Sunday, 1 November 2009

Work and Play

One of the most depressing consequences of a child attending school is the wholly artificial distinction which soon fixes itself in his mind about the difference between work and play, learning and leisure. The pre-school child knows nothing of this; playing and learning for him are indistinguishable and interchangeable. Playing with a puzzle or inset board is fun for the toddler, but at the same time he is learning furiously! Hand/eye co-ordination, fine motor skills, pre-reading skills are all given a good workout when the child plays with a game or puzzle which involves matching shapes and positioning them in certain spot. A parent reading a story book to a small child is pure pleasure for the child, but at the same time she is receiving a valuable lesson in literacy. All this stops abruptly once "education" begins.

"Playtime" and "lessons" soon become diametrically opposed concepts, when once a child is at school. A natural result of this is that if learning is seen as the opposite of play, then activities associated with learning such as reading and writing, are swiftly transformed into tiresome chores rather than things that people do for fun. This is particularly damaging with books and reading. For all too many school children, "reading" is an academic subject that one is forced to do at school. A lot of schoolchildren would no more pick up a book unprompted than they would start reciting multiplication tables for pleasure. The whole reading thing has stopped being an enjoyable pastime and will forevermore be a subject like sums and spelling that teachers compel them to do unwillingly. From an educational perspective, this is little short of a catastrophe. Reading is utterly vital to the whole educational process and if a child is determined to avoid it whenever possible and only do the bare minimum when forced, the prognosis is not very favourable for that child's academic future.

How very different is the situation with a child who is not sent to school. Learning and play remain one and the same thing. Books are picked up because they are a fun thing in themselves. With help and encouragement from parents, writing develops quite naturally from scribbling and drawing. Learning to read is a glorious game which is as enjoyable as any other game played with the parents. Identifying the shapes of words is as much fun for a three year old as identifying the shapes of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Drawing round stencils of letters and numbers is every bit as much fun as drawing round stencils of a cat or a lorry.

Best of all, when a child is at home she can see her parents enjoying the things which they wish her to learn. She will see her parents reading books for pleasure, watch them typing and writing, listen to their conversations and realise that they themselves like to find things out and are interested in the world. She will grow up realising that "History" is not an academic subject, but something that people are interested in, investigate and read about not because it is Monday morning, but because it is actually fascinating. In other words, children raised like this will want to read, write, learn about history and so on, not because a teacher tells them they must, but because they see it as part of adult life that they want to share in. Just as some unfortunate children wish to start smoking because they see their parents doing it and it looks enjoyable, so the home educated child will wish to read and write for the simple reason that her parents do it and it looks exciting. It is impossible to overstate the beneficial effect of this kind of lifestyle on a growing child.


  1. "For all too many school children, "reading" is an academic subject that one is forced to do at school. A lot of schoolchildren would no more pick up a book unprompted than they would start reciting multiplication tables for pleasure."

    Absolutely. In fact I read somewhere that since literacy hour was introduced the number of children reading for pleasure has actually gone down.
    I have also seen with some of my children's schooled friends that although they apparently read fluently, they don't seem to understand much of what they are reading. There must be a connection with my previous comment about the lack of fluency and clarity in the written work of some of them.

    I'm bound to say that for once you have written nothing that I disagree with. But to return for a moment to the previous discussion about late readers and writers, what would you have done if your daughter had strenuously resisted your attempts to teach her to read and write until she was much older, as one of mine did, despite the home environment being pretty much what you describe? Would you have coerced her, and risked the loss of her enthusiasm, or would you have left it until she was ready?

  2. Why Erica, you sound quite aggrieved to find nothing in this post to which you feel able to object! I'm not at all sure about the use of this word "coerce". In my experience, it is all but impossible to force a child to do something; everything is a matter of give and take and co-operation. The truth is that one cannot really "coerce" a child into reading, eating carrots, getting up in the morning, cleaning her teeth or anything else. The whole business is a gigantic game of bluff. I suppose you really mean to ask whether I would have bullied and badgered her into sitting down and learning with me? This is a tricky question, because the learning to read was so bound up with everything else we did, that I doubt that she even knew she was learning most of the time. Probabl;y, had she shown any sort of resistance to the idea of reading, then i would have focussed more upon the games and activities which she did like. Puzzles, say and shapes. It's a difficult question Erica, for my daughter was reading as soon as she could talk and I took this for granted. Perhaps it is easier with a baby, which is why I started young.

  3. No, I'm not aggrieved, I'm relieved! I don't particularly enjoy arguing.
    Coercion does not necessarily mean bullying and badgering; it can be any kind of persuasion that overrides the child's own interests; bargaining, bribery or emotional blackmail, for example. Not that I can say hand on heart that I've never done any of these to my kids; but I do try not to interfere too much with the path their education follows.

  4. This strange distinction between work and play in the life of young children is very sad to observe. When my daughter was four and five I used to help out in the reception classroom once a week. Though the learning was supposed to be 'play-based' it was usually a series of tasks laid out on tables and called 'jobs'. One day I had to help the children with a 'job' of making a particular shape with a construction toy. The teacher warned me to keep them focussed on the task as they'd had "a lot of trouble with people just building rockets"!

    It seemed to me that the method was more of a brake on the young children's learning than something that would encourage or enable it. It was very much focussed on output rather than process - something I think is common in our education system.

    My son has never been to school and has always, as you say, seen both reading and writing as pleasurable and creative activities.

  5. My goodness, Simon, you almost sound like an autonomous educator!

  6. I suspect that, if his daughter had resisted his plans, Simon might well have moved more towards an autonomous approach. Much of Simon's descriptions of his daughter's education sound much like our experiences with much self-direction, though the timing of some aspects were different with some of my children (I had one reading at 3 and another at 14, for instance). It's obviously possible that he put pressure on his daughter to follow his plans, but he has said that that would have been impossible with his daughter. If that's true, she sounds like an autonomously educated child whose preferences matched her parents (either that, or Simon has mislead us about the amount of direction he gave, and his daughter's willingness to accepted that direction).

  7. Or even, 'misled'.

  8. I observed with delight that my own children did not differentiate between learning, working and playing when they were very young.

    We consciously encouraged this state of affairs for years. But the prevailing attitudes of schools crept into our home education eventually. It started with school-educated friends coming to call on the kids during the holidays and being horrified that our kids were enjoying doing 'schoolwork' even when it was a school holiday.

    My kids decided they wanted to break up learning/working/playing into discrete sections of their lives, the way their freinds did. It was sad to see them do this, but I was unable to prevent it happening.

    Mrs Anon