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8 Ways to Keep Learning After 50

Soak up new wisdom with free and low-cost classes and experiences

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Maybe you’ve always dreamed of taking up painting or learning to knit. Perhaps you regret never having mastered a second language. The good news is, it’s never too late to learn — despite what that tired adage says about old dogs and new tricks​

Learning a skill is more than fun. It promotes connections and novel ideas and keeps the brain sharp. Research has shown that older learners can pick up knowledge fairly easily, given the right learning environments and support. A 2019 study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that adults ages 58 to 86 who took classes 15 hours per week to learn several skills — such as Spanish, drawing or photography — not only acquired new talents but also improved their cognitive functioning to match that of adults 30 years younger, after just 1.5 months. ​

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So don’t be afraid to try pottery, even if you’ve always been more math-oriented. Or expand your knowledge of the cosmos with an online astronomy class, even if your last science class was decades ago. You can acquire many new skills for free or at very little cost by tapping into resources within your community.

Ready to nurture your inner scholar without breaking the bank? Here’s how: ​

1. Enroll in a lifelong learning program

Many colleges and universities offer free, noncredit courses and workshops as part of their lifelong learning programs for students 50 and older. Some even offer older adults free or low-cost access to credit-earning academic classwork, so you can work toward a degree, if you wish. The University of Kentucky’s (UK) Donovan Scholarship, for example, covers regular course tuition and fees for Kentucky residents 65 or older.​

Jeffrey Jones, 73, a retired math and technology resource teacher from Lexington, Kentucky, used the Donovan Scholarship benefit to study his first love: music theory and composition. Jones has completed several chamber orchestra compositions, one of which was performed professionally. “I started taking these classes because I wanted to learn to write music. I wanted to train my ear, and that was going to be enough for me,” Jones says. “I had no idea that there might be an outlet for other people to actually hear my work.”​

2. Volunteer as a museum docent

Have an interest in history or archaeology? How about art or hands-on science? Consider teaching others as a docent at a museum, zoo or historic site. Len Maynard, 59, joined as a volunteer docent with the San José Museum of Art during COVID-19, when she lived nearby. “Being a docent is the best of both worlds, because it gives you an opportunity to deepen your learning and meet new people — and you’re also helping other people learn,” says Maynard, who remains active as an online tour guide and docent cochair for the museum, despite her recent move to Montana. ​

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Worried you might not be qualified? Most institutions offer docents thorough training. Maynard spent a year in training, deepening her already strong understanding of art and art history. Yet the course was accessible enough that even class members who had no art background came away feeling confident about leading tours, she says. ​

3. Become a citizen scientist

Increase your understanding of animal science, nature or history by answering the call for citizen science volunteers. Help count birds in the Audubon Society’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Monitor water quality in a lake or stream. Participate in archaeology digs at historic sites. Find projects in your area seeking volunteers at ​

4. Discover your green thumb

Have your relationships with plants always ended in failure? Make this the year you conquer your gardening fears. Sign up for a low-cost flower maintenance workshop at an area arboretum or garden club, or learn planting skills through a nearby master gardener program.​

5. Tap into art lessons with your parks department

When you think parks and recreation, you may envision playgrounds or city tennis courts. But many also offer extensive schedules of free and low-cost arts classes — from painting and photography to instrumental music, dance and more. Nandita Godbole, 51, has taken affordable pottery classes offered by her parks and recreation department in Roswell, Georgia, for the past year. In the process, the professional cookbook author gained an exciting skill — as well as a chance for self-care. “I signed up for pottery as a way to learn something new and not get stagnant, but the studio became this therapeutic place for me,” Godbole says. “You’re forced to disconnect from your phone and focus on what your hands are doing. Through pottery, I’ve found creativity and peace. It’s been a wonderful way to make time for myself.”​

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6. Learn home skills with cooperative extensions

Want to learn how to quilt or improve your cooking? Maybe you’re curious about raising chickens or making your own soaps and sugar scrubs. Check out your local Cooperative Extension System (CES) office. Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and operated through the U.S. land grant university system, CES offices regularly lead affordable online and in-person workshops covering home and garden skills for all learning levels.​

7. Explore free online courses 

Want to learn something without even leaving home? Consider enrolling in a free online class offered by course-sharing sites such as Coursera, edX or Academic Earth or AARP Skills Builder for Work. Most classes are self-paced, so you can take your time while pursuing topics such as the science of well-being, introduction to philosophy or basic calculus. ​

8. Lean into library offerings

The next time you browse at your public library, take a moment to scan its bulletin board or website for upcoming classes and workshops. Many branches frequently offer free, online and in-person lectures on everything from backyard beekeeping and genealogical research to knitting, creative writing, digital moviemaking and more. At Florida’s Miami-Dade Public Library System, patrons can enroll in free, 10-week online classes to learn Spanish, as well as U.S. citizenship classes or GED test prep. “Our adult learners appreciate the convenience of the classes and the community that develops within them,” says Nora Morales, the library’s tutoring program coordinator. “Our participants love that they’re learning new skills — and that they get to do it inside a supportive network of other adult learners.”​

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