Raising a child is not like baking a cake. There is no tested recipe guaranteeing a particular result – even if you could follow the directions. Yet much advice for parents seems to tell them what they should do to achieve the specific outcomes they are seeking. These days, much focus is on education, especially early childhood education and its relevance to later success. And in our highly competitive society parents feel under great pressure to provide the ingredients that will assure such success.
The general idea seems to be that learning takes place in school and in order for children to learn they should be in school at younger and younger ages. School means teachers, and children being taught specific things in specific ways. The result has been an increasing emphasis on teaching young children what was once considered academic subjects. This has often meant the loss of opportunity for play and exploration that was earlier the purpose of pre-school.
In the past we believed that parents were children’s first teachers. But parents, too, have been exposed to current thinking that we should be teaching children specific things in specific ways. This has meant trying to teach letters and numbers, even reading at young ages. Parents worry if they are not providing special lessons and activities with the idea of enhancing children’s learning and knowledge.
A new book by Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, challenges this thinking. Her book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children,” provides a different understanding of how children learn. Citing significant research, she makes the point that children don’t have to be taught in order to learn, and in fact, explicit instruction can be limiting. When children get the message that they are being taught something they are more likely to try to reproduce what the adult does than create something new. We tend to take that as a sign children are learning.
Gopnik cites research studies showing that even the youngest children are driven to imitate, that their brains are designed to learn from observation and play. She reports experiments in which even young babies imitate what an examiner has done to get certain results with various objects. She describes a study in which young children are shown a toy which that is made to work through a series of steps, some of which are unnecessary. The children figure out which ones are unnecessary and follow only the needed steps to make the toy work.
Gopnik reports studies of “active learning” showing that children playing with toys act like scientists doing experiments. They play with toys that will teach them the most and in a way that gives them the most information about how the world works. This is really something to think about as it runs counter to the idea that toys are supposed to work in a certain way, and that children should play with them in a specific way. The same is true of the use of various materials like paint and play dough.
Observing children in nursery schools one does not have to be a trained researcher to see the validity of these findings. Left to their own devices children use toys and various materials in the most creative ways. I remember seeing one child struggling to balance a section of a structure he was erecting, which looked impossible. He kept at it, trying various solutions and finally hit on an idea which worked perfectly.
A current TV ad suggests that the existing idea of school was right for the assembly line era and promotes rethinking high school for the new information economy. As parents we should feel reassured by the idea that children’s own way of learning through play leads to the creativity and innovation so necessary for our new economy.