The Question of Play


My sister-in-law thinks my sons are getting way too much playtime and not enough study time.  She’s afraid that they won’t develop the discipline necessary to stay put in one place, listen in class, do homework and successfully take exams.  She proposed that she can take care of Joshua who’s turning seven in three months while my husband and I travel with Jimmy, our four year old.  My sister-in-law fears that after one year of unstructured, non-academic, extended vacation-mode living, Joshua won’t be able to enter any school and thrive.  She thinks homeschooling is not a good option and tried to bargain caring for Joshua for six months or even three months if one year is too long for me.

My husband and I are firmly decided on the four of us sticking it out together in this crazy road trip dream.  All the books I’m reading, scientific research-based or narrative-based, they all support the idea that what we are about to embark would benefit our children greatly.  Most people, however, would be doubtful even if all the data, proof and evidence were presented before them.

If naysayers and discouragers are to be believed then what we shall be undertaking will surely end in failure and waste our children’s capabilities.  If the authors of the books on alternative education, roadschooling and unschooling are to be believed, then there wouldn’t be anything to worry about.  In studies on homeschooling, the children who didn’t do well are those whose parents did not engage their children and who did not exert effort to open up and widen their world.  My husband and I have our children’s education as our primary concern, only our concept is off-tangent and contrary to other people’s ideas.

I wish I had all the power I can assure my worried family members that my husband and I want the best for our children and our path just happens to be different from what many people believe is the normal, sane, safe and obligatory way.  I do not have that power to give guarantees because there are never such guarantees in life.  There is only faith.

Following are books I wish had Chinese translations which my sister-in-law can read:

  1. In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano
  2. Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children by Angela J. Hanscom
  3. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown
  4. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray
  5. The Outdoor Life of Children by Charlotte Mason

If she read those, would it make her worry less?  I think not.  Maybe she’ll counter by giving me copies of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom and other books that emphasize the importance of disciplining children, books on how to raise top academic achievers and why we should start early building a strong foundation for children’s school life.

Finland’s education system has been getting a lot of accolades sending a strong message around the world that it’s okay to give children more free time for play, start late with formal school, eliminate homework and minimize giving tests.  Their students outperform others in the world and many are surprised by their unusual methods far from mainstream practices.  The Chinese educational system has received its share of criticisms but its staunch supporters stand behind its effectiveness in producing disciplined students who perform well in exams.

Wherever you fall within the parenting spectrum, there’s a system of education that fits your belief.  You would be comfortable sending your child to a particular school but not another.   The bottom line stands: children are primarily the responsibility of their parents, not grandparents, aunts and uncles unless the parents themselves relinquish their duty.  We can keep arguing apples and oranges and never find common ground except we want the best for the children.  We just have differences of opinions on how this so-called “best” is achieved.

Following are quotes from the books listed above.  Note that this may be one side of the story.  Could I play my own devil’s advocate and research studies that run opposite to the ideas these books promote for the sake of turning tables round and round, playing a game of where it stops nobody knows?  I’d get dizzy and paralyzed so let’s just agree to disagree.


(Marian) Diamond’s experiments are merely among the most well-established research findings showing that play is crucial to healthy brain development.  What is the link between neural growth and play? . . . . The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allows a complex brain to create itself.  Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul

They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this – that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder-and grow.  Charlotte Mason, The Outdoor Life of Children

More and more teachers and parents everywhere are reporting that children are . . . . becoming more aggressive and easily frustrated, are having trouble paying attention, are showing more anxiety and are spending less time in imaginary play than ever before.  These symptoms are due in part to underdeveloped motor and sensory skills, which leave children underprepared for academics and overwhelmed by daily life and social situations. . . .  Scientific and anecdotal research suggests that most of these behaviors are the result of not spending enough time in active free play outdoors.  You can solve – and prevent – some of these problems by letting your child play freely and independently in nature.  Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children

In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates. . . .   Free play is also nature’s means of helping children discover what they love.  In their play children try out many activities and discover where their talents and predilections lie. . . . . In school, in contrast, children cannot make their own decisions; their job is to do as they are told.  In school, children learn that what matters are test scores.  Even outside of school, children spend increasing amounts of their time in setting where they are directed, protected, catered to, ranked, judged, criticized, praised and rewarded by adults.  Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instincts to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life

We say that a child who is constantly on the move is highly active, which is a descriptive term, not hyperactive, which is a prescriptive one.  Since the school (Albany Free School) is always buzzing with noise and activity, highly active kids don’t really stand out and are not considered to have or to be a problem.  Moreover, we’ve noticed that when highly active children can run, jump, climb, yell, dance, dig holes in the sandbox, and hammer ten-penny nails into two-by-fours in the wood shop to their hearts’ content, they gradually settle down and develop the ability to modulate their energy level. The trouble begins when you suppress their need to move and do . . . . .As the CEO of MTV put it when asked how he regarded the huge influence his television empire has on children: “We don’t just influence them – we own them.”  Suddenly it occurred to me that we are witnessing not only the taming of Mark Twain’s wild boys but the systematic domestication of childhood itself.  Chris Mercogliano, In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness


4 thoughts on “The Question of Play

  1. Joey, I am a firm advocate of PLAY. Children are young but once and they deserve to live a life they are meant for—Playing. And it is through this random, joyful, and stress-free “playtime” that they will learn ALL ABOUT THE WORLD: how and when to “sit still,” how to talk to people, empathize with them. speak their language, create what is needed and improve what has been created. When their whole body is working, their brains will work better. Children learn best when ALL or most of their senses are at work. And when they grow older, they will have learned more about life and the world than the rest of their “tutored,” “five-times-a-week-extra-classes-of math and reading” peers. KUDOS to you my friend!!! And thanks for the list of extra readings!!!


  2. As a college professor, I had a few students in my class who were homeschooled— and college was their first experience at formal schooling. I have to say, they did so well with tests, and wrote papers beautifully. They just had a problem meeting deadlines, and didn’t want to submit a paper that was less than their best. If you find a way to address the regulation aspect— learning to meet deadlines, giving work on time, practice with time-pressured tests, and follow schedules— they should do well in college.


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