"Learning German? When am I ever going to use that in a job?!"

As a young language geek, that's the kind of refrain I heard regularly in my high school German classes. And it's an attitude often reflected by parents, teachers, politicians and the community at large. We've come to think of education in narrow, often utilitarian terms. As such, we're in danger of ignoring some of the most important learning opportunities there are.

Here are some examples that involve the youngest (and probably most important) group of learners: kids.

Playing with food. "Don't play with your food! Just eat!"

We've all heard this refrain, and, for those of us who are now parents, we're probably guilty of uttering something similar ourselves. But playing with your food can be a learning experience. My dietitian wife often reminds me that mushing, smearing and generally making a mess can be a child's way of exploring unfamiliar foods.

Exercising. Physical education is getting squeezed out of many schools, in favor of science, math and whatever else might help get test scores up. Yet we learn an awful lot when we're out there getting sweaty. From the challenging concepts of leadership and team work, to some tangible demonstrations of the laws of physics, exercise can be a great way to see theory in practice.

Unstructured play. It sometimes feels like we're pressured to have a structured program for every minute of our child's day. But a frenzy of play dates, after-school clubs and extracurricular activities may be depriving our children of something equally valuable:

"There is a myth that doing nothing is wasting time, when it's actually extremely productive and essential," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less," in Scholastic.com.

"During empty hours, kids explore the world at their own pace, develop their own set of interests and indulge in the sort of fantasy play that will help them figure out how to create their own happiness, handle problems with others on their own and sensibly manage their own time," she said. "That's a critical life skill."

Playing video games. Video games have become a handy scapegoat for all that's wrong with our youth: violence, obesity and attention deficit disorder. But there's some evidence to suggest that video games may have real cognitive and physical benefits. Educators are now seeking to harness those benefits for improved educational experiences. Education experts also are pushing children to learn computer coding, hoping to encourage a culture where we view technology not just as something we consume, but something we can manipulate and use to shape the world around us.

Getting messy. We know that getting out in nature and getting a little muddy can be a great educational experience. But messiness is not just about physical mess — it has a conceptual element, too. According to education writer Ian Flukes, we need to encourage schools to embrace "messy problems," moving away from a pure focus on "right answers" and simple equations to also explore real-world challenges that include ambiguity and doubt:

There is no "one right way" to solve a problem such as "should I get married?" or "what should I study in college?" The answer is the goal, but the answer can manifest itself in many correct ways and lead to a lot of unexpected learning along the way.

Think beyond facts. Ultimately, we don't need to worry about whether our children will learn. It's what they were built to do. But we need to think hard about what and how they will learn. Let's teach a child how to think — and do so in ways that explore the full diversity, wonder and challenge of the complicated, ambiguous and often messy world around us.