This is not a regular Fine Arts Friday post. I’m not looking at a particular artist or composer, a method for studying nature, or why or how to incorporate handicrafts. It’s really not fine artsy at all, but it does encapsulate Charlotte Mason’s belief that “Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.” It is about a critical component — perhaps the critical component — not just of our children’s formal education, but of their education as human beings: the need for play. Play in children (and probably adults) is not merely goofing off or entertaining themselves; it is the serious work of children.
It is a standard trope of children’s literature that no proper adventure can happen with mommy and daddy around; therefore, they must be moved out of the way before the adventure begins. So it is with play. The vast majority of play ought not be mediated, directed, refereed, or interfered with by adults. Much like Miss Mason’s instruction for parents to introduce a song or piece of art and then get out of the way, we need to leave our children to do their work without our meddling.
It’s no secret that schools have been elbowing out play for a few decades now. Recesses have been reduced in number, shortened in length, and now all done away with altogether in some cases. Homework loads have increased, reducing the time available for children to do what they please on their own terms. Organized activities have crowded out pick-up games, solo explorations, and the type of learning through experience that play provides.
This lengthy article called “The Play Deficit” has a lot of good meat, and I encourage you to read it all, but here are some choice quotes that stood out.
Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before… Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.
The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, … Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.
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[C]ampaigners for more conventional schooling and more tests… want children to be better prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s world. But what preparation is needed? Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked? Schools were designed to teach people to do those things, and they are pretty good at it. Or do we need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam?… But schools are terrible at teaching these skills.
You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood… It’s hard to be creative when you are worried about other people’s judgments. In school, children’s activities are constantly being judged. School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.
The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit.
There’s a great deal about the push for standardized tests and the whole Eastern model of education that’s too detailed and lengthy to excerpt, but suffice it to say, China thinks its educational system stinks, too. There is also a very large section on play and socialization, which I find highly ironic given that’s the never ending challenge homeschoolers face. “But what about socialization?” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I’m not quite at the “chuck it all and dance the unschooling mambo,” but more and more I’m embracing the spirit and truth of the concept of self-education. Children must learn, they must teach themselves. I can be a facilitator, a guide, a reference, and an occasional arbiter, but the learning must be done by children. And the way children (and adults, probably) learn best is through play.
I encourage you to read the full article. John Gray also wrote Free to Learn (af) that is on my “must read” list this year. I also highly recommend Last Child in the Woods (af), a related and equally important book by Richard Louv that addresses the disconnect from nature.