Intrinsic Motivation, College Motivation and Holiday Break

This past weekend I had the chance to go ice skating for the first time this year. Ice skating is pretty much my favorite childhood memory – I used to beg my parents to take me the University of Connecticut ice rink near our home, so that we could spend the entire afternoon at the rink in 10 degree weather. As a kid, hours would pass on that rink and I would hardly notice. Somewhere along the way, I stopped going skating regularly. Why? Probably because I had other activities, and because school work and commuting took up time.

I think about this today when I see so many students give up hobbies and activities they truly enjoy, often because there are other activities they think they should be doing. In many ways, our achievement culture and intense focus on college admissions serves to kill curiosity and intrinsic motivation, as so many activities, experiences, and hobbies have become prioritized and transactional.

Well-intentioned parents feel pressure to encourage kids to participate or stick with an activity, or discourage kids from trying something new because they are worried about high school or college admissions. Hobbies that don’t seem achievement-oriented (baking cakes, building model airplanes, making movies) quickly fall away with busy-ness.

Here’s my end-of-year tip: Most students have a few weeks off from school for the holidays. This is a great time for rest and relaxation, and also, reflection. I encourage parents to ask your children this question: What is one idea/activity/topic that you’ve been curious about that you haven’t yet had time to explore? It could be going deeper into a current interest, trying something new, or revisiting something from the past.

Then, commit to setting aside six hours during the holiday to pursue that interest. There’s no follow-up report or assignment or anything really required – just time. It could be all in one day, or several times over the course of two weeks. Up to you. The key is making the time, and there’s no required output other than curious exploration. If you do this as a family, maybe a dinner conversation could be all about discoveries—ideally, parents would participate as well.

Side note: Encourage low-cost exploration involving public resources, if possible (ie. library, local museums or places of interest). If someone is interested in flying, for instance, lessons aren’t the only way to pursue that interest. 😉 I would love to hear how it goes!

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