7 Examples of Superpowering Your Kids through One-Minute “Lessonlets”

By Noah Charney

I call them “lessonlets.” It sounds cute, but the most important thing is to distinguish them from “lessons” (which, unfortunately, is a term with the connotations of “boring” and “do I have to?”). They’re shorter than lessons, peppier and more fun. What I’ve learned and developed as a professor turned parent of 5- and 7-year-old daughters is that you can pack a world of knowledge into a steady stream of lessonlets, even when each one takes as little as a minute.

               As a professor who always enjoyed studies, I hope to inspire a similar love of learning in my kids. But I recognize that I was a) lucky, b) had brilliant teachers throughout my schooling and c) am weird, because most people do not relish studies and learning as I did.

Kids Love To Learn New “Superpowers”

To increase the enthusiasm, I began to describe the acquisition of new skills, words, understanding, knowledge as getting “superpowers.” This is not just a parenting trick, a trap to spark excitement in kids for something not actually exciting. I genuinely feel that this is true. When I teach history of art at university, I like to teach iconography—the study of symbols hidden in artworks. It’s like a visual riddle or puzzle, real Da Vinci codes, but to solve them, to understanding the message hidden in the art, you need to learn a few dozen traditional symbols that can be found throughout Western art. A dog represents loyalty. A pair of keys represent Saint Peter. A harp represents the Old Testament King David, and so on. By learning this visual vocabulary, we open up a world of understanding—you can suddenly walk into museums the world over and interpret art, even that you’ve never seen before. It feels like you have a new superpower. Your superhero name could be The Symbol Decoder. Learning each new symbol and what it means takes a minute. But each one opens up a new puzzle piece, allows you to see further and deeper.

With these ideas in mind, I developed a way to adapt the techniques I use for teaching at university to suit and engage my young children. These appear in my new parenting book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day in greater detail, but here’s a brief roundup.

Brief and Consistent is Best

One of the key points of my approach is that lessons do not need to be long. In fact, they shouldn’t be. Kids (and adults) have a limited attention span and a lesson that is interesting in the first three minutes can get tiresome after the twenty-first minute. Lessonlets seek to convey a single idea or concept. This could be a new vocabulary word, a fact, a description of a new animal… Anything that can be thrown in during the normal flow of your day and playtime, without sitting down in a classroom-like manner and saying the dreaded words “Now it’s time to study.” These lessonlets should take less than fifteen minutes to feel fresh and brief, but they can easily take less than one. They usually begin with a random encounter during the day—we found a snail who had lost his way on our terrace and made it a little terrarium, as home for the night, then released it in the woods the next morning. We passed an elder tree during a walk in the woods and gathered blossoms, then made cordial and fried blossoms. We practiced math with popcorn, learned anagrams with Scrabble tiles, identified alpine wildflowers.

7 Lessonlets From One Fun Film

Here is an example in practice. We watched the classic film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. They loved it, especially the “substitutiary locomotion” song and the great battle scene at the end when the friendly witch (played by a young Angela Lansbury) successfully animates a museum full of suits of armor which proceed to chase an invading Nazi squadron from a seaside English town. This led me to play the Lesson Game in a number of directions inspired by what they were interested in.

  • We talked about how to say “substitutiary locomotion” in a less fancy way (“replacing movement”), and why a “locomotive” is an older word for a train.
  • The film features a variety of British accents including London Cockney, a polite “received pronunciation” and a sort of gangster slang. We talked about various accents in English and which they find more difficult to understand and which they could imitate.
  • We talked about the suits of armor from various time periods and then browsed through a book we have of arms and armor. We looked at horse armor, described what it felt like to wear armor, how it was put on.
  • The “substitutiary locomotion” spell can make inanimate objects move around on their own, as the good witch explains in the film. We talked about the difference between animate and inanimate objects. I listed things and asked my girls to tell me if they were animate or inanimate: a fish, a shoe, our dog, a hot dog, a suit of armor, a knight in armor, a photograph of a knight in armor. I was trying to be tricky, because once I saw that they grasped that animate objects were living and capable of movement, I pulled a fast one asking about a photograph of something that is animate (the photograph being inanimate). I also played with words to be tricky and playful (our dog is animate, a hot dog is inanimate).
  • The film has some silly Nazi bad guys (not the scary kind) but we talked a bit about who they were, why they spoke German, and that there had been a war a long time ago—Second World War history lite, to gently inform but not over-complicate or upset a 5-year-old.
  • There’s a great scene on Portobello Road in London, where the characters search for the second half of a torn book of magic. I lived in London and had been there many times, so I told them about the antiques market there, we watched a walkthrough video of the market and I asked what they would be interested in looking for, if they were there.
  • The film has a scene in which the children list their favorite foods, and the list sounds intriguing but confusing to non-British kids, like mine: bubble and squeak, sausage and mash, toad in the hole. So we looked up what these dishes were and cooked some for ourselves.

That’s seven lessonlets, some a minute long, some just a few minutes, drawn from watching one fun film.

A 1-Minute Lesson a Day = 365 Lessons a Year

I see every day with my kids as full of learning potential, but I don’t want them to feel like it’s work. Work will come later. At this stage, my goal is to slip learning into what feels like play. We cover at least one lessonlet a day. A minute or so a day might not seem like much, but once a day means 365 new bites of knowledge a year, each one a superpower in miniature (let’s call them superpowerlets!) And each one brings us parents closer to our children, empowering us and superpowering them.

Noah Charney is an author of best-selling art history books, but that’s his day job. During quarantine, at home with his family, he finally had time to embark on a project he’d been meaning to do for years. He wrote a book called Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day. He is releasing it exclusively as a limited edition for backers of a Kickstarter campaign that runs until July 4. If you’re interested in learning more or perhaps supporting the project and ordering one of the very few copies of the book that will be available, take a look at this link. You can also join him on Instagram and Facebook, where he posts a new idea for a lessonlet every day. The book contains 365 lessonlets, on subjects from cooking to math the nature to language and beyond, and that’s just the start. If there is enough support on Kickstarter, he’ll also build a tie-in smartphone parenting journaling app to help parents can keep track of the lessonlets covered, and superpowers acquired, by their kids.