Why Children Learn Faster than Adults (and How to Learn Their Tricks)

In their quest to guitar mastery, many players will hit a point where they wish they had started playing earlier. How often have you heard someone mutter something along the lines of,

“If I had only started playing when I was 8, I would have been so much better than I am now!”.

Perhaps you have uttered these words yourself, or at least have you worried about it quietly in your mind. Chances are you are sat here now — with or without a guitar in your hands — reading this paragraph and wonder why on earth you bother with all this practising, all these hours going up and down some silly scale you don’t really understand, hoping to one day join the greats. It’s too late, isn’t it? A kid could pick up this skill ten times faster than you can, so why bother at all? It’s depressing.

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The conventional wisdom is that children somehow learn better or quicker than adults. They are designed to absorb and process new information much more easily. Somewhere down the line from being a kid to becoming an adult you lose this ability to seemingly easily acquire new skills. Your mind becomes rigid, new information has to pass through many years of bitterly-acquired experience before it may be absorbed.

I don’t believe all is lost — far from it.

Let me begin by telling you what the biggest difference is between children and adults that allows the former to acquire skills that much faster. It’s this commodity, called time. As a child you have seas of time, so much so that you get bored and don’t know what to do with yourself most of the time. Adults on the other hand, have very little of this commodity. In fact, as you get older, life turns into some sort of giant juggling act. You don’t have enough time to fit it all in!

Lack of time is what’s preventing you from improving as fast!

Think about it. As a kid, you have very little in the way of actual responsibility. You wake up, you have your breakfast made for you. You come home from school, do some homework and then you have the entire afternoon available to practise. Then your mum calls you down for tea. If you were like me when I was younger, school wouldn’t stop you from practising either — I took my guitar with me to school and played it in between classes.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something (see this article). As a kid it is far easier to find these 10,000 hours than it is for an adult — plain and simple.

I just realised I probably have made you even more depressed. Not only are you not improving as fast as you think you should, I have just implied that there is no way to improve without ditching some other part of your life (and let’s pray it’s not the wife/girlfriend — for your sake!).

Even if we as adults do have less time available for practice, there are a number of things that we can learn from children and apply it to benefit our own progress on the guitar.

In our case we are interested in playing the guitar. I argued that time plays a big — if not the biggest — role. Most children have an abundance of free time to spend on their own personal development, whereas most adults are happy if they can find half an hour for themselves during the day.

Apart from time, there are a couple of specific things children (and especially young children) do when learning new skills. These things are usually forgotten as we get older. Today I’d like to bring two of these back to your attention. Then next week, I’ll talk about a couple more.

The aim of this post is to revisit the way we approach practising our guitars using the additional knowledge we gain from observing how a child learns.

First, a little background

I have two daughters. The eldest is of school going age and the youngest is 14 months by the time of writing. The eldest learnt how to talk several years ago, and the youngest is only just learning some words. The way both girls go about learning their first language is remarkably similar; I observe the same kind of behaviour in the youngest now as I did in the eldest some years back.

Learning to talk is something that requires fine motor skills. You have to learn fine control over your vocal tract. And later on you learn how to express yourself. So then, learning to talk is very much like learning to play the guitar. What can we learn from children that we could apply to how we approach practising the guitar?

Here’s what I observed.

Skill rule #1: Forget about the masterplan

Children don’t have a grand plan in their heads, no roadmap with subgoals and an ultimate goal — not consciously anyway. Adults have a tendency to plan things, map things out over time, consciously allocate time each day to practice, etc. Children don’t do this. They are a lot more pragmatic and as-it-happens with learning new things.

Children live in the moment, they don’t worry about the future. They take things in one step at a time.

This is a very important thing as it basically prevents you from becoming overwhelmed.

Go back to your guitar playing. There must have been a point in your career where you’ve felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff there is to learn. Scales, modes, chords, notes, it’s all too much. You see the big picture and then feel the motivation drain away faster than you can say `ii-V-I’.

It’s the same with planning things. Procrastination is right around the corner when you know what it takes to get somewhere.

If you ignore the bigger picture and ignore what you’ll be doing a week, a month or a year from now you can focus on what is important to you today.

Skill rule #2: Very focused, short learning bursts

In the absence of a masterplan it comes down to being able to spot a missing piece in your existing knowledge and then focus your entire concentration on getting it right. The key here is that the missing piece is generally very, very small, perhaps a single word or even syllable.

When a child is presented with something new, say a single word, they will focus their entire energy on it: first by listening to it, then either trying to pronounce it, or remembering the word and what it is associated with. Children will focus their whole attention on this one word, but only for several seconds, and then move on when they feel they have absorbed the new piece of information or it has simply become boring.

The same happens when a child realises they have trouble with something they’ve already encountered. They stop, focus on correcting the mistake, repeat it to themselves several times, and then they move on.

As a guitar player you can adopt this approach into your own routine. When you learn something new, and you have trouble with a small part of it — maybe a bar or two in length, maximum — devote all your energy on improving this part. Try to get it exactly perfect, repeatedly. Do this until you feel satisfied that you have improved, or bored, and then move on. Spend perhaps 2 minutes tops on it. The same goes for things you can already do but can improve upon.

The trick here is that you’re spending focused energy on a very small part of something.

So, to summarise:

  • Don’t worry too much about the big picture. Take your playing day by day. Just do it — stop worrying.
  • Devote all your energy on practising very small pieces that are new, or that you otherwise have trouble with. Try to get these perfect. Repeat it for as long as you can and then move on.

I wrote about two things that I observed in my own children that allowed them to pick up the skill of talking. I then took this knowledge and translated it to practising playing the guitar.

In this final post I talk about a couple of other observations I made. By the end of this post it should become clear that what I describe is something you probably already knew deep inside. The aim is to remind you of these things and to convince you that they really do work.

Skill rule #3: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, or to look foolish

Children do things that they will be embarrassed about later on as adults. In fact, they do this all the time. You probably have a lot of these painful memories that you’d rather not talk about. Guess what, so do I!

Somehow, when you’re a kid, you don’t really mind or think about it all that much. And as a kid, you get away with these kind of things. People just brush it off with a, “it’s a kid, he or she doesn’t know any better!”.

Therein lies the power, though, because it allows you to really experiment with things when you’re young.

Adults are expected to behave `properly’ and to `quit bumming around and do something useful’. We therefore do not always take the easiest or fastest route to learning new things. The ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, once said,

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

In other words, if you want to improve, go ahead and do that whacky thing that you’ve been too scared to do, because other people might find out. If they do give you a weird look, just laugh it off, but above all, don’t be scared to look foolish.

Skill rule #4: Be playful

Playing is a huge part of a child’s life. Children play all the time if given a chance. Role playing is often the activity of preference. Most of all, to the children it is incredibly fun. And if something is fun, it is worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating, you get the picture.

Now go back to when you first started playing the guitar. Think of those first couple of months. Was it fun? It very likely was the most fun period of your guitar playing career. You learnt a whole lot of new stuff, absorbed massive amounts of information, but most of all it was an enjoyable experience.

It was the lack of structure to your guitar playing that made it fun. There was no grand plan. This ties in with “Skill Rule #1″.

Now, I’m not saying that you should abandon all structure. That way you’ll probably not improve as fast. What I am saying is that you should give yourself some slack sometimes. If you don’t feel like practising, by all means don’t do it. Go and play a nice tune instead, or don’t touch the guitar altogether. Don’t feel guilty about it. Tell yourself that you’re in it to have fun, and chances are you’ll end up playing the guitar a lot more.

Skill Rule #5: Don’t overthink. Always simplify.

Adults have this silly ability to make things a lot more difficult for themselves. They overthink something and that automatically creates mental barriers in their mind. The end result is that you make something that really is quite simple, a lot more difficult.

Here is an example. A friend of mine plays the guitar. He has played for years but his playing is nothing special, especially when you consider how religiously he practises. He practises the guitar more than I do, but his playing ability doesn’t reflect this.

It quickly becomes apparent why this is when you talk to him about playing the guitar. The guy is dead serious. He approaches everything as if it’s the most difficult thing in the world. When he was learning how to fingerpick, he told me I should read such and such book, because it had all the theory in it. He told me you should hold your hand like this, and pick exactly like this. Then he told me about the practice routine. There were rules upon rules upon rules that he set for himself.

It was simply way too much. He made such a big deal out of it — making up all these rules for himself, and immersing himself in way too much theory from the start –that his playing suffered. There were so many things to remember, he became a completely mechanical player.

Don’t fall into this trap. Always try to simplify. Playing the guitar really doesn’t require that much thinking.

So, what can we take away from all this?

There are many more things I can write about on this subject. I feel I have only scratched the surface. But I am going to stop here. The following is what you should take away from this post:

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to look foolish. If you want to improve, many times you will have to put your pride to one side.
  • Remember you picked up the guitar in the first place because it was fun. Try to keep the fire burning. Never allow playing the guitar to turn into a chore.
  • Learning to play the guitar isn’t complex, there is no need to overthink things. Play by feel. An empty mind is a free mind.

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