Treasure the time… play, play, play!

28 Nov

In the children’s book “The Snail and the Whale” by Julia Donaldson the snails that stayed at home greet the snail that went on a world tour with the whale with: “How time has flown and how big you’ve grown!” Today is my eldest grandson’s birthday. He is 15 years old and I want to join the snail chorus.

This is one of the anomalies of having children. When they are small we force them to do things that they are not ready to do, because we want them to grow up. When they are suddenly all grown up, we look at them with a pain in our hearts… how you have grown! The average parent of young children is a very busy person. They are attempting to build a career, while shuttling their preschoolers from violin lessons to maths tutoring, to early reading and all the places they feel their children need to go. This leaves both parent and child exhausted. In this process parents have no time to enjoy their children; no time to listen to the flowers growing and the butterfly creeping out of her chrysalis. Most of all we do not make time to listen to our children — and how profound are the words coming from children’s minds! Alison Gopnik says that watching, observing and listening to babies and young children teach us about being human. She calls this phase of development the R&D (Research and Development) department of the human race. Exploring and discovering the world of firsts — the first day, the first sun, the first everything — is a wonderful process to observe.

Young children, as Gopnik says in her book Philosophical Baby, are natural scientists. They form a hypothesis about the world and promptly start to test that hypothesis. Researchers at MIT gave two groups of young children a multifunctional toy. The first group received a meticulous explanation and a demonstration on all the functions of the toy.  The second group could experiment freely on the toy with no instructions, except the words: “Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let’s try this.” Like true, uninhibited scientists the second group proceeded to explore the toy and discovered many functions. The first group repeated the demonstration and became very good at operating the different functions but… they did not discover anything beyond the functions that were demonstrated to them.

The researchers of the above study concluded that, although teaching is effective to get a specific reaction from young children, direct instruction can limit the learning of young children. This research can be linked with another study called ‘How to grow a mind‘, that states in order for young children to learn from teachers (or parents), they have to learn ABOUT teachers. Because the children know that teachers are informative, they assume that the teacher is demonstrating everything they need to get to the answer of the problem. When the teacher is not there, children tend to explore a wider range of options, because they don’t focus on the answers that the teachers are apparently looking for. Alison Gopnik concludes that, because of this, “it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grownups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play.”

The most important aspect we undermine by being over-directive and over-scheduling our young children, is the courage to take a chance and run the risk of failure. In the process of exploration and discovery, failure is a way of learning how you should do something. In this process, children learn to trust themselves. They also learn to try again. All of these skills are essential skills for entrepreneurs! By focusing on academic skills in the preschool phase we also undermine the development of a theory of mind (ToM). The ability to “read” other people and to form and idea of what other people need and want, is an essential life skill. The one activity, apart from playing and natural loving contact with young children, that promotes the development of ToM, is reading stories.

Raising loving, interested children, who are optimistic about themselves and the world around them, is certainly in the mind of every parent. None of us want to purposefully raise children who doubt themselves and are pessimistic about their own capabilities. In looking at the future of our young children the child’s belief that “I can” is maybe the most important aspect we need to instil in our children. Parents often have the feeling that children play because it is easy; and because it is easy they do not learn anything. This is not the nature of playing. Children play because they have an inquisitive brain that wants to learn, to survive (successfully) and to take control of their life world. Children learn what they need to learn without our interference. Are we then redundant? No! But our task is to create environments that will allow children to explore, discover and grow, without interfering.

Photo: Diane Gregg at Flickr

Donaldson, J. The Snail and the Whale.

Gopnik, A. The philosophical Baby.

Gopnik, A. Why preschool shouldn’t be like school.

Tenenbaum, J.B., Kemp, C, Griffiths, T.L. & Goodman, N.D. How to Grow a Mind: Statistics, Structure and Abstraction.

Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N.D., Spelke, & Schulz, L. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery.


4 Responses to “Treasure the time… play, play, play!”

  1. Elzana December 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    Beste Elsie dankie vir die herinner aan die blog, sal dit beslis gereeld lees. Ek gaan 2012 na Laerskool Kathu skuif na die gr 1 engelse klas. Dis die kinders wat eintlik engels as derde taal gebruik maar hulle ouers kies dat hulle in engels leer. Hoop jy sal my kan help om speel speel met die kinders te doen terwyl hulle leer lees. Geluk met jou kleinseun se verjaarsdag. Groetnis

    • elsie December 3, 2011 at 1:52 am #

      Natuurlik sal ek jou help. Dit gaan baie opwindend wees en ‘n geleentheid om regtig ‘n verskil te maak. Hoop dit gaan vir jou deure oopmaak.

  2. Esther Bredenkamp November 30, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Liewe Elsie, dankie ek het die BLOG geniet! Stem natuurlik saam met alles wat jy se.
    Het jy al iets geskryf oor die oorstimulering deur die tegnologie?
    ‘n Ma vra my nou die dag…maar hoeveel is genoeg, en hoeveel is te veel?
    Lizane se sy het ‘n TV dokumenter gesien oor ‘n ma wat haar kinders op ‘n tech dieet gesit het, ( dis nou al die tegniese en cyber apparate)….en die reaksies daarop en hoe moeilik dit is om die ENGINE te wees wat vir so ‘n dieet moet sorg. Jy weet kinders wat so koponderstebo in geselsskap sit en besig wees met ‘n gadget, verwaarloos hulle ander senses…..ek sidder!!!

    • Elsie Calitz December 1, 2011 at 11:18 am #

      Hi Esther,
      I am replying in English, since this goes out to the world (I hope). Yes, I agree with you – young children do overuse technology and this might lead to all kinds of sensory problems. I really believe that we are allowing our children to become technological junkies. When we visited in Canada, we were crossing over to Vancouver Island by ferry. Next to me was a young couple texting to each other on their cellphones!! They did not talk to each other – they communicated through a screen. Very strange! I am so addicted to talking I can’t even think of not talking if I have someone to talk to. I will do some research on the sensory effect of overusing technology and post a blog about this. In the meantime, I’ll repost Catharina’s blog about technology (it was an earlier post from our blog when it was in the testing phase).
      Thank you for contributing!

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