The Gift of Self-Discovery

by Jena Hengstler

Recently, while waiting in the doctor’s office with my 6-year-old son, he asked to play with my phone. I don’t often resort to Candy Crush, but wanting to appease his patience, I grabbed my phone and opened the calculator.

My son has played with a calculator before, but only to punch in random numbers. I took about 30 seconds to show him how it worked, with examples he would know to be true, such as 2+2, then handed it over. What happened next was eye-opening.

He first tried out a few more simple equations, such as 5 + 5, just to be sure this thing was legit, and then said, “Hey Mom, look, if you do 2 – 3 it equals 1 below. Kind of like when the temperature is below zero. So, I bet 5 – 7 is going to be 2 below.” He then used the calculator to confirm his suspicion, resulting in an ear-to-ear smile of success. 

The teacher in me gave the mom in me a fist bump and a wink. This was a win.

The next thing he realized is that 30 + 20 equals 50, explaining to me that the calculator must just do 3 + 2 and leave the zero. Something about seeing this done mechanically made him realize that only the tens digit changed and the zero stayed the same. He proved it to me with 100 + 200, “See Mom, 1 + 2 is 3, leave the two zeros, it equals 300.” Magic!

By the time the doctor came in, my son had discovered, all on his own, negative numbers and what I refer to in my 4th grade classroom as “the zero trick.”

My son’s spontaneous moment of learning stayed with me for several days. I kept thinking about the power of self-discovery. 

Teachers try to build math and science lessons that lend themselves to self-discovery, but with the final objective clearly defined, we feel required to ensure the learning train stays on a specific track.

But what happens when you give a kid a calculator with no expectations? You get to see what self-discovery really looks like. It’s pretty sweet. It’s one of those moments that makes you feel like a truly good parent, when you did nothing more than open the door.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

As parents and caregivers, what if we sharpened our self-discovery sensors and listened when the alarm goes off? Young children, especially, ask a million questions a day. If we brush them off, we miss the chance to capitalize on powerful learning opportunities.

Some of those opportunities happen beautifully without parents lifting a finger. We just need to hone our ability to notice when the possibility presents itself, open the door and let naturally curious kids do their thing.

Does this refrain sound familiar: “Are we there yet?”

I know first-hand how this question can feel like an attack on your sanity. But it’s also a fair question. Time and distance can be difficult concepts for some children to grasp.

Give a child a phone with the Maps app open and let them track the route from your present location to the final destination, pointing out the ETA and the surrounding landmarks. Engage in age appropriate conversation, including how speed affects traveling time or how the big blue oval on the map represents the lake right outside their window. Allow them to navigate, using vocabulary such as “east” and “west” rather than “right” or “left.” Ask them to tell you how much longer and you’ve just turned a potentially frustrating time into real life discovery.

Each day gives us so many opportunities to share lessons of self-discovery with our children. 

When your child asks how much time until their play date, show them the clock and explain the functions of the short and the long hands. They probably won’t grasp it the first time, but if you explain time when it’s relevant, you’re building a foundation. And, although digital clocks are more common now, learning to tell time on an analog clock remains a skill worth mastering. 

Give your kid a tape measure and see where that goes. When they ask what the lines and numbers mean, take the time to explain. When they measure something that is 2 feet, ask how that converts to inches.

When cooking dinner, ask your child to help you figure out how much half of 3 cups is. 

When they spot something in the store they want to buy, build upon that by asking how much money is in their piggy bank. With the assortment of coins and bills directly tied to the baseball glove, art set, or American Girl doll they want, children quickly learn and remember the value of each, as well as how to add it all up. 

Inviting our children to live life with us and taking notice of potential learning opportunities – matters.

I recently came across a quote that read, “Remember you are raising an adult, not a child.” As parents and caregivers, that’s the job we signed up for, something we all need to remember from time to time. 

Our children will learn a lot of essential skills in school, but the more we can facilitate a learning mindset at home, the better they will grasp those skills. And the better they grasp them, the more skilled they will be in stacking them together to build a future.

As parents, we lay the learning foundation at home, providing the background knowledge teachers will use to build upon. Let’s make it real.


Jena Hengstler is an elementary teacher. She always knew she wanted to work in education and has had a 15 year career charged with just as much learning as teaching. Her teaching journey has been filled with successes, trials, love, heartbreak, celebration and humility – all for the love of children. Jena calls the beautiful state of Wyoming her home. She loves doing life with her husband, Larry and her son, Hudson. When she isn’t at school, she enjoys reading, writing, drinking coffee that is still hot, watching sports, being outside and will always make time to watch the sunset.