Helping Children Understand Love

I have a love/hate relationship with Valentine’s Day. It’s an opportunity to celebrate relationships with friends and loved ones, but it’s also an overly sentimental portrayal of what love is. Greeting cards, flower arrangements, boxes of candy – they’re fun to give and receive. But I want children to understand that love is so much more than silly rhythms and gift exchanges, no matter how heartfelt they are. It’s also about taking care of others, treating them as equals, and appreciating their uniqueness.

Deepening children’s learning about an important spiritual concept like love doesn’t happen automatically. It takes intentional exploration and time to really understand the depth and breadth of such a big idea. Fortunately, we can borrow some of the same brain-based approaches that teachers use for important school topics. Used together, they work to support children as they try to make sense of love.

Elaboration helps children expand a concept by adding details that connect multiple bits of information together. The more connections children make, the better their understanding. A fun way to elaborate on the idea of love around Valentine’s Day is to read aloud Valentine’s cards and ask: what do these cards say about love? Make a list of all your answers. (Include silly ideas as well as more serious ones.) Then ask: how do you feel when you love someone? Add these emotional responses (as words or emojis) to the list. Finally, ask: what makes something or someone lovable? Once you’ve written all your answers down, count how many details about love you’ve collected.

Concept mapping helps children see the connections among different aspects of a big idea. A very simple Valentine’s Day concept map is “I [heart] you”. To explore what the heart stands for, ask: what else could we put between “I” and “you” that would mean love? Then take turns inserting love-related emojis and images. If your child is stumped by the question, suggest some possibilities (smiley face, giving a hug, caring for someone who’s sick, petting a dog). With young children, draw a poster-sized “I [heart] you’ and invite them to dictate things they want you to draw inside the heart to show love.

Holding on to new ideas about love is more likely if children practice retrieving information. Sometimes called a ‘brain dump’, retrieval practice involves trying to remember everything you’ve learned about a concept by telling it to someone else or writing it down. Pretend that you have amnesia and have forgotten what love is. Ask your child to tell you everything they know about love to help you recover your memory. If they get stuck after sharing a few things, pretend that you recall something vaguely and feed them a few clues. (I know it makes me feel a certain way – what is it? I think I like to do certain things for people I love, but I can’t remember what. Can you help me remember?)

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