John Holt and Fantasy


I’m writing another post about play because I’ve been thinking a lot about my kids’ and their friends’ amazing capacity for imaginative play, hour upon hour – and the challenge for adults (me) to hold that space for play, in an environment that doesn’t necessarily value children’s play beyond age five, certainly not as their main activity.

In December, I read How Children Learn, by John Holt. I don’t know what took me so long.

Even when fairly convinced of the benefits of play, it can be hard for us adults to understand what is happening when children are involved in imaginative play. Among John Holt’s brilliant observations, he writes about how children “use fantasy to make sense out of reality, make a mental model of reality that works.”

While developing a set of wood blocks to facilitate logic games, Holt’s friend Bill Hull invited kids, mostly five-year-olds, to play with the blocks in his lab. He found that if the kids were immediately given tasks, they worked “without joy or insight.” If, on the other hand, the kids played first, so that “some pieces would be mommies and daddies, some children; or they would be houses and cars… then the children would make various kinds of patterns, buildings” – then, when the children had “taken these materials into their minds, mentally swallowed and digested them, so to speak, they were then ready and willing to play very complicated games, that in the more organized and businesslike situation had left other children completely baffled. This proved to be… consistently true.”

I’m reminded of a quote from The Gardener and the Carpenter, by Alison Gopnik (I heard it on an Exploring Unschooling podcast episode, and I would like to read the book): “Children are tuned in to details of how of how parents act that you may not even notice. For example, preschoolers notice whether you say, ‘Let’s see what this does,’ or ‘Let me show you what this does.'”

I plan to make use of these observations whenever I want to introduce a new game, toy, or other activity into our house. Homeschooling is so interesting!

Snow Play

snow play

I’ve been conscious of not filling our days with too many scheduled activities in this first part of 2018. And I’ve been thinking about how our homeschooling requires a really firm belief in play: not just that it’s important to include a little in the late afternoon, but that it should be central, the focus of our days.