Lately, my oldest, who just turned six, has taken to playing with wooden blocks again. For the last few months, she has begun her day by taking out the blocks and playing for awhile before breakfast.
When she was younger she would make simple towers or line the blocks up. Now that she is older, her play is different, and I've found it fascinating to see how her play has naturally evolved. I've read some information on various educational websites on the benefits of block play. These simple toys promote creativity and imagination, spatial skills, math skills, and divergent problem solving (the ability to find creative solutions to complex problems). One thing I noticed, however, was that many sites give advice to educators on ways they can "teach" kids how to play with the blocks in order to gain these great skills. Although it can feel great to be the person who has actively taught children all these things, I think adults should fight this temptation and be careful about how much they attempt to control the learning process.
When I was first considering unschooling my own children, I read John Holt's book How Children Learn. A series of experiences that Holt recounts in the book has always stood out in my mind and I think of it frequently when I am tempted to take control of my children's education and treat it as something done to them rather than as something done by them. Holt writes about how on one occasion he and a colleague set up some equipment and experiments designed to teach fifth-graders about levers. In regards to the outcome of his work, he writes:
Hardly anyone else in the class could consistently work out even simple problems; most of them never got beyond the guessing stage. And this in spite of the fact that we--or so we thought--had done everything possible to set up a situation that would make discovery more easy. We worked with the children in small groups; we gave each child an easy problem; we encouraged the other children in the group to say whether they thought this solution to the problem was correct, and if not, why not. We thought we had set up in our class a laboratory in miniature, and that the children would accordingly act like scientists. But we hadn't, and they didn't, for just this reason, that it was our problem they were working on, not theirs.
Holt then recounts a different outcome years later with different fifth-grade students:
Before I had a chance to do any talking or explaining or instructing about these beams, some children came in early one morning and saw them. "What's that stuff?" they said. I said, "Oh, some junk I got from Bill Hull." They said, "What's it for?" I said, "Nothing special; mess around with it if you want to." Three or four of them went down to the end table and began to fool around. As other children arrived they went down to watch. By half an hour later, almost all the kids who had been working with the beams knew how to work them--including some who were not good students. I gave one of them one of the problems that had in earlier years given very able students so much trouble. She solved it easily and showed that she knew what she was doing.
To further illustrate the importance of allowing children's exploration to be their own, Holt tells about the later research of his colleague. He found that if children were expected to "get to work" right away to solve problems, the researchers got nowhere. If, however, children were allowed time to play freely with educational tools, they got much different results. Holt writes:
At first, the children would work the pieces of wood into a fantasy. Some pieces would be mommies and daddies, some children; or they would be houses and cars; or big animals and little animals. Then the children would make various kinds of patterns, buildings, and constructions out the pieces of wood. When, through such play and fantasy, the children had taken these materials into their minds, mentally swallowed and digested them, so to speak, they were then ready and willing to play very complicated games, that in the more organized and businesslike situation had left other children completely baffled. This proved to be so consistently true that the experimenters made it a rule always to let children have a period of completely free play with the materials, before asking them to do directed work with them.
Quoting someone else, I once said in the presence of my daughter that children's play is their work. My daughter latched onto that statement and is now fond of reminding adults that her play is serious and that it is her work. Below are some pictures of my daughter's block creations, made without any guidance or prompting from me. I simply made the blocks available to her, and she has done the rest.
|She made creative, artistic towers.|
|She made a structure with repeating, geometric patterns.|
|A jaguar. The blue blocks are spots, and the brown are the eyes.|
|An artistic tower.|
|A flower with a stem.|
|A flower without a stem.|
|A flat geometric pattern.|
|A rainbow with clouds on each end.|