Genius Hour Rules: Hands-On Learning, Hands-Off Parenting

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Raising Innovators: A Guide to Genius Hour

This is the second installment of our guide to Genius Hour. The offers a nuts-and-bolts introduction to the process. In this post, we’ll discuss what to (and not to) do to help make this exercise a success.

Genius Hour Rules: The Art of Child-Lead Learning

In my last post, What Is Genius Hour?, I laid out the origins and general practice surrounding the exercise, at least as it applies to learning. We know how important unstructured play is for developing minds and bodies. Think of Genius Hour as unstructured play for the brain. Sort of. Nobody wants to recreate Lord of the Flies in their homes and classrooms. It is important to define some ground rules–for both of you. The following guidelines are what  drives Genius Hour and make it such a successful learning method.

Genius Hour: Rules That Inspire Learning, Success

Rule 1: Kids Must Think

Genius hour is about giving kids a chance to develop creativity and innovative thinking skills–not running around like little maniacs (though they need plenty of time for that, too). It’s important for grown-ups to set some ground rules, the most important of which is that they must flex their mental muscles. Let them know that you are giving them a chance to learn and do things they haven’t even imagined yet, like inventing a space ladder or building a robot with playdough and an old phone charger. Sound a little unrealistic? That’s okay. We’ll discuss this in a bit.

Rule 2: Kids Run the Show

Genius Hour puts kids in the  driver seat. You, my friend, are the tight-lipped co-pilot. You can facilitate, but not micromanage the process. You might ask simple questions to help them work through a creative rut or stay somewhat on task. You can help them gather supplies and materials, dissuading them from  cutting down the neighbor’s mail box or using Fido as a test subject. You may not tell them why their plans won’t work or suggest your own neat-o modifications. What about answering questions? That brings us to:

Rule 3: Kids Must Think, Pt. 2, & 4 Words Every Parent Should Know

Giving kids the tools they need to imagine, test, evolve, and reflect upon their own ideas is the heart and soul of Genius Hour. Teaching them how to think and find answers is a key part of that process. If your child asks you what will happen if they use build a fort from Legos instead of wood, or why cars don’t come with toilets, don’t slip on your teaching hat. Use these four magic words instead:

“What do you think?”

It’s that easy. You can eventually show them how to research their question–another important skill–but Genius Hour is all about using your noggin and testing your ideas.

Rule 4: “Failure is always an option.” – Adam Savage

Learning to embrace mistakes is difficult for anyone–especially parents who hate to watch their kids struggle–but there are lessons in failure. Mistakes are where real learning happens. In fact, some of the world’s greatest inventions emerged from total flops. The chances that your child will be able to navigate a favorite toy to a friend’s house using helium-filled balloons are slim, but let her try. Why? Because she may walk away with a new appreciation for how many balloons it would actually take to heft RainbowDash into the air, and how difficult they are to control. She may want to learn more about how hot air balloons work. Most importantly, she may learn that mistakes are just part of the creative process.

Rule 5: Grit Happens — If We’re Lucky

If at first we don’t succeed, try, try again. How difficult a task that is. Moving on to a new project is easy. It’s new. It’s failure-free. Encourage your growing innovators to brave storm and reflect upon their Genius Hour “failures.” Help them find the lesson in defeat so that they can (hopefully) try again. Cardboard may disintegrate in the rain, but what about Popsicle sticks or clay? The freedom to make (and learn from) mistakes is one of the most important lessons you can give your child.

Learn By Doing: The Grown-Up Version

We’ve discussed the Genius Hour process and laid a few of its most important ground rules, but knowing and doing are two very different things. I encourage you to test the waters. Need some inspiration? Keep your eyes peeled for our next post:

Kids’ Idea Books: Sketching Wonder

Aimee Hosler Education Journalist
Founder |

Aimee Hosler has a snazzy husband, two boys, a dog, and official pedagogy-nerd status. She doubles as a freelance journalist specializing K-12 and higher education in general, and PBL, maker education and creative thinking specifically. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including USA Today, TeachThought, Education World, The Global Digital Citizen Foundation, Yahoo! News, Teacher Portal and more. She lives in Virginia.

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