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Children Educate Themselves II: Lessons from Little Kids

Watching young children learn can revolutionize our views on education.

Have you ever stopped to think about how much children learn in their first few years of life, before they start school, before anyone tries in any systematic way to teach them anything? Their learning comes naturally; it results from their instincts to play, explore, and observe others around them. But to say that it comes naturally is not to say that it comes effortlessly. Infants and young children put enormous energy into their learning. Their capacities for sustained attention, for physical and mental effort, and for overcoming frustrations and barriers are extraordinary. Next time you are in viewing range of a child under the age of about five years old, sit back and watch for awhile. Try to imagine what is going on in the child's mind each moment in his or her interactions with the world. If you allow yourself that luxury, you are in for a treat. The experience might lead you to think about education in a whole new light--a light that shines from within the child rather than on the child.

Here I will sketch out a tiny bit of what developmental psychologists have learned about young children's learning. To help relate this knowledge to thoughts about education, I'll organize the sketch into categories of physical, linguistic, scientific, and social-moral education.

Physical Education

Lets begin with learning to walk. Walking on two legs is a species-typical trait of human beings. In some sense we are born for it. But even so it doesn't come easily. Every human being who comes into the world puts enormous effort into learning to walk.

I remember one spring day long ago when my son, somewhere near his first birthday, was at the stage where he could walk by holding onto something but could not take steps alone. We happened to be traveling that day on a large tourist boat, and my son insisted on spending the entire ride walking up and down the deck while holding my hand. We spent many hours walking the length of the boat, with me uncomfortably stooped over so my hand could reach his. The motivation, of course, was entirely his. I was just a convenient tool, a human walking stick. I kept trying to convince him to take a rest because I needed one; but he was a master at manipulating me back into walking whenever we did stop for a moment.

Researchers have found that toddlers at the peak of learning to walk spend, on average, 6 hours per day walking, during which time they take an average of 9,000 steps and travel the length of 29 football fields (Adolph et al., 2003, Child Development, 74, 475-497). They aren't trying to get anywhere in particular; they are just walking for the sake of walking. They become especially interested in walking when they are exposed to a new kind of surface. I suspect that my son on our boat ride was stimulated to walk partly because the boat's motion made walking difficult and added a new and exciting challenge.

Early in the stage of walking alone, children often fall and sometimes hurt themselves; but then they pull themselves right back up and try again--and again, and again, and again. After walking comes running, jumping, climbing, swinging, and all sorts of new ways of moving. We don't have to teach children any of this, and we certainly don't have to motivate them. All we have to do is provide appropriate safe places for them to practice.

Language Education

If you have ever tried to learn a new language as an adult, you know how difficult it is. There are thousands of words to learn and countless grammatical rules. Yet children more or less master their native language by the age of four. By that age, in conversations, they exhibit a sophisticated knowledge of word meanings and grammatical rules. In fact, children growing up in bilingual homes acquire two languages by the age of four and somehow manage to keep them distinct.

Four-year-olds can't describe the grammatical rules of their language (nor can most adults), but their implicit knowledge of the rules is clear in their speech and understanding. They add s to brand new nouns to make them plural, add ed to brand new verbs to put them into the past tense, and manifest an understanding of grammatical categories--nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on--in their construction of novel sentences. Infants may come into the world with some innate understanding of language, as Noam Chomsky long ago suggested, but the specific words and rules of every language are different and clearly have to be learned.

Infants and young children continuously educate themselves about language. Early in infancy they begin babbling language-like sounds, practicing the motor acts of articulation. With time they restrict their babbling more and more to the sounds of the specific language that they hear around them. By a few months of age they can be observed to pay close attention to the speech of others and to engage in activities that seem to be designed to help them figure out what others are saying. For example, they regularly follow the eyes of older children or adults, to see what the others are looking at, which helps them guess what they are talking about. With this strategy, a toddler in the garden who hears someone say, "What a pretty chrysanthemum," has a good chance of identifying what object is being referred to. Between the ages of two and 17, young people learn an average of about 60,000 words (Bloom, 2001, Behavior & Brain Sciences, 24, 1095-1103); that works out to nearly one new word for every hour that they are awake.

Language learning, like learning to walk, is play. It is absorbing, intense, done for its own sake. Young children go around naming things just for the fun of naming them, not for any other reward. And as children grow older their word play becomes ever more sophisticated, taking such forms as riddles, puns, and rhymes. We can't teach children language; all we can do is provide a normal human environment within which they can learn it and practice it, that is, an environment in which they can engage themselves with people who speak.

Science Education

Young children are enormously curious about all aspects of the world around them. Even within their first few days of life, infants spend more time looking at new objects than at those they have seen before. By the age at which they have enough eye-hand coordination to reach out and manipulate objects, they do just that--constantly. Six-month-olds examine every new object they can reach, in ways that are well designed to learn about it's physical properties. They squeeze it, pass it from hand to hand, look at it from all sides, shake it, drop it, watch to see what happens; and whenever something interesting happens they try to repeat it, as if to prove that it wasn't a fluke. Watch a six-month-old in action and see a scientist.

The primary goal of young people's exploration is to learn how to control their environment. Many experiments have shown that infants and young children are far more interested in objects whose actions they can control than in those they cannot control. For instance, an audio player that they can turn on and off through some effort of their own is far more fascinating to them than one that comes on and off by itself or is controlled by an adult. They are especially drawn to such objects during the period when they are learning how to control them. Once they have learned how to control an object and have exhausted all the possibilities for action on it, they tend to lose interest in it. That's why the cardboard carton that a fancy but uncontrollable toy comes in may sustain a child's interest for a longer time than does the toy.

The drive to figure out how objects work and how to control them does not end with early childhood; it continues on as long as children and adults are free to follow their own paths. This drive is the foundation of science. Nothing destroys it more quickly than an environment in which everyone is told what they must do with new objects and how to do it. The fun of science lies in the discovery, not in the knowledge that results. That is true for all of us, whether we are 6-month-olds exploring a mobile, two-year-olds exploring a cardboard box, or adult scientists exploring the properties of a physical particle or an enzyme. Nobody goes into science because they like to be told the answers to someone else's questions; they go into science because they like to discover the answers to their own questions. That's why our standard method of training people in science never turns them into scientists. Those who become scientists do so despite such training.

Social and Moral Education

Even more fascinating to young children than the physical environment is the social environment. Children are naturally drawn to others, especially to those others who are a little older than themselves and a little more competent. They want to do what those others do. They also want to play with others. Social play is the primary natural means of every child's social and moral education.

It is through play that children learn to get along with others. In play they must take into account the other children's needs, learn to see from others' points of view, learn to compromise, learn to negotiate differences, learn to control their own impulses, learn to please others so as to keep them as playmates. These are all hard lessons, and they are among the most important lessons that all of us must learn if we are to live happy lives. We can't possibly teach these lessons to children; all we can do is let them play with others and let them experience themselves the consequences of their social failures and successes. The strong innate drive to play with others is what motivates every normal child to work hard at getting along with others in play. Failure to get along ends the game, and that natural consequence is a powerful learning experience. No lectures or words of advice that we can provide can substitute for such experience. I'll not elaborate further on this now; it will be the topic of future installments.

What Happens to Motivation at Age Five or Six?

Once, when my son was about seven years old and in public school, I mentioned to his teacher that he seemed to have been far more interested in learning before he started school than he was now. Her response was something like this: "Well, I'm sure you know, as a psychologist, that this is a natural developmental change. Children by nature are spontaneous learners when they are little, but then they become more task oriented."

I can understand where she got that idea. I've seen developmental psychology textbooks that divide the units according to age and refer to the preschool years as "the play years." All the discussion of play occurs in those first chapters. It is as if play stops at age five or six. The remaining chapters largely have to do with studies of how children perform on tasks that adults give them to perform. I imagine that the teacher had read such a book when she was taking education courses. But such books present a distorted view of what is natural. In the next two installments I will present evidence that when young people beyond the age of five or six are permitted the freedom and opportunities to follow their own interests, their drives to play and explore continue to motivate them, as strongly as ever, toward ever more sophisticated forms of learning.
And now, I invite you to contribute your own thoughts in the comment section below. What have you observed about young children's activities that either fits with, or runs counter to, the gist of the argument I have presented here? What do you think of the growing tendency to deliberately teach young children, and even test them, in kindergartens and preschools? What in your view is the ideal learning environment for young children?

PS: Because of my own summer play, I'll be away from my computer for a bit, beginning this coming weekend. I believe I will be able to post Part III of this series on self-education on Sunday, August 3, and Part IV on Wed., August 13. After that, I'll return to my every-Wednesday schedule.