Monday, October 6, 2008

Child's Work

With smart children, the traditional basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic and a twentieth-century addition, technology, are best taught through play. When the child is coerced in any way, the activity becomes someone else’s work and learning slows way, way down.
Mark Twain said “Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.” Twain explains,

What work I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it. Who was it who said, "Blessed is the man who has found his work"? Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind. Mark you, he says his work--not somebody else's work. The work that is really a man's own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man's work and cannot lose it. When we talk about the great workers of the world we really mean the great players of the world. The fellows who groan and sweat under the weary load of toil that they bear never can hope to do anything great. How can they when their souls are in a ferment of revolt against the employment of their hands and brains? The product of slavery, intellectual or physical, can never be great.

Play may be a perfect tool for the customization of education. What may seem like play to an adult may not be play for a child and vice versa. Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi coined the word “Flow” to describe work that feels like play. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) found this flow experience is characterized by the following:
  • A sense of that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing.
  • Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems.
  • Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.
  • An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.

Smart children who come to school knowing the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic and technology often acquired these through play. Not necessarily using toys, fun curricula or with a highly animated adult, but in an environment where a flow experience could occur; a flow experience that facilitated the acquisition of a basic skill, such as the ability to read. Comparison studies of smart children who entered school already knowing how to read and smart children who did not read yet found mothers of accelerated readers provided a flow inducing environment through interaction, discussion, and word identification. These mothers provided clear goals and gave immediate feedback, intuitively balanced the level of challenge and the child’s skill level and by giving the child a sense of control in the interaction and making the experience self-rewarding, or fun, turned learning to read, into play. These children, having access to books, spend time with them, in a state of flow, challenging themselves to more difficult reading tasks in a self-determined manner with no external pressure. Improving their reading skills is their work, not someone else’s; these children are at play.
A child who enters school already knowing how to read does not need to, and in fact should, not, spend many hours practicing basic reading skills along with the rest of her or his class. That would turn her work/play of reading into simply a “load of toil” as the equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill is not there. Many smart children will enter school as non-fluent readers or unable to write simple words or lacking basic number skills. Learning these basic skills can become their work, their play, their flow-experience at school. Most likely the groundwork has been laid at home.

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