t be long to be fulfilling.
Be with them, fully, and the time will fly, giving you both shared moments to build on and remember.
If you’re interested in learning more, you’re welcome to take a look at the Kickstarter campaign or join me on social media.
Check out our School age development and behaviour section for more expert advice on children’s learning and behaviour