Children’s education is a big topic. We scrutinise everything they do and look for its educational value. We wonder what they’re learning. If they choose an activity in which we see no learning potential, we disapprove, and show our disapproval in a variety of ways. We may say they are wasting their time. We may try to steer them towards a more “worthy” activity, one that we feel has more learning value. We may also ask them: “So what did you learn from that?”.
And that’s a rhetorical question of course. We simply won’t be satisfied with any answer they give us, because we’re not really expecting an answer, we just want them to agree with us and feel bad about how they’ve just spent their time.
Reality, of course, is quite different. Of course they’ve learned worthwhile things. However, instead of discussing the list of things worth learning, I want to talk about the hypocrisy of asking such a question. Then I’ll discuss the nature of learning, and the difference between content and context.
How would you feel if your children asked you, in a sarcastic tone, what you’ve learned from a TV program you just watched? What if they frowned at the video game you just played, and told you that you’re wasting your time and should be focusing on studying useful things instead?
Why do we confine the task of learning “worthwhile things” to childhood? Is it just an unpleasant rite of passage into the care-free stage of adulthood? Do they have to go through it to deserve activities we think of as fun but learning-deficient? What messages are we giving our children?
Here is a possible message they are receiving from us: “Grown-ups have all the fun, kids just have to study and do boring things…”. Ridiculous, isn’t it? How ungrateful!
Right. I think I made my point.
The nature of learning
Now, what is learning? When we question the educational value of a game, or a toy, or an activity, how do we define learning?
- We can learn a fact
- We can learn a principle
- We can learn a skill
- We can learn a habit
Imagine that your child is playing chess. A high-brow, highly intellectual game, we tend to approve of that way of spending time. Would we ask our daughter what useful things she has learned from her hours of playing chess? What answers would we expect and accept?
Possible answers might be:
- I learned how to do “en passant”
- I learned that the pawn structure is critical to winning the end game
- I’m learning how to use my knights more effectively
- I’m learning how to keep my cool and stay focused after making a mistake
Now, let’s change the activity. Let’s say that the child is playing Angry birds. What’s the educational value in that? What facts, principles, skills and habits would someone learn by playing that game? Do you really need to know?
You don’t need to know
Can you see how silly it is to analyse everything our children do, looking for specific things that are being learned? The fact is, most of the time, we have no idea what they’re learning. Do YOU know what you’ve learned after watching an episode of Seinfeld? Do you ever ask yourself, and make the effort to put it into words? No, because there is no one there, breathing down your neck, checking every little thing you do, trying to control every way you try to have a good time.
Our society’s all-consuming obsession with measuring and keeping control over our children’s learning is counter-productive, intrusive and disrespectful.
For children, Life = Play = Learning, they’re not separate concepts, they’re one and the same. Adult life sometimes requires some separation between them, but I feel we are hurting our children by forcing it upon them so early.
We don’t have to spell out exactly what they’re learning, or control it, or measure it.
Further, far more important than the content of the children’s activities is the context in which they’re playing/learning/living.
Context vs Content
The context in which children engage in their activities makes all the difference in what they are learning. I’m mostly referring to the social context here. Consider the following two scenarios:
- Rachel yells at her 6-year-old son Simon to go and play with something by himself, and keep out of her hair for an hour so she can relax and watch her daily sit-com. She calls him a good-for-nothing and says she needs a break from him, he’s always in her face. He cries and goes to sulk in his bedroom, then plays with his toy cars.
- Rachel notices her son’s demands for attention, and asks him what he would like to do. He says he wants to play with his toy cars with her. They play for 20 minutes, then Rachel asks Simon if he wants to come and watch her program with her. He says “No thanks mum, I’ll just keep playing this by myself for a while”.
Let’s not discuss the likelihood of each scenario, that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that, in both scenarios, Simon engages in the same activity. Is he learning the same things?
A nurturing, safe, respectful and autonomy-supportive environment is what makes all the difference in the facts, principles, skills and habits being learned by children and adults of all ages. Children cannot create that environment for themselves, it is our responsibility as their parents to create it for them.
Instead of obsessing about the content of our children’s activities (although it does have its importance), let’s focus on the context in which they engage in these activities. Make sure they can safely make the mistakes that are worth making.
Live, play and learn with them.