There Is No Such Thing As “Free Play”

If you ever get a chance, I hope you will read the work of Clark Moustakas.  He was one of my greatest teachers.  He wasn’t the energetic self-promoter like other pioneers , but his wisdom and clarity of thought seems obvious.  He is a pioneer in play therapy a founder of Humanistic Psychology.  He is also one of the kindest, most gentle and humble human beings I have known.  He is wise.  I studied play (sounds weird to “study” play) under him and other great teachers.  Because I spent so much time with the topic, I’m very alarmed that it is disappearing in the lives of children.  I am especially concerned that play is becoming limited in many of our schools. As my twins enter the first grade next week, I know that they will be playing less.

What is Play?

Early on, I struggled to find a satisfactory model or theory about why play therapy worked.  Play had transformational properties.  I knew it because I saw it. I saw some amazing things happen through play, but I still found it mysterious.  I’ve learned  a bit since then and I want to share it with you.  First, I will confess that Lev Vygotsky and his followers and fans, e.g., J.P. Das, Laura Berk, A.R. Luria, etc., have had a great influence on my understanding of play.  While Vygotsky wrote very little on play, he elevated it to the highest status in child development. Had he lived longer, he likely would  have further documented his thinking.   I’ll tell you some of what he said and maybe this will help you and the children you care about.  Who cares about Vygotsky?  Me and a growing number of others.  He was almost universally thought a genius by his peers.  Anyway, here are some insights I will offer from Vygotsky, my experience,  and some very smart people.

Insight #1: Playing is NOT goofing off.  It may look like it, but it is not.  In the photo above, it may seem that my children are playing in our toy box.  Wrong!  Actually, they built  a high-powered rocket ship replete with high-powered, state of the art rocket propulsion.  I’m  kidding.  It’s a toy box.  What I’m  concerned with is what is happening in their little minds. (It was a sailboat anyway).  They are learning, for example, how to separate a) thought from actions and objects and b) inhibiting impulsive actions in favor of self-regulation.  That toy box contained the quality and essence of “boat”.  Pick up Laura Berks and Adam Winsler’s excellent book “Scaffolding Children’s Learning” for a detailed discussion on this phenomenon.  I’d add that they are learning to make a mess, but they pretty much have that down.  I passed that gene on to them.

Insight #2: Children always behave beyond his/her average age and above his/her daily behavior.  This is important.  The fantasy play that emerges at the end of toddlerhood becomes a “leading factor in development” (cited in Berk, I’ll give you another reference below b/c, as I mentioned,  I love her work).  Important:  Vygotsky is talking about cognitive development, you know, “thinking.  But why?  I’m worried that this post is becoming too academic for some, so can I just say again that it involves learning to think abstractly, separating thought from the external world?  Here, we are observing that the child is exploring a world in a way that is ahead of his/her development.  Imagination and abstract thinking are the very things that good students do in school!

Insight #3: Imaginative play helps children learn to control themselves.  Say what?  That doesn’t sound right, does it? How can that be?  Shouldn’t children be practicing sitting still, like the school I remember, if they want to get good at it?  Vygotsky noted that children continually act against immediate impulses during play.

Finally, Insight #4. There is no such thing as free play.  I’ve hinted at this above.  All play is rule based!  How about when playing cops and robbers?  The robber doesn’t make the arrest.  I could go on.  I can remember arguing with friends things like, “Hey!  Batman can’t fly!  You can’t do that!” when playing superheroes, for example.  Even that game had rules.

When we factor in the use of language, the physical exercise, the warm feelings between friends, the arguing/resolution, and the fact that other creatures in the animal kingdom (I’ll admit that my kids are animals), I’m very worried that we would accept rote academic experiences as somehow more vital to our youngsters.  Some adults even take away play as a method of punishment.

Still not persuaded?

Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive ­development.  Imaginative and rambunctious “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.  I know.  I just said there is no such thing as free play.  Let’s call it imaginative play.  Free play just seems too trivial a term for these times.

Finally, Insight #5– Kids that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults. In her book entitled “Einstein Never Used Flashcards”, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek  is unable to find any convincing evidence that academic acceleration offers any salutary effects by the time the child reaches 1st grade.  A 2007 report from the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pedi­atrics doc­u­ments that play pro­motes not only behav­ioral devel­op­ment but brain growth as well. The Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina’s Abecedar­ian Early Child Inter­ven­tion pro­gram found that chil­dren who received an enriched, play-oriented par­ent­ing and early child­hood pro­gram had sig­nif­i­cantly higher IQ’s at age five than did a com­pa­ra­ble group of chil­dren who were not in the pro­gram (105 vs. 85 points).  Again, any advantages that the academic group had disappeared by first grade.  Further, the children from the academic environments were more anxious and less creative than the children in the other group.

This isn’t just about raising healthy happy kids. On second thought, yes it is!

*** I recommend Laura Berk’s “Awakening Children’s Minds” for teachers and parents alike.  It is one of the 10 or so books I read several times a year when   I  need to find my center.

Does Drill Really Kill?

“It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it’s what you put into the practice.”
Eric Lindros (Canadian professional ice hockey legend)

“I know a lot of people think it’s monotonous, down the black lines over and over, but it’s not if   you’re enjoying what you’re doing. I love to swim and I love to train.”
Author: Tracy Caulkins

It is possible to get repetition without simple drill and skill exercises.

First, I want to say a few words about repetition.  Repetition is good.  Because we now know what happens in the minds of good readers, it is the final purpose to create these automatic habits of thought, e.g., decoding automatically.  Drilling is another matter.  Drilling usually refers to repeated practice that is decontextualized.  Did anyone see the Karate Kid?  I’m talking about the remake.  In the film, the Karate master instructed the student to hang up his coat on a rack over and over again. The protagonist was getting very frustrated.  He didn’t understand the value in the practice.    True, he was building an important set of skills that would later become  defense moves in combat.  The student became frustrated because it made no sense to him.  Hanging a coat isn’t exactly a laugh riot.  Because decontextualized tasks often lack purpose and meaning, token rewards or punishments are usually used as reinforcement.  In the learning I imagine, we do understand that sub skills are important.  We also know that kids don’t want to engage in what amounts to repeatedly hanging up a jacket.  So, we build relevant sub skills in a gaming environments.  We keep learning fun, playful, meaningful and inspiring.

Psychologists and many wise adults now know that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation.  To put it simply, if a child really wants to practice something, it will be hard to stop her.  I have used the example of wind sprints.  Anyone who has done them knows that it is probably the least liked part of most athletic practices.  An intense basketball game could easily produce the same time on task and perhaps a higher quality of effort.  Repetition embedded in a game, conversely,  ensures motivation, high quality attention, and positive emotions and enthusiasm.  This is important.  The scientific community now knows that positive affect leads to better learning outcomes. Fun is a tremendous motivator!  Curiosity is so powerful that I believe it on one occasion killed a cat.

Another important point is that too much drill  is not always better when practicing skills.  The scientific literature has shown that distributed practice is often superior to singular drilling when promoting transfer of learning to other tasks.  In other words, it is better to take periodic breaks when learning a new skill.  A skill practiced too frequently in one domain without sufficient time for reflection can lead to problems.  The learner may not be able to apply the new skill to novel situations.   Carefully designed games that are  guided by clinical experience and research on how children best learn can lead to thoughtful, self-directed learners.  Children need to learn in a developmentally appropriate manner.   Play is intense and even play may require variety and frequent breaks.

Music is a great example of contextualized learning.  Songs offer an entertaining context for repetition.  The song is a vessel that has scales, intervals, and foundational technique within it.  If we love a song and want to master it, we want to play it over and over again.  As an adult, I love the meditative state of mind produced by simply playing scales.  As a youngster, however, I just wanted to rock.  The child’s nature is to play.   We see it in puppies, kittens, and all over the animal kingdom.  It seems hardwired into us.  Why not make this awareness a centerpiece in educating children?  They will thank us for it.

Your 3rd Grader Just Destroyed His Future

Nobody has ever asked for my 3rd grade transcript.  It is a good thing.  I was a pretty lousy student until I was about 18 years old.  It is unlikely that I had no good teachers.  I’m not suggesting that at all.  It’s just that I found school boring.  Ask any kid to describe school in one word.  You will find a lot of kids who will say the same thing.  Reading is what kept me in the game.  I read what interested me.

The stories I loved were relevant to my world.  In school, the information I was given seemed arbitrary and meaningless.  I was too often left alone to puzzle over the exhaustive series of facts and unsolicited tasks assigned to me.  But,  I really liked Spider-man as well as  Peter Parker– his true identity.  Peter Parker was not having much success in life, either, but as Spider-man he could do anything.  That I could relate to.  What I chose to read fed my imagination.  I fantasized my own stories, with me as Spider-man or some other superhero.  I built my reading vocabulary.

What I didn’t know, I figured out.  “Nick Furry” isn’t a tough guy’s name, so I puzzled over it and came to know the hero truly as “Nick Fury”.  I anticipated surprise endings.  I connected prior knowledge I had of the characters and applied it to new situations they encountered.  Comics survive by the richness of their language and by the value of the entertainment.   What I learned from reading comics, I applied to other literature.  I grew confident enough to read a novel if it appealed to me.  I also read guitar magazines, baseball and football cards, and other material that captured my interest.  This reading material has real world value.  In fact, when I found my 10-year-old reading Sports Illustrated for Kids, I ran it through a Flesch-Kincaid readability analyzer.  My 4th grader loved a magazine that had material rated at over a 7th grade level.  And the writing was pretty darn good!

I eventually “woke up”, so to speak.  Sometimes, if we are lucky in life, we may have an epiphany.  I won’t go into it here, but something happened to me that changed my attitude about myself and of formal education.  I started becoming curious and lost a lot of the anxiety I had around learning.  So, at 18 years of age, tired of bagging groceries at the local supermarket,  I entered community college.  From there I went to Michigan State for a year.  My grades were solid enough to allow me entry to the University of Michigan.  This all happened within a span of three years.  These events led to my asking fundamental questions, like “Did I really miss out on anything absolutely required for life success in K-12?” And, “If so, how could missing all of that valuable learning in K-12 public school have absolutely no effect on my college performance?”  I began to question many of my beliefs about schooling.  I had to assumed that I got a pretty good education by reading books that I chose to read.  Perhaps the tools of our culture played a hand in educating me.  Maybe long conversations with smart friends, comic books, magazines, even film helped me learn to think enough to perform well at a prestigious university.  Later, I would read research that shows that reading for pleasure does, in fact, produce the best readers and good readers enjoy many benefits in life.

In working with families, I meet a lot of worried parents.  They see the negative impact that low grades and poor test scores have on their children.  That is probably the biggest problem with academic failure.  Here is what I tell Griffin, and I will tell the other kids when they get into the academic game:  It is a game.  It is an important game, but it is a game.  You don’t really “have” to know everything, and you will forget and have to relearn a great deal of it every year.  Also, at his age, Bs are fine with me.  I would like to see an A in classes that interest my kids.  But, there are other things in life that I want him to do and if getting an A means 3 hours of homework a night, I simply don’t think the game is worth the candle.  Guess what the effect is?  He gets good grades.  He is not stressed about school.  He does his homework (usually on time).  He tests well.  What I’ve done is take the pressure off him.  This may not work for everyone, but it has worked for us so far.  But never, never give up on a kid.  We have no idea how he or she will develop.  Nobody will ask for his 3rd grade transcripts.  Trust me.

Basketball, Broken Hearts and Video Games

It’s 10PM on a Saturday night.  Griffin was invited to play in a 3 on 3 tournament and we  just had a very profound discussion on our drive home.  His team made it to the championship but lost 8 to 10.  He feels tired and hungry  after running sprints for most of the day.  Griffin couldn’t see any of the success in what he and his team had accomplished.  All he is feeling now is the sting of losing something that he wanted more than anything else at the moment.  This is what I love about games.  They allow us to look at our lives and think differently about us, our ambitions and the people around us.

First, let’s talk some psychology.  I study cognitive psychology.  This involves not just thinking, but how thinking affects the emotions.  The philosopher Epictetus pointed out that it isn’t necessarily the events that affect us, it is how we relate to them.  Griffin and I went through the plays, the players, the scores, and every aspect of the tournament that we could remember.  Things began to change.  In fact, he and his team mates had won a large majority of the battles today.  Griffin was tough to score on.  He hit some key free throws.  The team outscored every team but one.  Griffin and his team mates dominated the boards.  They fought back in the championship game and put themselves in an opportunity to win.  By empirically validating his beliefs, e.g., “I suck”, we were able to  find out that he was inaccurate.  Being inaccurate was causing the pain, not just the defeat.  I won’t recount the entire episode, but I will say that if you try this with your kids, use what is called a “Socratic dialogue”.   In other words, ask questions and listen.  Lead your child to challenge his or her own beliefs and assumptions.  If I were to say, “well you won 7 games and lost two, it would have little effect.  Instead, I would ask, “how many points were scored on you”, or “who beat you on the boards?”  He would reply, “nobody.”  So, we vivify the experience and deepen it.  We relive it, in a way.  He will discover that he was mostly winning in any given moment. Or, at least he wasn’t losing continuously like he felt he had.

These conversations  are important tools that allow us to accessing our child’s  emotions and learn about how they see the world.  When Griffin uses his imagination to relive the experience, some of the emotions and images return. He gains entry into the event when I ask him a specific question.  He has to concentrate, and place himself in the moment.  This deepens the experience and prepares him for learning.  We had some other more personal discussions on that car ride and I cannot share them.  When we arrived at our driveway, I felt a sense of peace and acceptance.  The pain had begun to melt away.That is only a small window into what kids learn playing games, especially with the help of  a more capable adult or peer just being with them and exploring with them.

I couldn’t help but to think about video gaming during the tournament.   I have often thought about how many times basketball players sprint down the floor.  What would it be like to sprint that long if there was no game to offer purpose and meaning to the task?  What would it be like to do this alone, without four other guys involved?  I can tell you with certainty, it wouldn’t be very much of an experience and we would probably have to force ourselves to do it with any fidelity.  Yet, we will join a game of hoops with no reluctance.  Our culture is wise to it.  We have had embedding instruction in our songs and games for many, many generations.  We pass these games on to our offspring and they pass them on and the culture benefits through the years.  There is real folk wisdom in our culture.  We know that games and songs have survival value and we know that they are effective at passing on learning.

I remember on special babysitter we had solely because she taught us that game.  It is simple.  I and my sisters stood down the hall.  Barbara would hold a pillow up to her face and say, “Red Light”.  Well, we stop on red.  Suddenly she would drop the pillow and shout, “Green Light!”  We would then run toward her until, “Red Light” was announced and we would stop again.  The first one to reach Barb wins.  What do children learn here?  Well, attention, for one thing.  Attention involves inhibiting impulsive responses.  Children with ADHD  have special difficulty with behavioral regulation.  It develops slowly and  measures below his peers.  A game like Red Light Green Light helps all children inhibit the excited urge to run when anything is said.  “Red Light/Red Light” will find some impulsive children lunging forward.  The child gets to practice holding back and improves.  The game makes the child happy, and people perform best when they are happy.  The emotions are critical to learning and doing good work, especially creative work.

So, games keep us alert by captivating our attention.  Games reduce anxiety, usually, and this is a good quality of mind for learning.  Games give a sense of purpose and meaning for doing sometimes mundane boring tasks like running back and forth on a basketball court.  They motivate us to try hard. Games can teach resiliency.  You have to lose sometimes in a game.  Yet, you play the game again.  You know you will win again.  Kids really need to know that part.

Video games can do all of these things, if they are designed for it.  They give the real-time feedback of an official or completed pass, they create immersion, they captivate the emotions, they lead to intensity of thought.  They are social experiences.  We used to have friends over to play video games.  Now we can find friends online to play with.   That means that friends share the experience and learning from one another.  When academic tasks, like literacy instruction, becomes integrated  in a video game, all of those factors are alive and at work.

Griffin is on his second hamburger and is laying on the floor.   I’m writing this post wondering if he is feeling like the real winner that I know that he is.

How to Get A’s on Tests

I have mentioned before that learning came suddenly to me at about age 18.  Prior to that, I struggled to stay awake in class, never mind getting A’s on tests.  Contrast that with my experience in college, where I couldn’t wait until the professor posted the scores so I could see if I finished #1, #2, or #3 in the class.  The way I did it will definitely help you out.

First, you have to prepare yourself for some effort.  People sometimes imagine that the brain is like a video camera.  If we expose ourselves to information, we think, our brains will capture it.  We sometimes hear people refer to children as “sponges” because they seem to soak up information.  It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.  It seems better to think about recoding and retrieving information.  In other words, we need to actively work with information and make a strategy for accessing it.  We will  talk about how to do it, but first let’s look at a couple of assumptions about learning and test taking.

Assumption #1:  We don’t necessarily get to keep what we learn.  I found this post on a message board:

“I’m 4 1/2 years out from medical school, 1 1/2 from residency.

I doubt I’ve retained 10% of what I learned in medical school. It’s probably nowhere near that much. Hell, I doubt I have a quarter of the information in my head that I needed to pass the medical boards in August of 2005. I don’t think I’m that unusual.”

So, an A grade on a test may, sometimes, tell us how well a student prepared to take the test and that the student put in that effort .  If the information is not used or reviewed periodically, it will be lost.  I had a friend in grad school who was an ER physician.  He told me that the doctors he knew had forgotten their chemistry knowledge.  Use it or lose it is the idea here, just like muscle strength and size.  That is why many professions have continuing education requirements.

Assumption #2:  Tests tell us who is “smartest” in the class.  This is a philosophical/value oriented issue.  I’m thinking of the quote attributed to Einstein, “Know where to find the information and how to use it–that is the secret to success.”  Our education system places a high value on test scores and ranks students based on those data.  I have spent most of my career doing evaluation and assessment, so I’m certainly not against it.  I wouldn’t want to have a major surgery scheduled with a surgeon who never took a test in his training.  But, people need to apply knowledge and multiple choice tests do not necessarily prove that the test taker can solve problems creatively or use what he/she knows.
So, we have scratched the surface a bit on the complexity surrounding testing.  What you probably want to know is, “How can I help my child get A’s.”  Let’s get into that a bit.
Remember, I said that we have to “work” with the information, or “recode/encode” it.  Maybe I should say we have to “play around” with the information. First, let’s get the right attitude.  Go ahead and make it a game.  I tell my 11-year old that the school game is, in fact, a game.  But, it is an important game.  There are “trick questions” on most tests.  I learned to watch for them.  What is the purpose of a trick question?  To test knowledge?  To help make a normal curve?  To test logic, not information?  It doesn’t matter, for our purposes.  You will see them.

How to beat a trick question: There is no formula for it.  But, we can increase our chances of scoring a correct answer by a) being ready for the trap and evaluating the logic of the question.  For example, the famous “Some months have 30 days and some have 31 days.  How many months have 28 days?”  Well, forget the set up.  Just look at the last part of the question, “How many months have 28 days?”  Now it is simple.  All of them.  b) watch the language with a skeptical eye.  If the question begins with, “A rooster laid an egg on a roof pitched at a 45 degree angle…” then you know it is a trick question.  Roosters don’t lay eggs.  So, a major technique in trick question design is distraction.  The aim is to distract the test taker with some “important” sounding facts so to promote a basic thought error.
Study your teacher/professor: I learned early on that if the teacher talks about it in class and I see it in the text-book, I was pretty sure that it would be on a test or quiz.  This means that you have to go to class.  Go to class.  Figure out what your teacher wants you to know.
Read the answers first: Having the answer fresh in your mind before reading the question is a tried and true technique.  It can help you rule out the nonsense options and also prime your memory to recognize the correct question stem.  This works great on multiple choice tests.  Reading the last part of the question, again, helps a lot, too.
Write: Yeah, I know it will take time, but you do want that A, don’t you?  Anything that might be on the test, from notes to text books, write (preferably in your own words) and study.  I did this religiously and expected to get 100% on most of the tests I used it on.
Reduce the information: There are plenty of resources on the web or at your library that talk about mnemonic strategies (memory strategies).  Most of them involve taking a lot of information and reducing and conceptualizing it.  Memory is associative.  That means that concepts lead to concepts.  Songs are usually easier to memorize than poems.  That is because the rhythm and melody jogs our memories.  Consider spelling the word “rhythm”.  I read about one guy who learned to spell it by memorizing the phrase “Red Hot You Two Headed Monster”.  The sillier the association, the more likely you are to recall it.
Do the easy ones first: This is a time management strategy.  You can come back to the ones you are uncertain of later.
I call it playing the academic game not to belittle it.  What I mean is, beating a test can be a fun game.  People do better when they are having fun.  So, be as creative as you can in developing learning habits.  Griffin and I have had a lot of fun coming up with ways to memorize information for a test.  You can, too.

Should I Let Griffin Have A Facebook Account?

If you’ve spent any time around tweens or teens, it might seem that they have disappeared into the on-line world – iPods, mobile devices and lap tops are status quo. Many parents of younger children I’ve spoken with have concerns that on-line activity like social media and gaming will create introverted loners.

Griffin, our 11-year-old, keeps bugging me for a Facebook account.  My first my response was no.  Gosh, just writing that makes me feel stale.  Am I only saying no because of an irrational fear of what might happen?  Well, I think I owe him better than that, so I looked into it.
A Pew Study found that “people who regularly use digital technologies are more social than the average American and more likely to visit parks and cafes, or volunteer for local organizations”.  That doesn’t sound bad.

As I dig into it, I find more and more reasons to reconsider.  I keep finding professors who study the topic endorsing social relations on the internet.  At worst, the good outweighs the bad.

So, here are my primary remaining concerns:

1.  Marketing.  I know, I have a product for kids.  But mine promotes literacy, so that makes me O.K., right?  I don’t want junk food and bad pop music being pushed on Griffin.

2. Bullying.  Well, he hasn’t really had much of that in his life, but I can monitor that even better than what happens outside our home.

3. Kathy.  She is against it for now.  That is a for sure deal breaker.

4. Griffin is not 13 years old.  We would be breaking a rule.  I don’t think we would be breaking the law, though.  Like, if I let him watch a PG13 movie, would I go to jail?  I’m thinking no, but still it is a white lie.

5.  I don’t want him to grow up.  The psychology behind that could take up a book.

What do you think?  Would you do it?  He keeps dropping names of kids that have accounts.  I even had him show me some profiles to prove it.  I’m still not sure.  But according to recent research and expert opinions, the question is now becoming “Am I holding Griffin back if I don’t let him have a Facebook account.”

The Bart Simpson Myth

In a National Geographic Magazine study, over 80% of kids ages 6 – 14 think that learning is:

A.    A drag
B.     A waste of time
D.     Fun!

Believe it or not, the answer is “D”. Kids think learning is fun – this is encouraging news for parents and educators.

More good news includes the people kids describe as their top role models – the list includes mom and dad, teachers, Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling. Gates and Rowling are actual people – not experts in the usual sense of the word. They produced something meaningful and fun that’s inspiring to children.

I think that we get further faster if we anticipate the tastes of and consider children’s development. Demanding that children adapt to our sensibilities is not going to work and could create a backlash.  I can’t think of any subject that cannot be made interesting. Inspired teaching is really about honoring the tastes of children. I don’t want people to think that I advocate a free-for-all or am against standards.  I want to make the point that we can make math, history, or any subject matter interesting if we care to do so.  That is what “honoring the tastes” means to me.

Children consume the education products, yet we too infrequently ask for, or even care about the child’s input.  I’ve been guilty of it myself ( see“torture” blog post below).

When we created, our development team worked alongside the children, interviewing and observing them in play. We made adjustments based our own observations and, more importantly, feedback from the child. This was critical in creating an experience that ensures plenty of time on task and enthusiastic engagement with the product.

To this day, children send suggestions, fan mail, complaints, and comments to help guide us in building the very best software.

I’m a strong supporter of teaching a variety of subjects (not only reading and not just the three Rs) history, mathematics, art, technology, social sciences, languages and the like are vital to a child’s complete education. Yet, I also know that reading other literature can be a springboard to a vast array of subjects. Here are a few things I believe that can help you to foster a love of literature in kids:

Life is Interesting – and nearly everything can be made interesting, including knowledge and skills taught in academic settings.

Respect the tastes of children – especially early in education. This gives the best chance of showing the value of reading and demonstrating that reading is an enjoyable and enriching activity. Even poor readers will read for pleasure if given access to interesting content. A football fan could immerse himself in a biography of a favorite player that also might include information on geography, statistics and  psychology.

Inspire continued curiosity – Perhaps the greatest aim of education is to inspire children to seek out activities and subject matter that they love. This is so important, I’ve written a post on it – check it out to learn how my wife and I strive to inspire curiosity in our four kids.

Children seek out the printed word all of the time outside of school and you should encourage this every day. Another important statistic in the National Geographic study is that 93% of students reported learning from experiences outside the classroom. Kids apply what they know about literacy to billboards, magazines, department store signs, video games, and other community areas where reading material is encountered.

Links used in post:

Fat and Stupid is No Way to Go Through Life

Okay, I paraphrased a quote from animal house for the title of this blog. But Dean Wormer had a point.  I think we need to ask, ” Are video games harmful to kids?”  If our kids play them, will they become addicted, obese, violent, and grow old in seclusion?  While I’m hearing less and less of it,  some people are still unsure about video games.  Personally, I happen to find a lot of value in gaming.

I play video games with my kids. While the American Psychological Association focuses on obsession and addiction, I’m less concerned about those things for most kids.  This is fun time for us.

Griffin, my first-born, blew me away by  mousing when he was 2.5 years old.  This is not uncommon.  Many three-year olds are using computers.  Griffin and I played a game called “Pajama Sam.” This was around 2002/2003 when CD Roms were still around.  We both look back at our time w/ Pajama Sam with fond recollections.

I think children who play Skatekids, for example,  are at no greater risk of becoming couch potatoes than those who curl up on the couch with a good book.

In a report issued by the Federation of American Scientists (2006) the panel concluded the following:

There are several attributes of games that would be useful for application in learning. These include

• Closing the gap between what is learned in theory and its use (i.e., contextual bridging)

• high time-on-task

• motivation and goal orientation, even after failure

• providing learners with cues, hints, and partial solutions to keep them progressing through learning

• personalization of learning

• infinite patience. (p.5)

The problem seems to be “either/or” thinking.  Either you are exercising or you are not.  Griffin plays baseball, basketball, and football.  Georgia does ballet.  Carter and Brady (twins) play t-ball, jump on their trampoline, play in-door soccer.  They also have non-exercise time in their lives.  They color, read, and–yes, play video games.  When they exercise, they develop their bodies.  When they play video games, they develop their minds.   We need to take care in all the activities we select for our kids.  This includes video games.

In fact, some video games lead to better athletic performance, even in youngsters.  While coaching baseball, I would sometimes see a youngster with a very nice looking swing.  I would ask who taught them and often hear, “I learned it from Playstation.”  How cool!  If you are still unsure about video games, check out Wii Fit and Wii Sports.  Anyone can work up a sweat playing those games.

A Graduation

In my very first blog post, I mentioned the kid who told me that I was “torturing” another kid by badgering him to “sound out” words.  I have a follow up on this story.  Last week I got a graduation invite that read:

“Marty & Kathy,

Not sure you remember Dean from ____________ Elementary, but Marty you made an impact on us & we often think of you.  Hope you can stop by and see us.”

So, Kathy and I did stop by.  Dean is bigger than I am now.  I can no longer remember him as that little 2nd grader.  He likes to hunt and fish.  His grades were not great, but he graduated with his class.  He wants to become a DNR Officer.  When I knew him best, he wanted to be a veterinarian.

In all of these years, that family thought that I had helped them.  In reality, we helped each other.  I could finally tell Dean and his mom how much Dean had helped me.  You can see the original post here:

If Dean had not made that sincere remark to me, I would not have been so determined to read the literature on dyslexia and cognitive science.  I would not have worked so hard at finding ways to treat learning problems in fun and engaging ways.

As I drove off after the party, I was asking myself who helped whom?

Reading Leads to Thinking Skills and Thinking Skills Lead to Reading

I have never met a child who did not want to learn to read and write.   I remember being about 4 years old and trying to draw my mother’s cursive writing.  I drew what looked a child’s drawing of the ocean–pointy triangular waves connected across the page.  Georgia, Carter, and Brady have favorite books that we read together over and over.   Griffin, my 11-year-old, reads each night before bed.  Sadly, many children abandon this type of playful enthusiasm following a series of confusing and confidence crushing experiences. The good news is that psychology can lay claim to a real success story: we know how to ensure that nearly everyone learns how to read. We just need to develop the experiences that create the desire to learn.