Her happiest times were when the Vicar was in London and Miss Brown was in bed with a headache. Then she would be mad with pleasure, a sort of wild but earnest puppy with the slipper of her imagination tearing the heart out of it. Mistress Masham's Repose, T. H. White
What more is there to say about play?
Many observers have noticed how between a child's birth and the time that she goes off to school she will master a great many complex things; how to use a new language to communicate with her parents and other adults in sophisticated ways; master the norms, habits, customs of the culture of her new world; begin to discover how things work.
The remarkable thing about all of this learning is that it takes place without formal instruction, and in fact, research suggests that formal instruction may actually stifle what might have been learned.
What are the lessons that can be drawn from the young child's amazing performance?
In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik argues that parents and schools have often drawn from this observation the mistaken idea that because children learn a great deal on their own, that we can speed up and perfect our children's learning; that is, to "help our child win at a succession of tasks in life, from Lego Towers to SATs,: parents should make the child's learning their work. (Wilson, 2012)
The child is Pnnochio (the little piece of pine) while the parent is Geppetto, the carpenter. For Gopnik, however, the Pinocchio model is wrong because children are not passive blocks of wood. Rather, they are incipient people, developing organisms learning to adapt to and also to shape their environment.
A better metaphor for the relationship between the parent and the child is that between a gardener and the plants in the garden. The gardener's greatest influence in growing roses is not on whether the rose bush will produce roses but on making the plant's environment one that supports the fullest possible growth.
Since Gopnik is a scientist her choice of gardener rather than carpenter is based on research, her own as well as a substantial body that goes back over many decades.
In one set of experiments built around interaction with interesting toys, children are introduced to the toy by adults who each exhibit one of two personas: the "curious" and the "knowledgeable."
An adult who exhibits the "curious" persona presents the toy as though it was her first experience with it. The discoveries she makes are happy accidents, with the curious persona reacting to the sudden sound of music with delight. "How did that happen?" she wonders.
The adult with the "knowledgeable" persona in contrast knows just what to do and instructs the children in how the toy can be made to do interesting things. "If you want to hear music, it's easy, just press here!" the knowing adult says with authority.
What difference does it make to the children, whether the toy is presented by the curious or the knowing adult?
It turns out that it makes a very big difference.
The children who have been introduced to the toy by the curious persona, when given the toy explore it actively, for example, by finding other things the toy can do besides play a tune. They follow the curious adult behavior; they are also ready to be surprised.
In contrast the children who were showed "how to play with it" played with it just as they were shown, repeating the steps they were shown again and again with the consequence that many of the children never discovered other tricks the toy could perform.
In this experiment and others like it, children appropriate as their own the cognitive "style" of the adult: curious ("What will we find?") versus knowledgeable ("Here's how to make it play music.")
Very young children are attuned to learning by observing the adults around them; learn specific adult skills, including cognitive styles, they have observed through play. They will build on these when they are older and learn content knowledge, adult habits, and technologies from adults who are confident and knowledgeable (apprenticeship).
The long neediness of human babies means that over much of human history they were cared for by different members of their communities (the "it takes a village" model of education). Given this model of childhood learning, it would make sense that in the allocation of resources for early education, there should be more thought given to support the "village"; that is, those who are care providers, including both parents and care givers in nursery and day care facilities. Instead of trying to teach little children how to do math, the resources would perhaps be better spent helping the adults learn how to provide early learning experiences; that is, helping them to be better gardeners.
As the child gets ready for formal schooling, it would also make sense that formal schooling gets ready for them by building on early learning with the adults doing more in the way of opening doors instead of only giving guided tours that while they successfully cover all the facts squeeze out the elements of play.
The relationship with teachers and disciplinary knowledge should contain large parts of apprenticeship with adults showing how they to do what is taught and how the students can do it too.
Gopnik, Alison (2012). Let the Children Play, It’s Good for Them! Smithsonian Magazine, July 2012.
Wilson, Bee (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik review — modern parenting is all wrong. The Guardian (Great Britain).
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.