The boy with the boulder

Many years ago, when my eldest daughter was in public school kindergarten and I was helping out in the classroom, I witnessed the following exchange between the teacher and a boy who had brought in a special object for show-and-tell.

Boy (holding up his smooth round rock proudly): “This is my boulder.”

Teacher: “You mean, it’s your rock.”

Boy: “No, it’s my boulder.”

Teacher: “A boulder is much bigger. That’s a rock.”

As I observed the crushed look on the boy’s face, I inwardly cringed. Clearly, the kid knew the difference between a rock and a boulder. Clearly, something else was going on, something the teacher, perhaps due to her mandate to “educate,” completely missed.

I was reminded of this incident this morning upon reading a 2013 article in New Scientist, about the wisdom of beginning schooling before age seven. In a discussion of the importance of play in learning, the author states, “…much of children’s play involves pretending that one thing represents another, for example that a cardboard box is a space ship. This ability is thought to be unique to humans and underpins language, drawing and other ways in which we convey meaning.”

That poor kid in my daughter’s kindergarten class was just pretending; profoundly pretending; pretending in order to understand the world, imbue it with meaning, and to develop into an engaged, creative person with intellectual flexibility and a love of learning. Too bad the teacher squashed it.

Although I’d moved to a city with one of the top school districts in my state, the incident with the boy and his boulder was one of many that made me question what kind of education I wanted for my own children, a process that led me to homeschooling.

It’s not surprising that The New Scientist article, which showed up in my Facebook feed, resurfaced now. The push toward universal preschool is strong, despite the reams of research that play is of vital importance to developing minds. While some cite research that points to the benefits of preschool, there is disagreement among scholars about how to interpret it, as discussed in this 2014 Atlantic article.

A new paper from the Brookings Institute examining models of public spending on early childhood points to another issue inextricably connected to the well-being of children and families. It states “…family support in the form of putting more money in the pockets of low-income parents produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades.”

That makes sense to me. Social factors such as income inequality, lack of support for new parents, the gender pay gap, and others stand to have a much larger impact on quality of life for everyone, including children. Should we make sure all children who need it have access to excellent child care and schooling? Of course, but pushing universal preschool and ignoring the bigger picture, which might include paid leave for new parents, economic security, and health care for all, is short-sighted.

Also of utmost importance is paying attention to the research on play and how children learn, and respecting their vital, creative young minds, something that becomes very difficult for teachers in an environment that measures achievement through standardized test scores.

Which brings me full circle to my original story. As the adult in the room who didn’t have to check off boxes for educational attainment, I was free to appreciate the boy with the boulder’s creative license and obvious love for his special object without having to worry about “teaching” him anything. Once I chose homeschooling, I took responsibility for my children’s education, but I could still prioritize trusting, respecting, and nurturing their innate ability and desire to learn.

That’s what I’d like for all children, regardless of how they’re educated. That boy from my daughter’s kindergarten class would be an adult now, thirty something years old. Wherever he may be, I hope he still has his boulder.





4 thoughts on “The boy with the boulder

  1. I just love your blog – every post is so encouraging to me – I am at the start of my homeschooling journey (I’m in my third year of “officially” homeschooling my 9, 6, 4, and 1 year old children)… Thank you for writing your blog – it’s always just what I need to read at the right time! More and more, I just want my children to play…I’m glad that boxes can become cities and kitchens, and rocks can be boulders in my house… 🙂

    (my blog:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s a world of difference between theory and praxis in preschool, and an awful lot of bad ideas about what little kids must do. The anxiety about tests has caused Kindergarteners to do First Grade work, and now the Kindergarten work is in Pre-K and so on. When it doesn’t work, they just say “start them even younger!” And thus the push for universal preschool. In theory, it will result in kids who are universally more ready for Kindergarten. In practice…

    “Meanwhile, many of the country’s existing private preschools are little more than glorified daycare centers. Their staffs often consist of unskilled, low-paid employees who work under the guise of classroom teachers. They don’t use prepared lesson plans; they don’t focus on developing the cognitive, physical, and social skills expected of today’s kindergartners; they don’t have the kinds of facilities a quality classroom needs.”

    Preschool education can be wonderful when it’s play-based. I have some experience with that — with just the sort of place where every teacher, to a man, would say “Wow, that boulder is awesome! It’s so huge!”

    It is hard to keep the faith, though, in the midst of so much anxiety from parents about whether going outside and playing in the woods is really the best preparation for the intensely competitive schools kids may encounter in later years. Running, or supporting, a play-based preschool takes the same kind of faith that homeschooling takes.

    I think that the bridge from inappropriate desk-based activity to a play-based preschool could be crossed by an institution supported by parents with sufficient education to understand the meaning of play, but I doubt very much it could be managed by a publicly-supported preschool meeting the lowest common denominator or common core curriculum. With the cynical view I have of such institutions, I agree that public money would be better spent in maintaining safe public spaces for unschooled children to play and even in supporting parents so they can avoid placing their kids in daycare holding tanks.

    There’s just no way that misery could possibly improve learning.

    Liked by 1 person

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