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Learning through play

Kid #1

When our son was ready to enter kindergarten, we had to do some soul-searching to choose between the various local options for education. We narrowed our choices down to three:

  1. The public elementary school, which started very early in the morning (I had a baby at the time) and which was in the midst of No Child Left Behind efforts to pump up test scores.
  2. A local Montessori, which many parents love but somehow rubbed me the wrong way with its no-parents-allowed rules and quiet, orderly classrooms.
  3. What I referred to as our local “granola” or “hippie” school, where the kids played hard and got very, very dirty.

My husband and I figured that the dirtiness of the kids at the end of the day was probably a good indicator for kindergarten, so we signed him up. At his school, he got to work with clay every week. He got to ride a zipline from a two-story play structure. He was so thrilled at being allowed to climb a tall redwood on the property that the school actually had to make a rule (something they seldom did) because he was giving the adults heart palpitations when they looked up and saw a small boy so high in the air.

En garde!

My daughter and friends “working hard” at being homeschoolers.

Though the next year we enrolled him in a public charter because the private school tuition was too much for us, I felt like I’d given him a gift that we couldn’t put a price on. While the public schools were hell-bent on pushing academics earlier and earlier, cutting out art, music, and PE in their zeal to “improve testing outcomes,” we made a commitment to following the research, which is very, very clear:

  • Kindergarteners do not need academics to become good students later.
  • Success in life, or even just school, does not depend on 6-year-olds being able to sit still at desks and color in worksheets.
  • Putting unnecessarily high expectations on children does not make them develop faster.
  • When the choice for an activity for 6-year-olds is between nature and worksheets, nature should always win.

Kid #2

Once our daughter was kindergarten age, we had a whole new host of concerns. She was clearly not going to be able to hack it in a public school classroom, so we ended up homeschooling. And once I started homeschooling, I found out that I wasn’t the only person in the county (as it seemed up until then) who had read the research and knew that academics weren’t important for kindergarteners. Homeschoolers were out there playing in the dirt all the time, and they were showing good results. Kids who had played in the dirt and did no academics at all until they were in their double digits were doing just fine—some of them were getting into our top universities.

Why don’t we play?

So why do we persist in trying to shove academics earlier and earlier when the research is so clear? I think part of it is our Puritan leanings—as a culture, we are uncomfortable with our children “playing” rather than “working.” (I once ran into a neighbor packing her 3-year-old into the car in the wee hours of the morning. The mom cheerfully announced, “I’m going to work at my office, and she is going to her work at preschool.” Really?)

Another reason is that our educational establishment has become obsessed with testable outcomes, and you don’t necessarily get testable outcomes by sending kids out to play in the dirt. When you do worksheets, you can show that little Johnny’s ability to color the apple red and the banana yellow improved through the year. No matter that no typical kid needs to be taught these things. Do we really believe that Johnny would be coloring his apples purple as an adult because he wasn’t taught this in kindergarten? (In fact, the avant garde in me says, what the heck is wrong with purple apples anyway?)

Finally, modern families have found themselves living lives that hardly resemble the lives of families 30 years ago. For a variety of reasons—social, political, economical—parents spend less and less time with their kids. They still love their kids as much as ever, and want to know that their kids are doing well. But when they pick up their kid from kindergarten and all he brings home is dirt in his shoes, that doesn’t feel as satisfying as when they get that stack of worksheets that show that Johnny is indeed “learning” and “working” at school. As families detach themselves from the daily lives of kids, it’s easier for them to believe that “working” is “learning,” though the two have only a glancing relationship at best. So parents themselves often feed into a school’s “work” culture and demand to see more evidence of their children’s achievements.

Parents of children who have been deemed “gifted” may fall victim to these pressures doubly—we often feel compelled to use our kids’ output as some sort of proof that they deserve the label. Although some gifted kids do love doing academic work at an early age, most approach their “work” just as other kids do: through play. Parents of many highly advanced math students say that they had no reason for repetitive worksheets—their kids played math because they loved it.

The proof is in the dirty fingernails

There’s always the issue of how we “prove” that all play and no work is good for young children. There’s lots of better evidence out there (see links below), but I can add that my children, a sample size of two, are doing just fine. My son never had a single day of reading instruction at school, and now he can read anything he wants to, including college level textbooks that he’s using as a high schooler. My daughter played her way through kindergarten, first, second, and third grade, with a tiny bit of “academics” thrown in starting in fourth grade. She’s now in public school sixth grade, doing well and with test scores to “prove” it.

But for a larger sample, just look around at any group of adults over 40. Did any of us have academic instruction in kindergarten? Probably a few. Most of us went to play-based kindergartens where academics was limited to singing the alphabet song. But here we are, inventing amazing handheld devices, making groundbreaking films, running thriving small businesses, working as dental hygienists and truck drivers and police officers…and, most importantly, raising our children.

In our overscheduled world, making time for free play can sometimes seem more difficult than making it to tae kwon do class three times a week. But although all the opportunities we modern parents offer our children are great, we can’t lose sight of the undeniable fact that having nothing to do is good for kids.

As my mother used to say when a child complained of boredom, “Go outside and get out of my hair!”

A few resources to learn more about learning through play:


This month, Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page shares our Blog Hop on Gifted @Play.  Bloggers from all corners of the gifted community–parents, teachers and counselors, from the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand–join us to share their perspectives on play: outdoors, indoors, creative, active, child, teen and adult.

Don’t miss last month’s inaugural Blog Hop, The “G” Word.  If you’d like to join our next Blog Hop, contact us  Special thanks to Pamela Ryan for our Blog Hop graphics!

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling, Parenting.

2 Responses

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  1. Lauralee says

    I love the “proof is in the dirty fingernails” comment. When I see my kids’ dirty nails, I am happy that they have created a garden, dug for pirate treasure, or sorted rocks.

    Outside play is required before the kids get tv access, too.

    • Suki says

      Exactly – we were just away for the weekend in the Sierras where the kids had no access to devices and it was lovely!

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