Parents owe it to the children they bring into the world to put the tools of living in their hands -hands which we have made strong and capable as we can. But having given them the hands and the tools, we owe it to them not to do their digging for them.
-Lenora Mattingly Weber
You are raising an explorer, a citizen, a gymnast, a poet and an engineer.
Let’s tear down the walls so they can rebuild them.
The other day I watched 10 year olds build a whole world themselves. A group of grade 4 students were playing with a pile of blocks in the tall grass outside of our science centre. In the span of twenty minutes they defined goals and roles for themselves, dealt with adversity (the collapse of a wall), invited new friends and turned away others. They made plans and changed them. They tested and iterated, experimented and dreamed. They used their bodies and their brains. Without any direction from an adult they were driven to explore the possibilities the world presented, and to learn from that experience. They were navigating a microcosm of the world I know as an adult – with challenges, good and bad. They didn’t need direction, they needed space, and challenge, and room to learn from the experiences they were having.
It might look like they were “just playing”, but those kids were developing and ability to see what needed to be done, and to do it successfully without being told how. This is because play literally shapes your brain. Early experiences and environments affect the architecture of the maturing brain. The connections formed in early childhood become the foundation for all of the development and behaviours that follow. You can change your brain later in life, and it’s easier if the foundations are strong.
Play teaches you how to make decisions. This mechanism – called executive function – makes it easier to learn new information and use skills in new and complex situations. Playing in environments with open-ended physical and mental challenges helps to develop these skills, so that each successive phase of learning and development builds on a solid base. Play prepares you for future challenges. Stress is one of the most powerful forces in a child’s development. Your role as a caring adult is to help the children around you effectively navigate the stresses they encounter. This is the most important thing you can do for healthy brain development. This is why play is so important
So what is the purpose of an education? The root of that word, educere, means to lead out or to draw out. The purpose of an education isn’t to fill a mind with facts, it is to teach that person how to learn. Thankfully the stereotype that still comes to mind when many people think of a classroom – rows of desks with a teacher at the front of the room – isn’t the only current model. Our schools and curriculum have evolved and improved. For many students, inquiry based models of education are more common: Learners are supported by caring adults to ask questions about the world around them and explore to find the answers. But we have not gone far enough. We still debate old math and new math, and meanwhile the future that they will have to survive is racing towards us.
It is common to say that we want to provide students with critical thinking skills and the power to take action. If we were really doing that the education system as it exists now would have been dismantled and remade by students already. We still have not embraced the changes that would need to happen to allow the next generation of leaders, explorers and citizens to have the experiences they need, and the room to reflect on those experiences to learn from them.
We still build schools with classrooms and walls – the colours might be brighter and the tables might be new shapes. We still build science centres with topics and galleries, and bring students here on field trips. How are we going to provide the tools so that they can remake us? What would a school look like without walls? It might look more like a science centre. And what would a science centre look like if it offered challenge and reflection before content? It might look like a park. And what would a park look like if you stripped away the programing and direction? It would be wild – and maybe closer to what our children need.
Humans of all ages are wired to play. They cannot help but be curious about what is beyond the horizon. That kind of breadth and interest is critical to addressing systemic and global problems. Our challenge as caring adults is to fight the temptation to put the next generation in a box so that we can understand them. Experience is necessary, but all experience alone isn’t helpful without the chance to think about it. Neither thinking nor experience by themselves can develop wisdom. Together they can. Wisdom can be nurtures. As individuals we are shaped and equipped by our social arrangements and opportunities. As parents, teachers and others concerned with human growth and happiness, it is up to us to create conditions that encourage those future explorers,citizens,gymnasts, a poets and and engineer to flourish.
The object of teaching a child is to enable them to get along without their teacher.