Thursday, June 13, 2024

Play Liberates Us from the Forces of Natural Selection and Allows Us to Direct Our Own Evolution

Ethologists are zoologists who study the behavior of animals in their natural habitat. They study orcas in the ocean, not Sea World. They study cheetahs on the savannah, not in the zoo. This makes sense. When we study animals in captivity most of what we learn is how that species responds to captivity. As writer and filmmaker Carol Black points out in her brilliant essay
A Thousand Rivers, much of the data we collect on human learning has come from studies of children in schools, which is to say, children in captivity.

This question of "captivity" hangs over much, if not most, of the so-called science of learning. After all, virtually all of our children spend most of their lives in the captivity of schools. It's uncomfortable to think about, but it doesn't require a cynic to recognize that schools and prisons have a great deal in common. The inmates are under constant supervision by superiors who are empowered to punish them if they step too far out of line. Their daily schedules are proscribed. They spend most of their time indoors. They cannot leave or opt out or choose to do something other than what they're required to do.

We try to make ourselves feel better about it by telling ourselves the story that it's a benign captivity, one that is "for their own good," but there is no doubt that if left to their own devices, most of our children would choose to spend their time playing, preferably outdoors. In other words, they would choose the opposite of captivity, which is liberty. We all would.

From the perspective of ethology, the only way we will ever understand human learning is to study humans who are at liberty, which is to say, while at play.

There can be no doubt that this urge to play is an adaptive trait, one that is essential to human survival. As journalist David Toomey puts it in his new book Kingdom of Play:

At present, evolutionary biologists do not know that a master gene enabled and orchestrated play, much less which master gene. Neither do they know where or when play began. They have no map, no cladogram, depicting the evolution of all animal play. But they know that play has a history stretching back hundreds of millions of years, and that its roots, that hypothetical suite of master genes, may be older still. Play has endured the formation and reformation of continents, three ice ages, and two mass extinctions. So they — and we— can be certain of one aspect of play. Whatever its adaptive advantages, they are worth the trouble. Nature takes play seriously.

Since we have, for better or worse, chosen to raise our own young in captivity, if we are to likewise take play seriously, we are best served by turning to ethologists, who, as Toomey puts it, "believe that innovative play might be a means by which an animal gains a measure of control over its own evolution."

Evolution is generally thought about in terms of random genetic mutations and law of the jungle consequences, and that obviously still plays a significant role, but it seems that the existence of play allows us to consider evolution from a new perspective. Looked at this way, we see that evolution takes place as a process of living things playing with their environment. When they learn something from their play that enhances their life — e.g., makes it easier to get food, more likely to reproduce, or simply brings joy -- they then teach what they’ve learned to others through role modeling. Over time, natural selection favors those who are best able to take advantage of this learning, so they are the individuals whose genes are the ones that are more likely to be passed along to future generations. And those are the genes, whether or not we know exactly which ones they are, that favor play.

For anyone versed in classic evolutionary theory, this is a bit mind-blowing. After all, this means that animals, through play, are capable of liberating themselves from the forces of natural selection, and to at least some degree direct them. But this kind of liberty is not possible for an animal held in captivity.

Modern school thwarts play. Indeed it often punishes play. Schooling replaces our children's natural urge to direct their own learning through play with a curriculum that determines, in advance, what they will learn, how they will learn it, and according to what schedule. As Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years, tells us in our conversation about "liberation pedagogy" on Teacher Tom's Podcast, "A system that determines what you will learn kills curiosity" and curiosity is the driving force behind play. And as Denisha tells us, "Play is freedom. Play is liberation."

In the early years, many of us strive to create programs that free children to play, to provide them with a natural habitat for learning. This means that we are in the vanguard of understanding human learning. We are the "ethologists" specializing in our own species because we are among the few who live amongst free humans. There is a societal tendency to pat us on the head and patronizingly praise us for doing "such important work," but what they mean, most of the time, is that they're glad we're willing to muck around amidst the pink eye, diaper changing, and temper tantrums, so they don't have to. But this is simply evidence of how little we, as a culture, understand about learning, and it explains why they're unwilling to listen to us when we tell them about play and liberation.

It's from this perspective that we can see that it's not just our children we keep in captivity, but also ourselves. We live in a world that doesn't understand play at all, that denigrates it, that commodifies it, that relegates it to recesses, weekends, and two-weeks of paid vacations.

When I'm with liberated children, however, I find myself, for a time at least, swimming with the orcas, running with the cheetahs, and playing with the children. I'm liberated. And I know that I am in my natural habitat. 


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Only Course of Study Worth Pursuing

The problem I have with machine learning (what technologists have arrogantly labeled artificial intelligence, or AI) is that much of what it's attempting to do for me is take over processes like writing, researching, and making art, things that I choose to do for pl
easure. As at least one wag on the internet has joked, I need AI that will do my laundry, windows and floors, so that I'll be freed up to write, research, and make art.

Machines are brilliant tools for doing mind-numbing, time-sucking projects like crunching large data sets or calculating with massive numbers. I'm going to assert that's what most of us want from machines. We want them to, without complaint or procrastination, handle the tedium and repetition so that we can get on with the stuff that makes us come alive. Educators worry about how their students are using AI in their school work. I would say that the very fact that mere machines can do the work they are assigning to kids, is more a critique of standard schooling than the kids, who are, after all, just using machines to do what they do best -- mind-numbing, time-sucking work.

Machines are designed to do our bidding, but human beings have evolved to their own bidding, their own thinking, their own learning.

Neuroscientist Patrick House writes, "Human infants have major learning advantages over robots as they age because they do not have to learn how to learn efficiently but come, in a sense, preprogrammed with all the rules needed to grow from a single cell into a denuded, smartly learning primate. You could call your lifetime of experience your age -- or you could call it your age plus three billion years." 

Theoretical physicist and philosopher Carlo Rovelli writes, "Scientific thinking makes good use of logical and mathematical rigidity." The same could be said about AI. "(B)ut this is only one of the two legs upon which its success has been built. The other is the creative liberty taken with conceptual structure, and this grows through analogy and recombination . . . An electromagnetic field is not a field of wheat; Einstein's slowing-down of time is not the one that we experience when bored; there is nobody pushing and pulling where Newton's forces act. But the analogies are manifest. Making an analogy involves taking an aspect of a concept and using it in another context, preserving something of its original meaning while letting something else go, in such a way that the resulting combination produces new and effective meaning. This is how the best science works . . . I think that this is also how the best art works. Science and art are about the continual reorganization of our conceptual space, of what we call meaning. What happens when we react to a work of art is not happening in the art object itself . . . it lies in the complexity of our brain, in the kaleidoscopic network of analogical relationships with which our neurons weave what we call meaning. We are involved, engaged . . ."

If educators really want children to "do their own work" we have to stop assigning them crap that mere machines can do, and probably do better at that. What our minds have evolved for over three billion years is to derive joy from creating "new and effective meaning," be that through art, science, or whatever. This is what play is all about. This is why children never tire of playing in varied and beautiful environments. Play is the urge to make connections, to discover, and to invent. Play is how we give ourselves purpose and life meaning. 

I was recently a speaker at a large education conference in Kazakhstan. The theme was AI. One morning I breakfasted with a fellow presenter who is a professor at a major US university. We began sharing stories about our respective undergraduate experiences and connected over how we had done our research in actual libraries with old-fashioned card catalogs. Today, research for most people is a sterile Google search, but this physical process of hunting for information in library stacks was a full-body experience. Just thinking about it, evokes the smell and sound of this kind of research. Sometimes the book you were looking for had been checked out, so you did the next best thing, which was to scan the shelves looking for something similar, something that you could connect to your pursuit. Often, after reading the specific article you'd sought out in a periodical, you would flip through the rest of the magazine, randomly accessing information that you didn't even know you wanted or needed. More often than not, this process, one completely divorced from the sort of mathematical and logical rigidity of machines, transformed my thinking about the topic I'd chosen to explore, sending me down avenues that at least felt like I was exploring something new under the sun. My heart would beat a little faster in these moments of creative liberty, of analogy, of recombination, as I created new and effective meaning.

The papers that resulted from this process might not have always received the highest grades. Of course, because I had done the research and constructed my own analogies, the work was nevertheless deeply and personally meaningful. A bad mark simply meant that the person doing the grading didn't get what I did. Even Einstein or Newton had their doubters at first.

Obviously, preschoolers aren't writing papers, but they are, as they play in varied and beautiful environments, researching in the real world, involved and engaged with their full bodies that house brains with three billion years of experience. They are engaged in the only course of study worth pursuing: the process of making the world personally meaningful. 

The rest I gladly leave to the machines.


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download podcasts.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Why Hazel Couldn't Sit Down for Circle Time

When we sat down for circle time, three-year-old Hazel didn't sit. Or rather, she would lower herself to her knees until she was moved to speak, whereupon she would leap to her feet and pace as she spoke. At first, some of the adults reacted to her like a distraction, urging her in whispers to "sit on her bottom." She would comply with a quizzical expression, but the moment it was her turn to talk, her body simply could not remain still.

One of the lessons of schooling is that children must learn to sit still. Indeed, this is one of the main things elementary schools want from preschools: children who are capable of sitting, eyes forward, listening. Quite often, this is the explicit reason parents give for holding their child back from kindergarten for an extra year: their child just isn't "ready" for all that stillness. 

Hazel was an important teacher for me. When we allowed her to pace, she was thoughtful and articulate, but on those rare occasions when we succeeded in getting her to remain seated, she simply couldn't participate beyond simple yes-or-no answers to direct questions, and even then her mind seemed like it was elsewhere.

A lot has been said about our brain's prefrontal cortex. This is the seat of our "executive function," which is the part of our brain that keeps our impulses (like popping to our feet) in check. It is also the part of the brain responsible for intellectual functions (like speaking articulately). I wasn't aware of this at the time, but obviously Hazel's prefrontal cortex was not up to simultaneously control her strong bodily impulse to pace while also sharing her ideas, opinions, and stories. Indeed, Hazel's urge to move was likely an important aspect of her intellectual process: she needed to move her body in order to think more clearly.

The school-ish myth that children must be still in order to concentrate is simply not supported by scientific evidence. In her book The Extended Mind, science journalist Annie Murphy Paul, writes, "(W)e believe there's something virtuous about controlling the impulse to move . . . What this attitude overlooks is that the capacity to regulate our attention and our behavior is a limited resource, and some of it is used up by suppressing the very natural urge to move."

Study and after study in recent years have clearly demonstrated that the human brain's capacity for thought is greatly enhanced by movement. "Parents and teachers often believe they have to get kids to stop moving around before they can focus and get down to work," says Paul, "(A) more constructive approach would be to allow kids to move around so that they can focus."

Like with most things that science "discovers," this is a truth that we've long known, and that our schools, in their abiding concern with control-over-learning, have straight-up ignored. By all accounts, the Ancient Greeks like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did most of their teaching while strolling outdoors. Many of those we hold up as Western culture's greatest thinkers -- Einstein, Darwin, Woolf, Nietzsche, James -- were famous walkers. In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit (a great thinker and walker in her own right) enthuses about the enhanced mental capacity of "the mind at three miles per hour." 

Embodied thinking isn't just for young children.

Paul writes about a study published in 2018: "(T)hey asked groups of volunteers to solve a set of math problems in their heads while staying still, while remaining relaxed "but without substantial movement," or while moving slightly in a rhythmic pattern. All the while, the participants' cognitive load -- how hard their brains were working -- was being measured . . . Subjects' cognitive load "considerably increased under the instruction 'not to move'" . . . Of the three conditions, the requirement to remain still produced the poorest performance on the math problems . . . "Sitting quietly," the researchers conclude, "is not necessarily the best condition for learning in school."

Or, I will assert, anywhere. My tendency to fidget in meetings used to embarrass me, but now I understand that when I bounce my leg or tap my fingers or play with my hair or doodle or repeatedly shift my weight, what I'm doing is enhancing my ability to concentrate. If it was socially acceptable, I would pace like Hazel.

At Woodland Park, we agreed to let Hazel pace during circle time. The control-freak caution that this would encourage all the other kids to imitate her proved partly true, but in a fascinating way. The main thing that bugged the other kids about her pacing was that she would often block their views. The kids decided that our circle time rug should have various zones. Up front, near me, was the "lying down zone." Next came the "sitting on bottoms zone," followed by the "knees zone," the "standing zone," and then, in the back, the "jumping up and down zone." It took a few days, but before long we had settled into a wonderfully active and intellectually profitable pattern, one quite suitable for the kind of embodied thinking that humans do best.

But, of course, in the very back there was a zone behind the jumpers for Hazel, who continued to pace, doing her best thinking at three miles per hour.


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download podcasts.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, June 10, 2024

"It's Not Child-Centered, It's Child-Driven"

I was watching the girl arrange her things, or rather, the things she had made hers by gathering them from around the playground. It was clear from her behavior that she had a plan, but since these were loose parts, anything could be anything to an outside observer. Only the girl knew what that length of rope represented or that battered saucepan. I could have asked her, of course, swooping in as the adult in charge, but I didn't want to interrupt. She was clearly thinking something through and when someone is so immersed in an activity that thought and action are merged, it's a sin to interfere unless life and limb are at stake, especially if I call myself an educator.

Moments like this are common enough when we are children, but as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult for our thoughts and actions to merge in this way, even as we pine for it, because we know, in our hearts at least, that it's in these moments that we are most ourselves. This girl was at one with her purpose, pursuing a flow of thought-action, connecting experience, theory, and ideas to make something new: to create meaning from meaninglessness, order from chaos.

The psychologist and philosopher Abraham Maslow defined what this girl was doing as being creative and creativity is how we self-actualize, which is the pinnacle of his famous hierarchy of needs. As I watched the girl, I knew that for this moment, our preschool environment had satisfied all her lower level needs, which is why she was free to come alive in this way.

As an educator, however, I had an interest in what she was thinking. I hoped that when she reached a moment of triumph or epiphany, she would seek me out to tell me what she had made or discovered or felt. I hoped that another child would join her game and I could construct my own understanding through overhearing their conversation. But until then, I was left with observation and reflection.

In my recent conversation with Dr. Denisha Jones on Teacher Tom's Podcast, she said she doesn't even like the word "guide" or "facilitator" to describe the adult role in a play-based environment. Our job, she says, is "to be present, to observe, to step back. It's not child-centered, it's child-driven."

Eleanor Duckworth, teacher, psychologist, and translator of pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, wrote in her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas that the process of thinking and the process of learning are indistinguishable from one another. It's a concept that stands at the heart of much of my work as an educator: I see my role as creating environments, both for children and adults, that prompt thinking. Not agreement, although that might happen. Not memorization, although that might become a part of it. Not enjoyment, although that might emerge. I don't know what anyone will learn, but if I have evidence that they are thinking, like I did with this girl, it makes my heart sing. I know I've done well when a child looks up from their play and says, "I have an idea." I know I've done my job when someone says, "I've been thinking about something you said," or "I've been wondering about that post you wrote." But most of the time, I'm left to patiently wait for hints and clues. Both Dr. Jones and Duckworth feel that our primary role as educators is to be researchers and this is what I was doing.

The girl began to sing a song to herself as she played. It wasn't a song that I had taught her. It wasn't a song I recognized. It sounded like a lullaby, the kind that caretakers croon to a baby as it drifts off to sleep. It seemed to me that it was a song that evoked fond and soothing memories. The other day I came across a quote from the philosopher William James: "The art of remembering is the art of thinking." 

The author Doris Lessing wrote: "That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way."

Thinking, remembering, understanding, creating, learning. It was all happening right here in this moment of thought and action merged into a singular creative purpose. This is the way humans are meant to live. It's when our lives are full of meaning and emptied of doubt. We spend our lives trying to recapture these moments of merged thought and action from our childhood. It would be a sin to scuttle this girl's play just so I could tick boxes on an assessment form. What she was doing was nothing less that living, right now, on point and on purpose, self-driven. It's always my hope that if we can allow children to fill their childhoods with authentic moments like this, one after another, day after day, it will become a well from which they can draw when they feel lost, to drink of that substance they have understood all their lives, understand it in a new way, learn it, and to continue to live with meaning and purpose until the day they die.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, June 07, 2024

What Children Need and Love is Freedom

Recently, I found myself in the neighborhood of one of those plastic fantastic fun palaces. There was a mini-golf course complete with the classic windmills and castles, a go-cart track, and a warehouse full of carnival games that issue tickets that one can trade in for crappy prizes. It struck me as a bit depressing, run down and seedy, but based on the high pitched excitement going on around me, the kids disagreed.

This is a place designed to excite children: colorful, fast-paced, and with the promise of hands-on access to long metal sticks that are are to be swung, hard, colorful balls that are to be sent flying, petal-to-the-metal driving, and straight up gambling with someone else's money, not to mention cotton candy, popcorn, ice cream, hotdogs, and the full gambit of forbidden foods. It's a place where yelling, shrieking, laughing, and singing at the top of your lungs is not just permitted, but encouraged, as are running, jumping, and swinging from railings.

I stood watching the go-cart races for a time, or rather, the faces of the giddy, wide-eyed drivers as they zoomed past.

These were the faces of children who had been told "Yes."

It's not like children particularly like mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food. I mean, those are fun activities and all, but I think those expressions of joy have far more to do with the fact that these things exist in what is explicitly a hands-on "Yes space." I've see that same wide-eyed giddiness on children playing on Woodland Park's junkyard playground. It's the expression children wear when church services are finally released and they get to run around on the lawn. It's there when children attend a bouncy-house birthday party or hike in the woods or play at a beach. 

It's not the mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food that children love: it's the result of adults being distracted enough by their own pleasure to stop peppering them with "No" and "Hands off" and "Be careful" and "Mind your manners."

What children need and love is freedom, and there is far too little of that in our children's lives. It's not difficult to connect mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food to adult futures in which freedom is packaged up and sold as vacations, fast cars, gambling, and weekends of brownies and booze. We all love freedom, and there is far too little of it in any of our lives. We take it where we can find it, even if that so-called freedom is sold to us as a gaudy packaged commodity. What would it take to create day-to-day "yes spaces" for not just for the children in your life, but yourself? 

Wherever we find freedom is where we hear "yes." In a world of "no" we need more "yes." It shouldn't be reserved for mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food. 


Please join me on Teacher Tom's Podcast for my conversation with Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years. In this episode we take this discussion even farther as we talk about making preschool into the kind of "yes space" in which children are liberated to gorge not on junk food, but rather to satisfy their own curiosity. As Denish says, "Play is freedom. Play is liberation." To listen to the full thing and to catch other episodes of Teacher Tom's Podcast, click here. You can also find us on Spotify, Apple, or anywhere you download your podcasts.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, June 06, 2024

"Children Helping Children, Not Competing"

"Teacher Tom, what does this say?"

The four-year-old was showing me a container that had once held some sort of plaything, but was now living on the playground as a bucket. The original instruction label that still clung to the side had caught his eye.

I was in the midst of something else. Instead of telling him to wait until I was free, I replied, "Wyatt knows how to read." We're a preschool. We don't teach reading at this age, but there are always a few children who have taught themselves and Wyatt was one of them.

"Good idea!" and he was off to find Wyatt.

Later, I came across Wyatt, encircled by classmates, as he sounded out words from a riddle book.

I occupied my hands with something as I listened from a short distance away. Occasionally, he would stop to sound out a word. "Why does the . . . furry man . . ." He paused, uncertain as he studied the letters, but the moment of struggle was short as an "illiterate" friend, who had not been watching the words, but rather the illustrations, helped him out, "Fireman." 

" . . . fireman wear red . . . sus . . ."

Several of his friends helped him with this word, "Suspenders."

I later learned that Wyatt had declared the bucket label "too boring," but had offered to read the riddle book instead.

In my recent conversation with Defending the Early Years Director Dr. Denisha Jones on Teacher Tom's Podcast, she asserts that liberation pedagogy in preschool (the subject of a book she is currently working on) means disposing of the competitive core of so much of contemporary schooling. In a standard school, for instance, Wyatt's precociousness with reading would likely land him on a pedestal, an example for the others, while efforts would be made to catch the other children up. And while we know that formal literacy instruction is developmentally inappropriate for most preschoolers, if word got out to the other parents that Wyatt could read, some of them would surly apply pressure to the teachers to get their own kids up to Wyatt's mark. Meanwhile, in the nature of competitive schooling, efforts would likely be made to "challenge" Wyatt with something other than this silly, simple riddle book -- something boring, like that bucket label.

Liberatory pedagogy, says, Denisha, "means children helping one another, not competing." 

As Wyatt read, not far way another group of children were constructing what they were alternatively calling a "bad guy trap" and a "bad guy hideout." They were commandeering loose parts from all over the playground, assembling them with precision and complexity, even if it might have looked to the uninitiated like a pile of junk. A girl was wrapping a long segment of rope around a log, but it wouldn't stay in place. After a few tries, she called out, "I need to tie this. Who can tie?" A classmate offered, "I can," then followed the girl's instructions as to exactly how this tying was to be done.

In a standard school, this child's knot tying ability would likely fly entirely under the radar. To anyone who knows about child development, however, this is a precociousness as rare as Wyatt's reading. And this is why, as Denisha says, that we are better served by viewing ourselves as child development specialists first and teachers second: from the perspective of development, we can more clearly see each child's unique and special strengths, whereas the teacher perspective tends to be about focusing on and fixing each child's perceived deficits. 

And as we know from every discipline from psychology to gardening, what we focus on grows.

When we rate, rank, and reward children based on the narrow range of competitive "events" that make up the academic Olympics, we teach the chosen few that they are champions, while the rest, those whose strengths lie outside the track-and-field disciplines of reading, writing, and arithmetic, are lumped together as perhaps promising, but deficient. We don't award medals for knot tying.

But this is one of the most inspiring beauties of play-centered learning. It honors the strengths, interests, and abilities of every child and, at its best, they are celebrated not by the approval of adults, but rather by the joy of contributing to their strength to the community, which is the greatest joy there is.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Standard Schools Make Our Children Uncurious

We are born curious. It's the urge to connect with the world, to understand it, to be a part of it, that drives us to nurse, to talk, to walk. 

Studies show that a typical four-year-old asks 200-300 questions per day. The average adult asks 25-30. Is this because, as wise adults we have all the answers? Obviously not. There are as many unanswered questions today as there have ever been. Indeed, anyone who has made a study of anything knows that every answer begets a multitude of new questions, a phenomenon made manifestly clear to any adult who has engaged with a young child who asks "Why?" to every answer you supply. It's a question game that always leads us into the unknown, where the only answer possible is "I don't know."

When we're at our best as educators and parents we patiently answer every question to the best of our ability, then, when we get to the unanswerable, we turn the question around, "What do you think?" or perhaps, we reply with a bouquet of answers, "Some people think X. Some people think Y . . ." Of course, many adults are too busy or distracted to fully engage, or perhaps they simply already see where this is going, so instead of answering every "Why?" they shut the whole thing down to save themselves . . . What? The irritation or embarrassment of not knowing?

"I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions," writes astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan, "Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world's birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: 'What did you expect the Moon to be, square?' Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it, an another child has been lost to science."

In my conversation with Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years on Teacher Tom's Podcast, she brings up this quote in relation to the role standard schooling plays in making our children uncurious. "A system that determines what you will learn kills curiosity."

Teachers everywhere complain that kids these days simply aren't motivated, that they are hard to reach, entitled, and only interested in their phones. You rarely hear this from preschool teachers, and never from those of us who work in play-centric environments. We call it play, but it can also be seen as embodied curiosity, and curiosity works on the basis of self-selected questions, questions of relevance to the child doing the asking. Whereas standard schools operate on the basis of answers to questions that the child is not asking, on the ability to repeat those answers, often over and over, on tests, with the ultimate goal of converting those answers into grades. The children soon learn that the judgement of adults is the main point of knowing anything as far as school is concerned. Curiosity has nothing to do with it.

The pity, the tragedy, is that in this process of schooling, we crush, or at least push aside, curiosity which is the capacity humans have evolved to educate ourselves. What arrogance, what ignorance to think we can one-up Mother Nature. As Denisha (and Carl Sagan) point out, it's the questions, not the answers, that are the real drivers of learning, at least if we are to do it at full capacity. When we don't acknowledge this, we don't just lose children to science, but to wonder. It's wonder that makes us lifelong learners, not answers, which are always just stepping stones along the way to more questions, more wonder.

It's curiosity that makes us truly self-motivated, although I'll concede that in any standard school classroom there always are a few kids who learn to be "self-motivated" by the imperative to please their teachers and parents, which is, at the end of the day the unspoken goal of standard schools: to curry favor with the powerful, a fundamentally anti-democratic idea, but one that will at least serve them in their pursuit of a life within a corporate or bureaucratic hierarchy.

And there are many who find that well and good, who view schooling as, essentially, vocational training. But as Dr. Jones sees it, if we are going to ever have a society that serves all of us, that lives up to its democratic ideals, we need eduction that liberates all of us to become our best, most alive selves. And to do that we must rely not on pat answers, but rather on curiosity, our ability to pursue answers to our own questions.

In her book Wanderlust, essayist Rebecca Solnit writes, "Children begin to walk to chase desires no one will fulfill for them: the desire for that which is out of reach, for freedom, for independence from the secure confines of the maternal Eden. And so walking begins as delayed falling, and the fall meets with the Fall." This is, it seems, what frightens so many of us about curiosity and why we must systematically, over decades, teach our children to stop asking so many questions. Sagan writes, "I can't for the life of me understand. What is wrong with admitting that we don't know something?" and that is certainly a part of it. But I think deeper still is this idea of curiosity, when left to flourish, leading inevitably to liberation and for those interested in maintaining the status quo, that's a frightening thing.

We are born not giving a damn about the status quo. We have questions, we have desires, and our birthright of curiosity compels us to wonder. So we ask "Why?" and "Why?" and "Why?" again. And each answer, inevitably, upsets the status quo; each answer sets us free.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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