Johnathan was a five year old boy.
He loved “Woody”, the character from the famous kids’ movie “Toy Story”. He was always wearing the same boots as Woody, and would imitate Woody’s poses.
While riding on the horse he would pretend to be Woody riding his horse “Bullseye”.
He was verbal but had only about 40 words in his vocabulary - mostly related to his favorite cartoon “Toy Story”.
Each time he came to our centre, he would go explore the woods on the horse, pointing the direction where he wanted to go, and he would often start to talk more.
That’s where he first learned how to spell his name while riding on the horse. We knew he adored the Woody character from Toy Story, so each time we would go into the woods to find where a Woody Toy, or a cutout, or several cutouts of Woody, had been hidden. He loved this.
One day, we were going in the woods for our regular treasure hunt on our mission to find Woody.
Each time the session would start with me saying to Johnathan: “Let’s go in the woods to look for Woody!”. And he would jump on the horse with me, and we would go straight into the woods to look for Woody. The very idea of finding each time his favorite cartoon character somewhere in the woods would make him so excited, he would shout “Wood-yyyyy!”.
This day, we found some new and different clues on our path that would help us in our search for Woody. We first found a sign hung in a tree with the word “WOODY” but there was a hole in the sign - a letter was missing.
Woody sign materials made out of cardboard
As soon as Johnathan saw the sign he pointed to it and grabbed it, he was taking a very active part in his very important quest.
Me saying to Johnathan: “Oh look what is that! I think it says Woody! It might be a clue, but look there is a hole in the sign! It’s “W”, “O”, something, “D”, “Y”. “
“Let’s see if we can find another clue! “
We took the cut-out with the missing 'O' with us, and kept going into the woods searching for another clue along the trail until we arrived at a fork where we found two signs indicating two different directions: one showing the way to find the correct missing letter (“letter O”) in the word previously found (“WO_DY”), the other one indicating the way to go to find an incorrect missing letter (“letter A”).
Diagram showing the set up along the trails in the woods
“Oh look we can choose where to go!”
”Where do you think we should go to find the missing letter?”
Johnathan pointed the direction where he wanted to go.
“Ok, let’s try to go this way, I think we might find the letter “O” somewhere!“
And we kept going along the trail by following the sign indicating the direction “letter O”.
By choosing the right direction to follow, we found a little further on the trail, hung in a tree, the correct missing letter that we could fit into the hole of the first clue, that we were still carrying with us, to create the right word (“WO-O-DY”), it was like doing a puzzle.
“Yay! We found it! Let’s see if it works”. As soon as Johnathan grabbed the missing letter he tried to fit it into the hole in the sign that I was holding for him.
“W-O-O-D-Y. Yes, it works! We found the right letter!”
And then after finding the right letter, we knew that we were on the right track to find Woody.
“Now that we’ve got the sign “Woody” right, Woody himself might not be very far!”
We kept going along the woodland trail. Johnathan was looking around now with his eyes wide open. I could feel his excitement and eagerness to find Woody.
And then suddenly at the end of the trail we saw something hanging in a tree: “Wood-yyyyyy!” screamed Johnathan, pointing towards it.
We found Wood-yyyyy!
There were no words to express the happiness that lit up his face when he finally grabbed Woody in his hands.
As Johnathan was so happy to have found out where in the woods Woody was hiding this time, we kept exploring the woods and found another sign with his own name “johnathan”, but again with a letter missing. We followed the same process and made his name after finding the right letter.
This is how he learned to spell and read in the forest, riding on a horse while looking for his favorite cartoon character without any pressure of having to succeed.
Indeed Johnathan could have chosen the wrong direction to go but it didn’t matter, we would have explored the other path and found the wrong letter that we couldn’t fit into the hole in the sign, so we would simply have come back and followed the other direction instead.
There was also no pressure on Johnathan to answer any questions, as he was mostly non verbal, the questions were here to guide us in the educational game. In the same way there was also no pressure for Johnathan to point the direction where he wanted to go, we always encouraged him to do so but if he didn’t we would choose the direction for him.
Moreover, being able to move and learn through his interests allowed Johnathan to open his brain to learn. (See science of learning)
In fact, the rocking motion of the horse provided Johnathan with the movement he needed, to be able to learn. Indeed, this rhythmic motion stimulates the production of the feel good hormone oxytocin which helps to reduce the stress and open the brain to learn. Oxytocin is also, crucially, the communication hormone.
But for those who don’t have access to a horse or don’t want to ride, there are other activities to provide the child with the rhythmic movement that they need. These activities can either involve the child themselves physically moving (bouncing on the trampoline, swimming, running) or the child being placed stationary on a moving object (swing, wheelbarrow).
Besides, by looking for his favorite cartoon character, Johnathan was intrinsically motivated to learn. In fact, researchers found that using the child’s interests has the power to make learning a more rewarding experience allowing them to develop their desire to learn for themselves. Intrinsic learning equals long term learning.
That’s how on his fabulous quest for his favorite cartoon character, Johnathan learned also about some concepts of math like addition, about some concepts of biology like the body parts, or geography like the continents…
So learn with the child by moving and exploring through his interests, and you’ll find out how amazingly joyful and unstressful real learning can be.