Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Learning Through Play

My son Jason, now 25, has been unschooled from the beginning - we were lucky to discover John Holt's books when he was two.

Jason always loved playing with numbers. Although he was somewhat "late" in walking and reading, he had a huge vocabulary by 18 months, understood the concept of infinity at 2, and taught himself squares and square roots at 3. In spite of all this, I still worried about not using a curriculum - especially for math.

When he was 7, he asked for a math book as his special holiday gift that year (we had read John Holt's glowing review of Harold Jacobs' book Mathematics: A Human Endeavor, in Growing Without Schooling). I thought "I must be doing something right if a 7-year-old wants a math book for Christmas!"

The book proved to be as wonderful as John Holt had said, and we enjoyed it a lot. But a couple of months later, I noticed that Jason hadn't looked at it for a while. I decided to offer to go over a chapter per week with him. Fortunately, I was busy that day and didn't get around to asking him. That evening, here comes Jason, book in hand, saying "Let's play math." I felt chills, thinking, "Whew, that was a close one." Had I made my offer, he probably would have accepted it, and even learned from it, but where would the concept of math as play have gone?

When Jason was 8, my neighbor, who also had an 8-year-old son, asked me if Jason knew the times table, and when I said he did, she asked me how he had learned it. Her son had struggled for months, and still had trouble remembering the answers. He was frustrated and worried about his grades, but none of her ideas had helped. I explained that Jason's dad had brought home a dart board, just for fun, a few months back. Scoring a darts game involves both addition and multiplication, and because Jason wanted to be the scorekeeper, he learned all the number combinations. By the end of that afternoon he knew the times tables - though the dartboard had not been purchased with that in mind, nor had we ever used that term.

Now at 25, he can do just about anything mathematical in his head, unlike me. I can do most math problems, having memorized formulas, but always on paper, and I rarely understand the concepts involved. Jason can not only do the math easily but really understands the whole process. If he happens to need a new mathematical tool, he can easily learn it. He needed to know about sines and cosines when he converted paintings from my illustrator into graphics for my children's book A Gift for Baby. He learned it quickly and easily from the Internet. I could only look back and remember how much time I spent memorizing calculus formulas, and though I passed all the tests, I had no idea what was going on, nor did I have any no real-world application.

Jason has learned everything through play, and has the same love of learning he was born with. He learned abut money by playing Monopoly, about spelling by playing Scrabble, about strategies by playing chess, Clue, and video games, about our culture by watching classic and modern TV shows and films, about grammar by playing Mad Libs, about fractions by cooking, about words by playing Dictionary, and writing skills by reading P. G. Wodehouse. He learned about life through living it. But all of his learning has taken place more incidentally than intentionally, as part of the larger business of living life freely and naturally.

During a recent newspaper interview for an article on unschooling, the reporter asked me which techniques unschoolers use that could be used by parents of children in school. I explained that unschooling isn't a technique; it's living and learning naturally, lovingly, and respectfully together. As my friend and unschooling parent Mary Van Doren once wrote:

"Raising children with an emphasis on intrinsic rewards is not a technique, a method or a trick to get them to do what the parent wants them to by subtler means, but a way of life, a way of living with children with real respect for their intelligence and for their being."

I feel indebted to John Holt for encouraging me to trust Jason to know what he needed and wanted to learn and how to go about learning it. But my best teacher has always been my son. For parents who went to school, unschooling can be a challenge, but it is also our best opportunity to learn to trust our children's natural love of learning.

"The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives."

Albert Einstein

By Jan Hunt

Source: Natural Child Project

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