Before children start formal schooling, even pre-school, they are learning all the time. Think of how toddlers learn. You don't have to go to Toys R Us to find the right toy on the toddler aisle because the everything that surrounds them feels like something to learn from -- the way a bottle of vitamins sounds when you shake it, the feeling of a wet sponge, the magic of doors on cabinets that open and close and how crayons make colors on paper.
But at some point parents begin directing learning. Are we teaching or interfering with a natural process of curiosity and wonderment that takes place for its own sake on its own?
Of course children need to learn reading, mathematics and writing as they grow to enjoy literature, history and science. But shouldn't this complex learning be more exciting than ever? Why is it that somehow formalized schooling starts to squash the spirit of learning for some and, in fact, many children. Kids become anxious as summer closes and they anticipate school instead of looking forward to new adventures in discovery.
They still have play time when they can imagine how a tree's wide limbs make a hide-out where they invent stories and role play imaginative characters. They still collect insects as they climb over rocks and run through the woods tripping and rising swiftly without a worry. They learn to swim with gusto and fly down the beach with their arms outstretched as they run and feel the wind behind them. All of this is learning with great spontaneity.
Does it have to be either -- or? Structure or spontaneity? Why do we replace running through the woods with the track team and competitiveness that might lead to feelings of rejection and giving up the fun of the sport? Why does biking to go just anywhere get replaced by rigid schedules in cars? Why do blue skies and sunshine get replaced by overhead lighting and crowded rows of seats in classrooms where you sit for hours at a time?
Yes. There are schools with classes of only eight students and open-ended discussions that challenge fertile minds. But these are few and far between. Competition can create a drive for learning and an ability to tolerate frustration and disappointment, but is it looked at that way or is it transformed into a sense of being inferior or superior with winners and losers? How did it get to be that kids, even in kindergarten, "get in trouble" for an outburst and are sent to the principal? Why instead aren't teachers engaging that struggling child and forming a relationship? If you can't have an outburst when you're five, can you ever find a place where your feelings can get muddled and out of control and an adult tries to be understanding and show you how to put your feelings into words?
Shouldn't going to the principal be an honor?
As parents, it's our job to keep in the forefront for our children that learning is a right and a pleasure for its own sake. It's our job to foster creative storytelling, individualized glorious pictures, a love of puzzles of all kinds. We need to praise adventure, working on your own and learning in groups, becoming inventors, writers, and angels of kindness.
Let's not diminish these gifts by too much structure, unnecessary testing, an emphasis on grades, and needing to be the very best of everyone in something that others approve of but doesn't really build on the interests of the child.
Learning for its own sake is a goal for parents and educators who work together out of love and care for our children.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst, educator, and author with a new book coming out, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior, to be released Oct. 13, 2015. Pre-order discounts are now available at amazon.
Follow Laurie on twitter @laurieph.