You can motivate children to learn

We have many motivation studies to guide us as to why some children strive for academic success in a school setting while others do not. We know far less however about motivation to learn in non school settings. When participation is voluntary and children are not motivated, they simply vote with their feet.

The case for self motivation

Program practitioners have tested a variety of strategies to increase motivation. Those who believe children are best motivated extrinsically, reward with prizes, adult approval, or by the withholding of punishment. However, over time, these children are not motivated to do better but motivated to do more. They choose low degree of effort activities to reap the maximum award with the least effort. Extrinsic awards also may run counter to cultures that value team work rather than winner take all achievement.

Conversely, children who are motivated intrinsically: that is, they are self motivated and participate for the sheer enjoyment or feeling of accomplishment, use increasingly more complex problem solving strategies and make more effort as well.

Seven strategies to promote self-motivation

Of course there is no magic formula for motivating children to learn, especially since a lack of motivation may have multiple causes. There are, however, some strategies that have been shown to be effective.

  • Non-school settings are ideally suited for exploration and making choices about what to learn. Encourage children to plan their own projects. This ownership excites learners and often increases the effort they are willing to put forth. When children have a voice in how and what they learn, they build intrinsic motivation to problem solve.
  • When leading activities, try to capitalize on "teachable moments" such as a problem posed by one or more children, or even a failed activity. Take your cues from the children by listening and observing. You will then know when to encourage risk taking and when not to interfere. Always try to act as a facilitator, resource person, problem poser or guide rather than as an expert.
  • Expect the children to learn. Be enthusiastic, warm, and accepting while maintaining high expectations. Give genuine, specific feedback about a child's work letting them know you have expectations. Focus your encouragement on that child who gets easily discouraged.
  • Activities should not be driven by the clock. Allow enough time for the children to explore in-depth so that they can build skills that are personally challenging. Offer opportunities for long term, open ended projects.
  • Provide a positive physical environment. Have ample supplies to carry out the projects. Designate special places where being messy is okay. and where unfinished projects don't have to be put away.
  • Encourage cooperative work. Recognize the work of the group. When children complete individual projects, encourage them to help one another and to give positive feedback to each other.
  • Foster family participation. Encourage families to capitalize on their strengths by sharing customs, rituals, and learning with their children.

Additional strategies for the unmotivated

Unmotivated children who fear failure and need to protect their self- worth may need special strategies to help them learn. They may procrastinate or refuse to join in activities. Use a variety of strategies to diminish a child's fear of failure or belief that she/he lacks the ability to do well.

  • Help them to recognize the relationship between effort and success.
  • Concentrate on the positive in the learning experience
  • Identify mistakes and allow them to correct them.
  • Foster team work to counteract personal failure


Children are natural learners. Motivating them to be learners is best accomplished by fostering a supportive climate in which you serve as coach/facilitator and children have the opportunity to choose learning activities. This helps connect learning with their own experiences and makes learning more relevant and more enjoyable. Additional strategies may be needed to help unmotivated children overcome their fear of failure.


  • Stipek, Deborah J. (2002).Motivation To Learn: Integrating Theory and Practice.Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

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