Posts Tagged ‘Play’

Why PE?, And How to Make a Hero

Dear Reader,

I will be hosting the next Charlotte Mason blog carnival. Isn’t that exciting? It will be on the 10th chapter of Charlotte’s third book which is entitled “Some Unconsidered Aspects fo Physical Training.” You can read the text of it at Ambleside Online here. I am pleased that this topic fell when it did. It seems very timely. On one hand, it is the new year and one’s thoughts often turn to getting in shape or perhaps getting one’s kids in shape so exercise may not be far from some minds. On the other, the winter olympics are just around the corner so we also have another good reason to think about sports and what role they play in our society and in our children’s education.


This section of Charlotte’s is a long one, and it covers quite a range of topics (we’ll get to that in a bit). But I think we should start by being clear about what Charlotte is talking about here. I have often extolled the value of play for children, but that is not what this section is about.

If you will allow me to step aside for a minute, I recently read an opinion piece from CNN called “Make 2014 the year your kids play” by John Bare. It is about a program which gives kids more recess time and thereby also helps their academics (they are less fidgety, etc). I was glad to see it and glad to see that the idea of play is making a resurgence in mainstream thought. I am happy those schoolkids are getting more recess again and that their teachers are seeing the benefits of that in the classroom. But the article emphasizes that this is not PE class, that it is not enough to just make them do exercises and games decreed by teachers. They really need the freedom to play. And I completely agree with this idea. Kids do ned that freedom. But to return to Charlotte Mason, I want to  be clear that such unstructured play time (which she also would have found a place for) is not what Charlotte is talking about here. She is talking about rigorous physical training.

So the first big question is why? Why does Charlotte say such physical training is necessary? The short answer is that we want our children to have, as Charlotte says, “serviceable bodies.” That is, they need to be equipped, physically as well as mentally, for what may come in their lives. I say “what may come”, but what I really mean is “what God may call them to”, because, as Charlotte goes on to say, none of us are our own. We belong to our Creator and we owe it to Him to make the most of what He has given us and to be ready for whatever He may call us to. Really, I see this as the whole purpose of my kids education. I do not know what God has in store for them so I lay a broad foundation which they can draw on and build on through life.

Charlotte talks  quite a bit in this section about the ancient Greeks and their reverence for heroes. She laments that we, who know so much more of God and His ways and will overall, have lost the idea of the hero which they saw so clearly. As a side note, this is another reason for us to study the ancients and their stories (see my post on why to study the ancients here). We must not be so self-important as to think that we have nothing to learn from these people just because they had less of God’s truth.

But to return to the subject of physical training, I would like to spend a little time on this idea of heroes. Who are the heroes of our culture? The most prominent ones, the ones we hear the most about, are athletes. But too often we find that they are heroes only on the playing field. Again and again one hears stories of their moral failings. (Of course, we are not unique in this. The ancient Greek heroes had their flaws too.) I think a big part of our problem is that we have taken one aspect of heroism, physical prowess, and equated it with the whole. A hero (usually) needs to be strong, but in reality that is a small part of what a hero is. His strength enables him to do the task set before him but it is not why he is a hero.


Here we get into what Charlotte is saying again. Her argument is that physical training is valuable because of the moral qualities it produces, things like perseverance and self-control. The physical discipline needs to translate into discipline in other areas of life. For our modern sports heroes it is often the opposite. Their discipline in their sport seems to be license to have less discipline in other areas of life. Neither should we think that extreme physicality equals greater heroism. (Charlotte cautions against the beserker.) One must not go to excess even in this area, either taking risks with one’s body that are too great or concentrating on the physical to the detriment of other areas of life.

So why do kids need PE and not just play time? Play alone, if it is active enough, may keep them physically fit, but we also need to stretch ourselves, to drive ourselves beyond our natural limits. In such a way we improve not only our bodies but our characters as well.

I am not getting too much into the specific benefits Charlotte sees from physical training. This is a long section and I think I will do another post which addresses these.

Until then


Fostering Creativity

Dear Reader,

Scott Kaufman’s book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, which I finished reading recently has inspired me with a lot of new thoughts. I have already given my review of the book and talked about motivating learning. Now I want to talk about fostering creativity.

The first question we must ask is why? Why is creativity important? It is certainly not something most public schools manage very well. Of course, such things are not easy with so many children that one must move through the system. Being different or doing things differently is not very welcome when one must juggle the needs of 20 or more children. As Kaufman says:

“Everyone has unique needs and is worthy of encouragement. In the real world, people clearly  differ in their inclinations, passions, dreams and goals . . .

Not so in school. In this particular microcosm of reality, you aren’t supposed to be different.” (Kindle loc 218; no page number given)

But there has been some evidence that what we need is creativity. The emphasis lately seems to be on keeping ahead of the world in the sciences. While personally I am not sure this should be our sole aim, fostering creative thinking can also help us in this area. New discoveries and inventions happen when someone thinks in a way no one has before. We need what is called “divergent thinking” and to get produce it we need to encourage children to think of alternative ways of doing things. In his book Free to Learn, Peter Gray goes so far as to say that this sort of thought is not only not promoted in the schools but actually suppressed:

” . . . most students learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork. They learn that their job in school it to get high marks on tests and that critical thinking interferes. To get a good grade, you need to figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it.” (Free to Learn, p. 79)

A different sort of environment is needed if we really want to maintain our edge. We need to stop focusing on standardized tests and on getting the information we choose into kids. Instead, we need to allow them time and space to play with ideas and to explore multiple ways of doing things. A creative, playful atmosphere leads naturally to a scientific mindset:

” . . . whenever children or adults bring imagination and creativity into their efforts toward discovery, they are combining play and exploration. In adults, we call that science.” (Free to Learn, p. 123)

There is apparently a kind of IQ test called the Torrance test which measures creativity and divergent thinking. It will, for example, give a picture and ask the test-taker to give as many possible explanations for the situation they see as possible or to ask as many questions about it as they can think of. What these tests show is that creativity has “significantly decreased, with the decline between kindergarten and third grade being the most significant” (Ungifted, p. 280). It seems notable to me that the time span when creativity declines is just that time when we begin to limit children’s play, when we begin to demand that they focus on what we care about and their free time becomes greatly reduced. Now I know that as people age they naturally play less, but I have also seen that homeschooled children seem to play more and to remain playful till much later ages than their traditionally schooled peers. So clearly if given the time and opportunity, children will remain children, with all their natural playfulness, for much longer.

And this play doesn’t just foster creativity; it also helps develop well-rounded individuals who can see beyond their own point of view (I know many adults who could really use this ability!):

“Psychologists have also become increasingly aware of the importance of pretend play as a vital component to the normal cognitive and social development of children . . . The important concept of ‘theory of mind,’ an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable, is also closely related to imaginative play.” (Ungifted, p. 138)

Play contributes to flexible thinking. It also is associated with flexibility in other areas. Torrance, the developer of the creativity test mentioned above, came up with a list of characteristics which he believes contribute to divergent thinking. They include: “love of work, sense of mission, deep thinking, tolerance of mistakes, well-roundedness, and feeling comfortable as a minority of one” (p. 282).

Apart from just allowing children more time to play, is there anything we can do to foster creativity? Kaufman says yes. Rather than moving them quickly from one task to another, we need to allow them time to process and reflect:

” . . . imposing high attention demands on children may rob them of the chance for important reflection that can allow them to make personal meaning out of the material and reflect upon the social and emotional implications of that knowledge.” (p. 254)

Even daydreaming, which on first glance seems to detract from the time spent learning, serves a purpose and can help children develop appropriately:

“… if we want to facilitate future compassion, future planning, self-regulation, and divergent thinking, we should set up conditions that allow for mind wandering.” (p. 256)

We tend to think, even as homeschoolers who have supposedly opted out of the system, that what we do as teachers is what matters most. But Kaufman spends some time talking about how much more we learn implicitly than we learn from explicit instruction. I think we tend to feel the pressing nature of our goal and the short time we have in which to accomplish it and so the tendency is to try to cram in as much as we can. But this can often be counterproductive. We need instead to make time for play, daydreaming, and allowing the child to follow their interests and to explore different ways of doing things. So I will end with one more quote from Ungifted:

“This is due in large part to the original purpose of intelligence testing: to develop a test that predicts the ability to learn from explicit instruction. But once we take into account personal goals in addition to the goals of others . . .we see the adaptive value of a wider range of spontaneous cognitive processes such as daydreaming, pretend play, spontaneous creative generation, implicit learning, and intuition.” (p. 304)


Free to Learn and the History of Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray. This is a good book and I would recommend it, but I don’t always agree with it. Gray’s main thesis is that children learn through play and that compulsory (i.e. forced) education has destroyed children’s ability to learn and has made them anxious, unhappy people. He advocates an unschooling like atmosphere in which children of all ages intermingle and learn as they feel led and from one another. Most of what he says, I agree with which is why I loved this book and can think of many people whom I would want to have read it.

But Gray comes from a very different philosophical background than I do. He is a Darwinian and has a very evolutionary view of humanity. While I am not a 6-day creationist, I do believe there is a Creator God who formed humanity, distinguishing us in some important ways form the animals, and who reigns over us and has specific expectations for us.

Gray’s presuppositions in this area come through in particular when he is discussing the history of education. I have no expertise in this area so I cannot dispute his claims regarding how our modern view of education came to be, but I would have  a very different take on where we went wrong.

Gray begins with our hunter-gatherer ancestors for whom he says there was no formal education of any kind. Instead, these relatively small communities allowed children of all ages great freedom to play and explore. They educated themselves through these means and were happy and well-adjusted and maintained a playful attitude into adulthood. They were big sharers, with no sense of individual property rights and very little if any violence in their play.

I am a little skeptical of this picture. It is hard for me to believe that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was so ideal. If it was, why did they ever move on to the next (agricultural) stage? I suppose if tribes were widely separated, there may have been little violence between them but surely hunting wild animals is itself very violent and often fatal. I am reminded of the whole paleo movement which promotes eating as our distant ancestors ate and often goes beyond that to exalt a paleo-lifestyle which glorifies all things primitive. I do actually eat a modified paleo diet, but I am wary of this mindset which seems to venerate what our ancestors did as if that distant time was the epitome of human existence and nothing good has happened since.

But, moving on, Gray sees some changes which accompany the next stage of humanity’s development, farming. As people settled down, they also began to value individual property rights and to require more of their children. No longer allowed to play constantly, children’s labor was now needed on the farm. As they began to get control over nature through farming, Gray maintains, humans also began to think they could control other things, including their children. The result was that corporal punishment entered the picture. Children were viewed somewhat like plants that one raises, and we still speak of child-rearing as if it is something we do to our children. This is ironic to me since the one thing my forays into gardening have taught me is just how little control I have over what happens to the seeds I sow. I hope I am not reading too much into what Gray himself believes, but it seems to me that he exalts the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as he views it, and that he is opposed to even these first changes that agriculture brought about, particularly corporal punishment. Now I am not a huge fan of it myself, though we have occasionally spanked our children, especially when they were younger, but I also know that the Bible tells us to train and discipline our children. So it is hard for me to view the laissez-faire hunter-gatherer style as the ideal.

The next stage in education that Gray discusses is the middle ages which seems like quite a jump to me. Surely there is much in between the beginning of agriculture and the 9th century AD. What about the Greeks? Did they contribute nothing to the philosophy of education? This omission seems so glaring that I can’t help wondering why Gray does not even mention it in the whole of his book. Perhaps it does not fit his picture of the hunter-gatherer model as the only ideal?

When it comes to the middle ages, Gray says that obedience was the main characteristic of education. Everyone in the middle ages had someone to be subservient to; children also were expected to learn their place. Education became subjugation. Most schools of this period were religious, established by the Roman Catholic church (at least in western Europe; I don’t know the state of education in the east in this period and Gray does not discuss it; again one wonders about the bits he misses– what about Islamic learning?  It is supposed to have been quite advanced for its time in this period). Because the church had a top-down structure, learning also had this framework. One was told what to learn from above and individual creativity was not encouraged.

Gray’s own view of religion comes out here:

“Religious beliefs reflect political and economic realities and commonly serve the purposes of those in power. Hunter-gatherers’ religions were nondogmatic and playful. Their deities, which generally represented forces of nature, had little or no authority over humans, and were sources of amusement, inspiration, and understanding. But as agriculture developed and societies became hierarchical, religions followed suit. Gods became more fearsome, demanding worship and obedience, and some gods came to be viewed as more powerful than others. This trend culminated in the development of monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each founded on the idea of a steeply hierarchical cosmos headed by a single, all-powerful god who demanded continuous devotion and worship.” (pp. 53-54)

There is so much in here I hardly know where to begin. Clearly Gray is not open to the idea that there might be a real God or gods and therefore some truth about them. He sees religion only as a construct of society.  I am very skeptical of his claim that early religions led to happy, playful people. My own reading of the myths of polytheistic peoples is that they were very uncertain, even stressed people. They lived in a world controlled by a disorganized group of deities whose whims they were at the mercy of. It is very hard to have to satisfy the needs of many gods and to even have to worry that there may be others our there that one has missed and who may seek revenge at any point. It is also very stressful to think that the gods control forces which are vital to one’s wellbeing (storms for instance) but that they are distant and/or hard to please.

While Gray’s view of earlier, polytheistic religions seems to be idealized, his view of the monotheistic religions is harsh. God “demands” worship. No mention of His love for His people, His involvement in their lives, His willingness (in Christianity) even to die for them. I will not attempt to speak for Islam or Judaism, but as a Christian I find this a very one-sided, narrow view of who the Christian God is.

Gray moves on to discuss the Protestant Reformation and its impact on education. He notes that Protestants promoted education, citing Luther’s belief that all should learn to read the Scriptures in their own language. Education, then, is seen as a necessary precursor to salvation. Gray says that

“The primary method of instruction in the early Protestant schools was rote memorization. The goal was indoctrination, not inquisitiveness. The schools were also designed to enforce the Protestant work ethic. Learning was understood to be work, not play.” (p. 57)

Now Protestantism is a big category and I cannot speak for all aspects of it, but according to the book I read recently on Puritan thought, the whole idea of a Protestant work ethic is overblown and misunderstood. “Indoctrination” also seems to be a loaded word which betrays the author’s convictions. One man’s indoctrination is another’s call to salvation.

I do wonder though if this is where we began to go astray. I would agree that literacy is if not essential at least very, very helpful to salvation and  a knowledge of God. Our God has chosen to communicate through the written word and if we cannot read that word for ourselves, we are at a disadvantage. But how we go about this is a different matter. In our zeal to make sure all children are learning, I think we have perhaps overstepped the bounds and taken from parents what should be their responsibility. And as education is taken from the family, there are all sorts of practical details about controlling larger groups of children that come into play and interfere with the learning process. For instance, in a small family group, one has the freedom to pursue rabbit trails (as they say) that one could not possibly take the time to follow in a  class of 30 students. More importantly, when the schools, or even the churches, begin to take responsibility for children’s religious instruction, it is very easy for the parents to step back and let them and to thereby cede the control that God has given them over their own children.

And at the base of it all, I think there are just some wrong assumptions about how salvation works. It is not something we can educate people into. We all want to assure the salvation of our children, and it is a good thing to want that and even to want the salvation of others’ children as well. But no amount of education will produce salvation. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. While some level of education is helpful, what we really need is discipleship, not education. And that is something that cannot be done in a large group setting.

Gray goes on to talk about the 19th century when government and industry took over control of education. At this point, he says, the goal was not literacy but controlling what people thought and how they behaved. He does acknowledge that some legitimately wanted to further the chances of disadvantaged children but says that their efforts were merged with those who just wanted control. Schools became larger and larger enterprises with more and more regulation and systematization (as is natural for larger operations).

Despite the length of this post, the historical aspect is just one chapter of Gray’s book so I hope you will believe me when I say that there is much here that is worth reading. And I hope to show you some of those bits in future posts.