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Entries in How children learn (7)


Back to Playing, Not Back to School

It’s been a busy few weeks for me and I haven’t updated my blog in a while. However, I’ve been collecting some stories I want to share with you that give support for living and learning with children in non-technocratic ways.

At a time in our culture when economists and educators who view schools as giant machines that process people for jobs and social cohesiveness are in control, it is always refreshing—and important—to find researchers and opinion leaders from within the school system who support more human, relationship-based approaches to living and learning with children. One example of the technocratic view of education is the diminishment of physical activity, especially free play, for children. Many parents have internalized the messages the schools have been putting out over the years—your children need lots of academic rigor and the earlier they are brought into line with school standards the better—to the point that children’s free play, pick-up sports games, and other child-initiated and organized games are considered frivolous, if not an actual waste of time. However, as homeschoolers know and have written about for decades, free play is how children naturally learn and develop interests and skills. John Holt explains how this happens beautifully in his revised edition of How Children Learn, in his chapters “Games & Experiments” and “Fantasy Play.” Most recently, Dr. Peter Gray has edited a special edition of the American Journal of Play that focuses on the importance of play for children and its diminishment among schoolchildren.

The journal is available for free, and I urge you to read it if you, or people you know, are having doubts about how much time your children spend playing instead of doing school work. Here is some information about the issue to whet your reading appetite.

Go out and play! Parents today are less likely than ever to utter these words. However, hovering helicopter parents who restrict their kids’ unstructured play may actually harm, rather than help, children according to an interview with Lenore Skenazy (syndicated columnist and author of Free-Range Kids) and Hara Estroff Marano (author of A Nation of Wimps). The authors’ condemnation of overprotective parenting appears in a special themed issue of the American Journal of Play devoted entirely to the importance of free play among children.
Guest editor Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College, has gathered a distinguished group of contributors who probe the near-extinction of free play and its effects on children and society from historic, anthropologic, and psychological perspectives:

“Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let them Play,” an interview with Lenore Skenazy and Hara Estroff Marano

“The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play” by Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College

“The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adults” by Peter Gray,Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College

“Evolutionary Functions of Social Play: Life Histories, Sex Differences, and Emotional Regulation” by Peter LaFreniere, Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine


“Marbles and Machiavelli: The Role of Game Play in Children’s Social Development” by David F. Lancy, Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, and M. Annette Grove

“Empowering Groups That Enable Play” by David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor for the Department of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University; Danielle Marshall, Senior Manager of Research and  Education at KaBOOM!; and Hindi Isherhoff, former board president of City Repair

“The Design Your Own Park Competition: Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Outdoor Play on a Citywide Scale” by David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor for the Department of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University.

The American Journal of Play is published by The Strong in Rochester, New York. For more information, visit

Another piece of the technocratic school is technology. Homeschoolers have been dealing with online learning for many years now, being courted, even co-opted, by some companies to embrace their products. Now research is showing that High-tech classrooms don’t mean higher test scores.” This article, that I read in the Boston Globe, has three fascinating paragraphs near the end that I feel summarize one of the many problems that school innovation suffers from: how well-funded advocates can capture and control school funds into their agenda despite a basis in sound research. Homeshoolers have for decades heard that teaching your own children is irresponsible because there is little research to support it (which is just hogwash, by the way); however, when Big Schooling wants to do something it thinks is worthwhile it will press on regardless of what research exists. For instance:

In 1997, a science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton issued an urgent call about the need to equip schools with technology.

If such spending was not increased by billions of dollars, American competitiveness could suffer, the committee said.

To support its conclusion, the committee’s report cited the successes of individual schools that embraced computers and saw test scores rise or dropout rates fall. But while acknowledging that the research technology’s impact was inadequate, the committee urged schools to adopt it anyhow.

One reason our children are outside less and doing less physical play with each other is their increased access to technology that tethers them to screens. If only this money were spent improving playgrounds, parks, and public spaces; improving library resources (such as public computer access) and children’s health and nutritional needs; creating programs that encourage children and adults to mingle in person in their communities. If those billions had been spent in these ways since 1997 I think we would have improved children’s social capital and, in doing so, improved their school performance. Even if it didn’t improve their test scores, it would have had a positive effect on their everyday lives, which is, to me, even more important than test scores.

Finally, if you worry that you’re not spending enough time on academics with your children at home, this article might help you loosen up and let your kids play in the mud, ride their bikes, or help you do something around the house instead of doing school. The Associated Press reports that South Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming have shortened their school week in response to budget cuts. The article notes:

According to one study, more than 120 school districts in 20 states, most in the west, now use four-day weeks.

The schools insist that reducing class time is better than the alternatives and can be done without sacrificing academic performance . . .

 . . . Melody Schopp, South Dakota’s state education secretary, says schools that have switched to four days haven’t suffered in achievement tests.


John Holt Speaks to Swedish Teachers About How Children Learn

Though there aren't many videos of John Holt, there are numerous audio tapes of him speaking since John was an audiophile who recorded most of his own talks, as well as Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals (he had permission) and many other daily sonic events. This is my first effort at transferring an analog cassette tape to digital format; I had to further format it to fit into YouTube's 15 minute limit. I also added a few photos so you aren't staring at a blank screen for an hour while John talks.

This is a talk John Holt presented to Swedish teachers in Gothenberg, Sweden on March 22, 1982. As John notes here, he was revising How Children Learn during the time he was doing his Scandinavian tour, so these are pretty fresh thoughts and ideas that John was working with in light of his connection to homeschoolers (I didn't hear him say "unschooler" at all in this talk, FYI). What else is noteworthy is how Sweden, in 2010, banned homeschooling on the grounds that a professional education was available from the state and families therefore had no need for homeschooling. As Holt notes forcefully on this tape, unasked for teaching actually impedes learning, particularly for young children, a lesson confirmed by research that Holt notes in 1982 and quite recently confirmed again by new research cited in the Boston Globe (Front page, 3/29/11). However, a point often lost among today's unschoolers is that when a child of any age asks to be taught then "Go for it!" John provides an example of how a baby or toddler might ask for or invite teaching from an adult.

Like most of the audio tapes I have, this was recorded by John while he spoke, so the quality is a bit rough. I've removed as much hiss as I could, and the entire speech is here, though part 4 ends abruptly during the Q&A section. However, you are able to grasp John's final point, one he made often: schools should be more like public libraries, in spirit and in organization.


The Importance of Vulnerability in Learning

I often hear about the qualities needed for children to learn effectively and they are, sadly, often the same among most schools and homeschooling parents: for instance, children should sit still and follow instructions, complete their assignments every day, and get good grades. From a technical, school-efficiency view of learning these qualities are vital for providing detailed records of student performance in order to inform the school what they will do next to the student, but from a person-centered view of learning they are not nearly as important. This view, which I hold, places individual motivation, open questioning, and the singular ways in which each child learns to be far more important for nurturing learning than school efficiency. As John Holt often noted, “…little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning.” When I viewed this TED video by Brene Brown, author of The Gift of Imperfection, I understood, more completely, the importance of maintaining personal vulnerability, not just for learning but also for living a full life.

Dr. Brown presents herself as a hard-nosed researcher whose job is “to control and predict,” the essential task of research. However, as Dr. Brown, a social worker, applied hard science to her task of measuring the ability of people to feel connected to others, she learned that being able to feel connected to people also involved deep feelings of shame and fear, something she didn’t expect. As she explored the role of shame and fear in how we connect, or don’t connect, with others she also went on a fascinating personal journey that led her to change her ideas not only about social work but also about life, learning, and parenting. Brown initially follows her professor’s advice to “lean into the discomfort,” and she organizes the messy discomforts of her life and work into neatly arranged Bento boxes, but she eventually concludes that this is not how we can form authentic relationships with others, and so, applying her research to herself, she had to relearn how to be vulnerable, how to take risks in love and life, how to “lean into the joy.”

John Holt wrote at length, nearly 50 years ago, about how fear and shame inhibit learning (see How Children Learn and How Children Fail) and his observations are well supported by Dr. Brown’s research and stories. Though she doesn’t spend a lot of her time discussing children and learning, the overall message of this talk is so well presented and vital that you will easily make your own connections to parenting and education.


About Talking To Children About The World

Here’s a quote from John Holt about why he engaged in self-censorship during conversations with children that I find fascinating.

Many things in the world around me seem to me ugly, wasteful, foolish, cruel, destructive, and wicked. How much of this should I talk to children about? I tend to feel, not much. I prefer to let, or help, children explore as much of the world as they can, and then make up their own minds about it. If they ask me what I think about something, I will tell them. But if I have to criticize the world in their hearing, I prefer to do it in specifics, rather than give the idea that I think the world, in general, is a bad place. I don’t think it is, and for all the bad that is in it, I would much rather be in it than out of it. I am in no hurry to leave. Even if I thought the world, and the people in it, was more bad than good, I don't think I would tell children so. Time enough for them to learn all that is bad. I would not have wanted to know, when I was young, all that I now know about what is wrong with the world. I'm not sure that I could have stood to know it. Time, and experience, and many friends and pleasures, have given me many assets to balance against that knowledge, things to put in the other side of the scales. Children don't have many of these. They need time to learn about some of the good things while they are learning (as they are bound to) about the bad.

—John Holt, GWS 7, p. 11


Anti-creativity Checklist

Though intended as a critique of business practices, I think with little effort one can substitute "education" for "business" and see the parallels. It is also important to remember that very often we shut-down creativity in our homes by resorting to these knee-jerk responses to different ideas about how we can do things. I hope the next time something different and unusual crops up in your life that this 14-point checklist will come to mind and make you think about it more seriously.

My Anti-Creativity Checklist from Youngme Moon on Vimeo.