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.