Tuesday, August 11, 2015

10 Ways to Learn from Everyday Life (Inspired by My Life in Japan)

Welcome to the August 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Life Learners
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have talked about how they continue learning throughout life and inspire their children to do the same.
I firmly believe that we can learn from everyday life.
Last year, I was an exchange student in Japan; I went to a Japanese school, I lived with a Japanese family, and I experienced Japanese life. I was constantly learning; everything in my life was fresh and new. I didn't have to work at all to learn new things; in everything that I did, I was learning. In some ways, people who unschool approach schooling with a similar philosophy: children are surrounded with learning opportunities, and they constantly pick things up through modeling in experience. I think that this kind of learning doesn't have to stop when you're small. When I was abroad (and was, in some ways, learning how to do life over again), I leaned a lot of ways to carry this kind of learning into adulthood, and I wanted to share some of my tips with you guys! I wrote a lot of tips (I shamelessly like to talk about myself), so, for your reading ease, I have the tip in bold at the top, and then a bolded summary at the bottom (if it's tl;dr). Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Show up/Say Yes
In Japan, one of my rules for myself was that, if I were invited to any kind of outing or activity (minus anything that would put me in a compromising position/made me uncomfortable/would be dangerous), I would say yes, even if I wanted to say no.
I was almost always game for anything in Japan; I had been dreaming of living there for so long, and I truly wanted to experience everything that I could. But sometimes, I would come home from school, exhausted from a day of translating everything that was going on around me. Someone would invite me to go and do something, and I would want to say no. Not because I didn't want to do the thing itself, but because I was worn out, and slightly overwhelmed and I just wanted to sleep. But every time, I made myself say yes.
 I did these activities and went to these places, even though I was worn out, and I am so, so glad that I did. I got to experience so many special things-- experiences that I would have missed if I had said no.
Since I came back to America, I don't use this rule all of the time, but sometimes, someone will invite me to go somewhere, and, even though I'm tired, and I don't want to go, I go. And every time, I learn new things, have new experiences, and meet new people.
Recently, my friend called. Her partner was using the car, and she needed to buy new nappies from the market. It was 10:30 at night, and I really, really didn't want to go. I was exhausted. But, I went anyway, and I got to hold her baby, and to talk to her, and to learn about her life as a new mother. If I hadn't gone, I would have missed out on all of that.
When I say "yes", I always learn something new.
Caveat: I'm a big believer in saying no when you need to, so obviously, with this rule, use your best judgement, and do what's safe for you. 
Book club -- something I may not have done if I hadn't been following my "always say yes" rule. It was one of my coolest experiences abroad. We read a book about a Japanese woman who came to live in America (Daughter of a Samurai, for anyone interested), so, my classmates interviewed me about being an American woman living in Japan (and dressed me up in kimono, because why not).
2. Utilize Free Moments
I find that, any time that I have a free moment during which I could possibly be actively learning something, I waste it messing around on the internet, or lying around and doing nothing productive. Please tell me I'm not the only one.
This happens to me on a daily basis:
"Cool! I have a free hour! I should do my Japanese flashcards. I'll just check my email first..."
*Mindlessly scrolls Tumblr for the entire hour*
Although technology is super distracting (at least, to me personally), it's also full of amazing resources that can help maimize your learning during your free time.
If you're interested in making better use of your free time, there are tons of amazing resources available. YouTube videos and podcasts are great; I really like Sci Show and Crash Course, because the videos are interesting, funny, and short (and because I love John and Hank Green, so, so very much). You could throw one up on your phone while you wait for the train, while you stand in line at the grocery store, or during any time that you have a free second.
 If you're with your kids, Sci Show and Crash Couse both have super cool children's versions of their shows, which I highly recommend! Although they're for kids, I always learn something new from them.
If you're not feeling videos, or you don't want to use technology, make yourself some foreign language, science, or (insert your personal interest here) flashcards! I make my own Japanese flashcards and carry them around with me everywhere. When I have a free second, I pull the out and study them! It's super effective.
Use your free time wisely; watch a video, use flash cards, learn something new.
3. Raise Awareness
This is such a pretentious-sounding thing to say, but seriously. I find that, the more aware you are of your surroundings, and the more you take in, the more you learn.
When I was abroad, I was constantly taking in everything. I wanted to see it all, understand it all, and remember it all. Things that were totally normal to Japanese people were mind-blowing to me. Every second of the day, I was reading everything around me, looking at every building, asking to know what everything around me was. I stopped to smell every rose, quite literally.
I don't have nearly this much curiosity about my home country, but, since I've been back, I've been trying to see it with a similar curiosity. After all, there are tons of things that I don't know about my home city. Why not take the time to try and learn them?
What's in that building down the street from your house? What's the name of that river you drive over every day, or the bridge you use to do so? How about the flowers in your garden; do you know their names? I could answer all of these questions and more about my home in Japan, because I was always asking them, and yearning to know the answers.
  You can learn so much by being aware of what is around you and asking questions. 
A photo my host sister took of me getting overly excited about a gourd
Getting hype about cake (what can I say? I like food)

4. See Everything as a Learning Experience 
I had a few months in between when I came back from Japan and when I started working again when I was kind of in limbo, and, when I first came back, I (very pretentiously) decided to try and find ways to learn from "life experiences".
Sometimes, this meant actively going out and trying new things (traveling to a new city, making something, ect), but, most of the time, it meant looking at frustrating situations in my life and saying, "Well, at least this is a new life experience!"
There was a small period of time when, due to transportation issues, I had to walk about a mile and a half to work every day. This was in January, in Pennsylvania, so, it was snowy and extremely cold. But, every morning when I tied on my scarf and braced myself for the freezing weather, I forced myself to silently think, "Life experience! I never walk out in the snow, so I'll see a lot of new things today! I wonder what I'll discover." I got to find new things that I would not find normally, and experience thing that I would not have, if I hadn't had to walk. Even though this wasn't the most pleasant thing I have ever done, I can honestly look back and say that I had gained a lot of positive learning experiences from my walks to work. Sometimes, I learned how to walk back out into the snowy landscape and frantically search for the ballet flats I had planned to change into (which had fallen out of my purse on the way to work), only to come back defeated, and have to explain to the children in my preschool class why I would be spending the entire day wearing wet snowboots. Okay, maybe I don't look back at ALL of the experiences with fondness.
When you see everyday happenings as learning experiences, I genuinely think that you learn more from them. Changing a diaper? Think about how amazing you've become at changing diapers since you've had a baby. You're a master. That's knowledge that you have gained. Are you driving somewhere new today? Awesome! You're learning a new route, and seeing things that you haven't seen before. Everything in life is a learning experience, and I find that, the more I try to see it that way, the more I end up learning.

5. Actively Participate in Life 
When I attended Japanese school, the temptation to just zone out in class was so strong; trying to understand what was going on in class took a tremendous amount of energy, and it would have been way easier to zone out and let my mind wander. But I didn't. I focused, I took notes, and I actively participated in everything that was happening. Spoiler alert: I learned a lot about Japanese culture, I made a deeper connection with my classmates and teachers, and I learned a ton of Japanese! In the end, I was so glad that I forced myself to pay attention to what was going on.
It's so easy to zone out and let learning opportunities pass you by. Choose to be an active participant in you life. Drink some water, meditate, whatever it takes -- try to pay attention to the learning opportunities that are around you all of the time!  
With some classmates at school 

6. Seek out new experiences
In Japan, it was easy to find new experiences, because everything I did was new -- no seeking necessary. Even walking down the street and seeing what was around my neighborhood was fresh, exciting, and special. I reveled in the new smells, sights, and sounds. However,it can be harder to do this in your home country; you've lived there for your entire life, and you've already experienced a lot there. But there are always new things to do and try, and new experiences are learning experiences!

My friend Alissa is particularly good at finding interesting places to go with the kids for whom she nannies. They always seem to be going to a cool museum that she's discovered, a beautiful park, or a new theme park. She finds many cool places where they can go and learn together. It's awesome!
Have you ever been to Philadelphia or Chicago (insert the name of a big city near you here)? Have you been to that museum in your town? How about that foreign grocery store down the street? Go and check these places out! You can see things that you haven't seen, and you can learn in these new environments.
Channel your inner Alissa; find cool new places to explore, and soak in learning from these new environments. 
7. The internet is your friend
Again, technology is cool. Videos, podcasts, blogs, apps -- find what works for you, and use it to learn!

8. Everyone has a story -- learn from them!
I believe that one of the best ways to learn is to discover new things from people around you. Everyone around you has a story; they know things that you don't know, that have experienced things that you can only imagine, and they have a perspective on life completely different from your own. When you stop to talk to new people, you learn more about them, and about the world.
In Japan, I talked to everyone whom I met. I wanted to become fluent in Japanese while living in Japan, and I also wanted to meet and interact with as many people as possible. Talking to everyone with whom I came into contact helped me reach both of those goals, and also helped me learn a lot about Japanese culture.
Interacting with new people was a lot easier when I was living in Japan. I saw hundreds of people at school every day, and, because I was the only exchange student at my school, people thought that it was kind of glamorous to be able to talk to me (which is laughable, but true). Although it's not as easy to do this in your home country, think about how many people you come into contact with every day; store clerks, strangers in line at an event, other parents at the playground. Try striking up a conversation with one of these people! I find that, every time I make the effort to talk to a stranger (whether it's the clerk at the grocery store, a friend of my brother's, or someone new online), I benefit. I learn a new perspective, I discover something interesting about that person's life, or I gain a new friend.
If you're someone who has trouble striking up conversations like this, but who wants to become better at it, I find that it helps to be outrageously polite and friendly, and to compliment the heck out of people (people like compliments). These are basically common sense, but they work.
 Next time someone is bagging your groceries or waiting in line next to you at an event, try talking to them. You might learn something new. 

With some classmates in Japan

9. Make deeper connections
On the flip side, maybe you're not so into chatting up random strangers -- that's totally understandable. It's not everyone's thing. Although these small connections can be a cool way to learn from other people, deeper connections are a great way to do this, too. Find a few close friends, and make it your goal to become closer to these people; how much do you really know about them and their lives?
 In Japan, I always asked people questions so that they would talk to me (I have no shame and I wanted to talk to people). I wrote some questions that you can use to spark conversations with friends:
1. In what moment were you the happiest that you have ever been?
2. Which colour reminds you the most of yourself?
3. Why did you choose your children's names? Are there stories behind them?
4. Which countries have you visited? Which was your favourite, and why?
5. Did you like high school/university? What were your favourite/least favourite parts?
Or, if you're not feeling, that, you could do a fun game/app together, I like The Seven Second Challege (which would be amazingly fun for kids, as well), but there are lots of fun options.
Get to know your friends more deeply. Ask questions and enjoy their company as fully as you can.
With my most sister in Japan. I connected with her by constantly interrogating her about her life (which, bafflingly, worked, and we're now friends).

10. Take your kids!! 
You're not the only one who can learn things from everyday life! Your kids can learn right alongside you. Then, not only to you get the joy of learning something new, you also get to see your kids learning and growing with you.
A bonus eleventh tip: No pressure! Life is not a competition, in which you have to learn as much as you can. You don't have to follow my crazy setps, or anyone's crazy steps, unless you like them and they work for you. Just do the best you can, and figure out what works best for you.
I hope that all of this helps you guys as you work on learning from everyday life! If you have any questions, please throw them in the comments!
If you want to learn more about my trip to Japan (i.e, if, for some reason, this post of pretentious ramblings really tickled your fancy and you WANT MORE), you can check out my Japan Journals! They're numbered, and they all have "Japan Journal" in the title, so, they're pretty simple to navigate.
How do you learn from everyday life? Let me know in the comments! I'm always looking for tips. 
Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting! Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • The Financial Advice That Saved My Marriage — Shortly after they got married, Emily at Natural Parents Network and her husband visited a financial planner. Many of the goals and priorities they set back then are now irrelevant, but one has stuck with them through all of the employment changes, out-of-state-moves, and child bearing: allowances.
  • Lifelong Learning — Survivor at Surviving Mexico--Adventures and Disasters writes about how her family's philosophy of life-long learning has aided them.
  • Inspiring Children to be Lifelong Learners — Donna from Eco-Mothering discusses the reasons behind her family's educational choices for their daughter, including a wish list for a lifetime of learning.
  • Always Learning — Kellie at Our Mindful Life loves learning, and lately she's undertaken a special project that her family has been enjoying sharing with her.
  • We're all unschoolers — Lauren at Hobo Mama embraces the joy in learning for its own sake, and wants to pass that along to her sons as she homeschools.
  • My children, my teachers Stoneageparent shares how becoming a parent has opened doors into learning for her and her family, through home education and forest school.
  • Never Stop Learning — Holly at Leaves of Lavender discusses her belief that some of the most important things she knows now are things she's learned since finishing "formal" schooling.
  • Learning is a Lifelong Adventure — Learning has changed over time for Life Breath Present, and she is more excited and interested now than ever before.
  • Facebook: The Modern Forum — Dionna at Code Name: Mama explains why Facebook is today's forum - a place where people from all walks of life can meet to discuss philosophies, debate ideas, and share information.
  • 10 Ways to Learn from Everyday Life (Inspired by my Life in Japan) — Erin at And Now, for Something Completely Different offers tips she learned while living in Japan to help you learn from everyday life.


  1. What an adventure you had in Japan! I've always wanted to travel/learn abroad and am a bit envious of those who have :) Nonetheless, I think it really is an awesome thing to learn from each and every experience you have as a person. That learning doesn't stop in childhood, it continues on and on. :)

    1. Yes, Japan was oh so lovely :) I hope that you get the chance to travel abroad, it is such a cool experience!
      Yeah, I agree -- learning totally doesn't stop in childhood. We can keep learning forever, which is awesome.

  2. Love these tips!! The kids and I recently started watching some new channels on YouTube - some of the ones you've mentioned, others that they really love (and I like that they have educational component). I'm leery of too much technology, but there really is such a goldmine online if you just know where to look!

    1. Thanks so much for your sweet comment! And I'm glad you guys have been getting into YouTube! I love it. There's so much good stuff out there.
      I agree, I'm pretty wary of excessive technology use (that's not to say I haven't put a Taylor Swift video up on my laptop for the girls to watch so that I could pee in peace, because I for sure have), but there is so much quality content out there, if you take the time to find it. Happy viewing!

  3. Thanks for sharing your tips on learning through your experience in Japan, which sounded amazing, I shall pass this post on to my brother who is mad about all things Japan! I spent a year in Vietnam a decade ago and learnt so much by living there, just like you have. I never wrote down what I'd learnt and now that stage of my life has passed me by, but I still think about it a lot, even now life is so busy with kids! Travel and living abroad really expands your mind and your horizons, it is a truly valuable way to learn a lot more bout life, other cultures and people.

    1. Thank you so much for your sweet comment! You made my day.
      Aw, that is so sweet of you! Your brother and I would probably get along, hehe. I'm totally mad about all things Japan.
      Oooh, Vietnam -- that's so cool. And I can tell from your comment that you totally get it; when you live abroad, the experiences that you have are things that affect you forever. I will never forget my first time living in Japan, it's such a precious experience. Nagaoka is as much my home as DC is. I love hearing that you still think about your experience, it must have been so life-changing. I would love to hear more about it some time! And you're so right, travel expands your mind in such a unique way. I love it so much.

  4. This is so awesome! I love your enthusiasm for learning about people, language, culture — everything — and you're right that it's not something that needs to be or should be confined to being in a fancy new place. Have you heard of Andy Goldsworthy? Not important if you have/haven't, but he's this artist who does cool work with nature. The point is, he said that he prefers working near his home, because he can more easily see the changes — the seasons, new wildlife coming in or out, plants and trees growing, etc. — that you miss when absolutely everything around you is new. That's my inspiration to keep looking within the place I'm familiar with. But now you're my new inspiration. I really want to learn something new today about my neighborhood! :) Maybe the name of a plant, or what the different types of seagulls are, if indeed they are different. (I should really look!)

    I also love the idea of talking with people with your tips. What if we approached talking with strangers here as if we were trying to become fluent in English? I bet we'd converse a lot more, and happily. :)

    The picture of you in kimono in book club is so cute and happy, and it inappropriately made me laugh because — and I realize this was not the case with you — I totally would be the person who'd show up, look around, and go, "Oh, wait, were we all not wearing kimono today?" Of course, I'm the person who wore a Dirndl to my first school photos at my German school, ha ha! But I was, like, 10, so it's kind of cute, right? :)

    Thanks for your post — very motivating!

    1. Lauren, this comment totally made my day! You're the best.
      Yeah, exactly! I've been trying to apply "learning every day" to living in the US, too. It's certainly not as easy, but it's an awesome way to discover new things.
      Oooh, will Google Andy Goldsworthy! He sounds awesome. I really like his ideas. And yay! I'm thrilled that you were inspired to learn something new about your neighborhood. Now I want to know about what you learned, too! Hehe.
      Yeah, exactly! I feel like I'm so much more friendly since I got back from Japan, because I got so practiced in talking to literally everyone. It's been a nice skill to have since I got to uni, hehe.
      Aw, thank you so much! Hehe, I would totally be the one to do that XD It was totally motivated by my history teacher, who dressed me up in kimono for various events at the school. She liked it, for some reason, and, of course, so did I!
      Oh my goodness, did you really wear a Dirndl? That's honestly so adorable. Now I want to see pictures :P
      Thanks again for your comment! It so made my day <3

  5. I love how open you are to new experiences, and how you actively seek out learning in any form. That is so cool! I know it's too late for today, but I really want to go out and visit some new museums (because there are billions in San Diego... I have no good excuse not to visit them) and find a good Indian grocery store. I want to see more farmers' markets and visit some of the local farms. I want to go discover what some of the specific trees and flowers are in the parks my son and I visit frequently. I want to go drive out to Joshua Tree National Park, even though it's still a pretty long drive from here. There really are so many opportunities for us to learn new things every day; I need to start paying more attention to the things around me! :)

    1. Thanks, Holly! You are so sweet. Those all sound like lovely ideas! Now I want to go to San Diago and do all of those things, too! :)
      I love all of your ideas so much. And I totally agree -- learning opportunities never end! I love your motivation to find amazing opportunities around you. Your son is lucky to have such an awesome Mama.

  6. Hi Erin, thought I'd add this comment I made on my blog after your comment, so you will definitely read it. It was great to read your comments about my blog post about lifelong learning; thanks a lot for your support. I'm sorry to hear you went through such a difficult time emotionally at work, I experienced something quite similar myself so I know where you're coming from. In everyday life I come across people who are unsure of AP practices and at times receive negative comments because of it. It can be really hard to grin and bear. In a work environment it must be even harder. I had to remove myself from a stressful environment at work because it wasn't doing me any good, and now am in a much better place, about to start work in a far more nurturing, caring environment where AP practices are followed. I hope you also find somewhere like that. Yes, forest schools is great, I live in the UK where it is a growing movement but I hear it's not in the US. I hope in time it will be! Thanks again for your comments and support.

    1. Thank you so much for adding the comment here! This made my day.
      I so appreciate your support <3 Yeah, it was a really difficult environment, and I did have to remove myself, because it was such a stressful and harmful environment for me (imagine how it must be for the kids! I cry for them). But luckily, I then got a fabulous nannying job, working with two lovely children, and everything turned out well. It meant a lot to me to hear your story, because I often felt very alone and isolated and hurting in that environment. It means the world to me to hear from people who went through similar situations, and experienced the stressfulness and the hurt. So, thank you so, so much for sharing your story <3
      Yes, I love the idea of forest schools! I really hope that they will become more popular in the US soon, because they're so cool.