Child's Play

Posted: September 20, 2013

Rural Pen

Childhood is idyllic, right?

Long days of playing, reading, playing games and watching (a little) TV. The best thing my parents ever did for us kids was to leave us be.

If no one had taught me to read, write, add and subtract, I would have learned to on my own. Children do learn, you know, without help. Look at the speech they learn, the vocabularies they amass, just by listening and imitating. No manipulation required.

As a young mom, I read John Holt’s books about letting children learn on their own. Back then, in the 1980s, there were two schools of thought among homeschoolers. Some wanted their homes to be super schools where their children achieved more and tested better than the best public or private schools. Others were “unschoolers,” letting their children’s natural tendencies educate them.

I tried a combination of both. I kept formal instruction — reading, writing and arithmetic — to a minimum, just a few hours in the morning. The rest of the day was up to the kids. On a typical afternoon, one kid was reading historical fiction, another was building cities with Legos and another was writing short stories. Or we took a hike in the woods, visited friends or went to the library. I did use a few textbooks, but relied heavily on “real books.”

We did “study” some subjects together. For instance, when we studied the American Revolution, we set up an obstacle course in the backyard to emulate the one General Burgoyne’s troops erected in upstate New York to delay Washington.

What do children play? They play “house,” where each is assigned a family role. Or they play with toy cars which they drive to the grocery store or on a vacation. They play catch, kick soccer balls, swat badminton birdies, climb trees, ride bicycles, watch ants, catch butterflies.

Many moms today want their kids’ days to be scheduled from morning until bedtime. Their toys must be educational, their storybooks engineered with an instructive message, their games manipulative to develop certain skills. As if they could not manage on their own.

As a result of their adult-structured lives, children are losing their creativity. In an analysis of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which sampled American schoolchildren in kindergarten through 12th grade over several decades, Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary, reported that the scores began to decline around 1984.

Among my siblings and neighborhood playmates, I was a leader, taking our ideas and organizing their implementation. I was loud and bossy. But in kindergarten, with 20 same-aged children and a teacher in charge, I was shy and afraid. That’s how I was through my school years. I never developed any leadership skills at school.

More and more parents today opt their children out of formal schooling. Some of the most brilliant people of our day were homeschooled, such as Margaret Atwood, Francis Collins and Condoleezza Rice.

Because my days are busy with the responsibilities of adulthood, I’m grateful that I still know how to play. To return — for a few minutes or hours or days — to the idyllic days of childhood.

Luanne Austin lives in Mount Sidney. Contact her at, on Facebook or care of the DN-R.       

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