Tag Archives: free play

A river filled with crocodiles

5 Nov

Children are truly amazing. I am, once again, teaching a 4 to 5 year old group. It is a learning situation for me as well as for the children. I spend a long time every night preparing for the next day and yet their interest is often caught by the unprepared things that happen in the class. The unprepared, spontaneous discussion on what should we do to be a good friend. These children very seriously declared that you should not hurt someone, you should always speak kindly and share your toys. Profound wisdom that they can take into adulthood with them.

I also started with a programme to help them focus and increase their self-control. Every morning we start by sitting with crossed legs and breathing slowly in and out. We greet each other with a morning song and talk about what happened at home. In the three weeks that we have been together, I have learned that laughing and playing are powerful tools to get children to focus. We sing and dance every day. We listen to stories and do art, and they play. Playing is so precious at this age. They are willing to do all the things I ask of them but in the end their question is, “May we go and play?”

When we were small, we did not need to ask. In fact, we were chased out of the house to go and play. When we were in primary school, no one ever asked where we were going after school. You only had to be back when the sun went down. I know the world has changed. I also know that I had an incredible childhood. It was filled, not with possessions, but with experience. I can remember one day discovering  a shallow pool filled with enormous bullfrogs. We went back there to observe and watch the bullfrogs until they mysteriously disappeared. Today there is a huge hospital built on this site.

I know we cannot bring back the carefree days of our childhood. However, we can make it easier for young children to be children. When I hear that children as young as three have to do ballet, formal music classes, mathematics and learn to read and write, it fills me with sadness. They should, like the troop in my class, go out and play. The other day they built a river, filled it with water and swung over the river with the rope swing in the tree. I do not think that anyone of them has ever done that in real life, but their imagination enabled them to live that experience. And who are we to say they do not learn?

We should allow our children to create memories for the day that will surely come when they are sad and alone. Then they can remember making a wide, dangerous river, filled with crocodiles and swinging over this river with the help of their friends. Is that a waste of time? No. As long as we know that we need friends; and that you must not hurt your friends; and share your time and resources; we know that we learn for the future.

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 http://www.flickr.com/photos/gregarch2/4264111913/

Donaldson, J. The Snail and the Whale. http://www.amazon.com/Snail-Whale-Julia-Donaldson/dp/0803729227

Gopnik, A. The philosophical Baby. http://www.amazon.com/Philosophical-Baby-Childrens-Minds-Meaning/dp/0374231966

Gopnik, A. Why preschool shouldn’t be like school. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/03/why_preschool_shouldnt_be_like_school.single.html#pagebreak_anchor_2

Tenenbaum, J.B., Kemp, C, Griffiths, T.L. & Goodman, N.D. How to Grow a Mind: Statistics, Structure and Abstraction. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6022/1279.abstract

Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N.D., Spelke, & Schulz, L. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027710002258