Two researchers on children and play say the coronavirus pandemic offers a “reset button, a button that could renew our understanding of children’s true needs.”
Photo: Louie Favorite/AJC
Photo: Louie Favorite/AJC

Opinion: Don’t obsess over digital lessons. Let children create own lessons.

In this interesting guest column, two leading researchers on children and play suggest the release of children from adult-controlled agendas could provide a much-needed reset. 

With schools and after-school programs shuttered, the authors contend children now have the time and freedom to follow their own instincts and interests.

And that’s better for everyone.

Sean Durham is an associate professor of early childhood education at Auburn University and an executive committee member-at-large for the Association for the Study of Play. He has served as a teacher, school administrator and university lab school director during his 27-year career in education. 

Peter Gray is a research professor of developmental psychology at Boston College, author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” and a founding board director of Let Grow, a nonprofit aimed at bringing more free play into children’s lives. Gray is also the author of a widely used textbook on psychology.

By Sean Durham and Peter Gray

We have, for decades, been suppressing childhood—ever more so over time. Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore in their own ways, on their own initiative. That’s how they learn to take initiative, direct their own activities, discover their passions, and manage their own lives. That’s also how they have fun.  

But we have taken over their lives with adult-directed activities—more days and hours in school, more schoolwork at home, more adult-organized activities outside of school. We have trapped our children in cocoons, though not comforting ones, built layer upon layer by the interests and agendas of adults, with expectations ranging from how to properly hit the ball off the tee to the number of tokens they earn in the classroom for “on task” behavior and completed work. 

Dr. Sean Durham

Over the same period that children have become ever less free to create and pursue their own activities, the mental health of children and young adults has declined. In recent years researchers have documented record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide in children; increasing numbers of young adults who fall apart when faced with the independence required of them in college or jobs; and declines in creative thinking

Now, suddenly, a virus has closed the schools and canceled all those after-school activities that have kept our children so busy. Suddenly, children have time to fill and the opportunity to figure out for themselves how to fill it. A pandemic is a terrible thing; we don’t want to pretend it isn’t. Many children as well as adults are suffering. But for many children this pause in adult-controlled activities is a blessing. 

Dr. Peter Gray

We have heard from many parents who are thrilled to see what their kids are doing with their new-found freedom. Some have learned to ride bikes; some are picking up the guitar or another instrument they have long wanted time to play; some are drawing pictures for the first time in years; some are asking to make dinner or take on other responsible tasks around the house. 

Some are reading books for pleasure or interest, which is far more beneficial educationally than reading what they are forced to read. And families are rediscovering the joys of playing games or reading aloud together, or just being together without the usual obligations. 

What we have here, ideally, and it could be really, is a reset button, a button that could renew our understanding of children’s true needs. The pandemic-induced closures provide an opportunity for a “market correction” of the educational and parenting kind. 

We adults might learn—or acknowledge, as most of us already know it—that much of the time that children spend in school is wasted. What they learn and remember could have been learned in far less time, especially if, during non-school time they were granted opportunity to exercise their own curiosity, imagination, and creativity.

Psychologists have long known that children construct knowledge (i.e., learn) through direct and active engagement guided by their own interests within their environment. What children memorize as passive participants in school lessons is quickly forgotten.  

Psychologists have long known that children construct knowledge (i.e., learn) through direct and active engagement guided by their own interests within their environment
Photo: LOUIE FAVORITE/AJC

Let’s not obsess over digital lessons sent home from schools. Instead, let’s watch and be amazed as children create their own lessons. Let’s watch their literacy blossom in messages written with chalk on sidewalks, witness their calculations of lengths for boards as they construct a tree house, be amazed as they act out their own dramas inspired by favorite books or films, and marvel at the skills and patience they develop trying to get the worm they found while digging in the dirt to crawl onto a stick. And for heaven’s sake, let’s allow them to know what it feels like to be outside on a spring day doing nothing. 

For the next few weeks, let’s observe children’s genius as they play and direct their own learning. Then let’s come back together in school, not to plunge into a frenzied game of catch-up, but to proceed thoughtfully with balance. A balance that lets children be children and allows our competent educators to collaborate with them in creating learning paths that respect the full complement of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. 

Let’s support children’s natural ways of learning rather than suppress them. A renewed commitment to children’s self-directed pursuits will allow their creativity, ingenuity, confidence, and useful knowledge to flourish.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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