Small Wins Wednesday: The academics of play

Published by Lori Pickert on June 25, 2014 at 08:41 AM

Writing and drawing about the Jacobites.

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On Wednesdays we often share a small win from the forumTwitter, the Facebook page, or (with the writer’s permission) from the mail bag.

This week’s small win is from Kirsten:

Six-year-old R is resistant to anything that vaguely resembles school and has been known to shout “I DON’T WANT TO LEARN ANYTHING!” in response to any scholastic suggestion. So we’ve decided to pull back for now, and completely unschool, subtly strewing interesting stuff, and raising interesting topics at the lunch table, but requiring nothing.

This generally works really well. I know that for a 6-year-old, play is his work, and I’m constantly amazed at what he’s learning from what I perhaps patronisingly call play. But there’s certainly nothing that looks in any way academic. Until last week.

We’d taken him to see a reenactment of an 18th-century Scottish battle, and it really piqued his interest. He’s been playing battles in the garden (always a particular times of day, on a schedule!), making guns (lots of iterations to get the perfect gun), looking at books about the battle and doing some great artwork about it.

I have also been a bit concerned, though, that he’s been watching quite a lot of television, and in particular some programmes that I don’t think have a very good effect on him. So we agreed that he would no longer watch TV at supper time.

On the first evening after we’d reached this agreement, I thought there would be some attempts at renegotiation. But instead, he sat down at the table with a history book, found some passages that particularly interested him, and started copying them out. Apparently these were to be information signs for the museum he was setting up in his bedroom.

We looked on with quite some amazement. This was the boy who wouldn’t do anything that looked like school, spending his suppertime copying out passages from a history book and discussing them with us. Reading, comprehension, handwriting and history all in one, when no requirement is made of him to do anything educational.

To be honest, I know that what he learns from play is just as valuable as what he is learning from sitting down reading and copying from a history book. But the progression from play to research and writing certainly felt like a win! It’s moments like this when I am reminded just what is so great about homeschooling in general, and project-based learning in particular.

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Thank you so much for sharing your small wins — real children doing real work (and parents working hard to become good mentors) are more inspiring than anything. 

Why do we share small wins? Because we put on our attention on what we want to grow. We support each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and we make more of the good stuff!

Have you had a small win this week? Whether it’s related to PBH or not, please share in the comments!

Jacobite museum in bedroom


The only invitation children need to play is time

Published by Lori Pickert on October 28, 2013 at 08:28 AM

I’m seeing posts and pins this week about organizing children’s play around their Halloween costumes. These include suggestions for creating “invitations” for children that match their costumes.

The word “invitation” is being thrown around a lot, as well as the Reggio term “provocation,” and I think it’s worth exploring more deeply.

What is dramatic play? It’s using your imagination and ideas and exploring them through pretending and world-building. It’s building play-acting scenarios about the things that excite you as well as the things you don’t understand. It starts with the child and what fascinates him, what he wonders, what scares or interests or excites him.

I’m sure the people who are doing these very specific and directed “invitations” would quickly say that children can take the play in whatever direction they like, but why build so much of the scenario for them to begin with? If you’re using Halloween costumes as the jumping-off point, isn’t it enough to dress up as doctors or pirates or circus performers (presumably something that interested the child enough to choose the costume) and then do the important child’s work of selecting your own props and building your own scenarios?

Sometimes I think we kill all spontaneity for children because we’re afraid — afraid they won’t have their own ideas, or maybe afraid that their play won’t be significant enough. But that’s a misunderstanding on our part, because children’s play is always significant.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. — Fred Rogers

Piaget called play the work of children and the language of childhood. Both Piaget and Mr. Rogers knew the score: Play is how children learn. And the more you do, the less your child can do.

In order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. — Jean Piaget

When we plan our children’s play, when we step in and initiate their play for them, we are reducing their learning opportunities. Period.


The only invitation your children require is some space, some flexible, generic props (cardboard boxes, small plain table, squares of cloth, wooden blocks…), and most important of all, time.

At educational conferences in the nineties, kindergarten teachers continued to defend play, even as they had to allow more and more paperwork to clutter the tables and walls. Some teachers tried to recapture the certainties of the past by collecting antique block sets and doll-corner cribs, ancient dolls, and little wooden cars and trains, resisting anything that came in a catalogue. But we overlooked the real villain in our midst. It turned out to be not so much the “academics” we were adding but the time we subtracted from the children's fantasy play that would begin to make the difference.


Having not listened carefully enough to their play, we did not realize how much time was needed by children in order to create the scenery and develop the skills for their ever-changing dramas. We removed the element — time — that enabled play to be effective, then blamed the children when their play skills did not meet our expectations.

Although we feared the influence of television, we were cutting down on the one activity that counteracts the mindlessness of cartoons.

We blamed television for making children restless and distracted, then substituted an academic solution that compounded restlessness and fatigue.


The children may have been the only ones capable of making sense of the confusion, and they did so whenever the schedule was cleared so they could play. — Vivian Gussin Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play

We’ve all had that friend who said she’d show us how to use her new yo-yo and then played with it herself for a half an hour while we just sat there wishing we could at least try it once. Don’t be that guy.

All of the ideas on Pinterest for building forts and playing cowboys and knights and astronauts and setting up mud pie kitchens were born in the minds of small children. You aren’t doing your child any favors when you take away the discovery and invention and offer a predigested plate of fun.

Let them do it all. Every single bit of it. Don’t worry — it’s already in there. It’s who they are. It’s what they were born to do. They’ve got this.


For more on this subject, check out: Curriculum of Curiosity


Why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time, Part 2

Published by Lori Pickert on November 8, 2011 at 08:02 PM

Yesterday, I wrote about one reason I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time — because reading, the outdoors, and video games are not mutually exclusive.

Another reason I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time:

What they consume, they produce.

Project-based homeschooling is about working actively with knowledge. When they were small, my boys dug into their interests and drew, painted, built, constructed, played, wrote, read. Now that they’re older, they still approach every interest with the same mind-set — a mind-set of ownership and control.

Their reaction to their favorite video games and movies? “I want to learn to program my own games.”

“I’m writing a story about these characters.” “I’m writing a comic book.” “I’m going to make a movie about this.”

They don’t just passively consume — they actively produce. They take ownership over ideas and work with them, build with them. They take what interests them, what they enjoy, what they love, and they make something new.

They treat the producer of the content as a partner and an equal, the same way they treat their learning mentors and their peers. “That’s interesting — now watch what I do with it.” They even get into a dialogue with some of those producers — writing and e-mailing some of their favorite writers and artists. They put their work out into the community and share it with other people. They actively participate; they make a contribution; they’re part of the big conversation.

My younger son used to watch the Star Wars movies on videotape on a tiny little TV set we had at our office. He would advance the tape a short distance then laboriously draw the scene. He filled reams of paper with drawings. He’s grown into an artist and cartoonist, a writer and filmmaker. He still loves Star Wars; he creates stop-motion LEGO films using his own Star Wars-inspired characters. He writes chapter books. He spends hours making stop-motion films.

My older son has always been a history nut. At age six, he stumped a friend with his spontaneous history quizzes — a friend who had a master’s degree in history. It was a deep interest, and he’s sustained it over many years. He loved the computer/video games Civilization and Age of Empires. After playing Civilization (which was too complex for me to figure out — I apologized for buying him a game beyond his years, and he waved me away and taught it to himself), he said he needed new history books that were specifically about the different countries and people in the game. He wasn’t just consuming the game; it was engaging him in a dialogue that sent him running to the library for more knowledge.

I know that not all children have this ability, this tendency to work with knowledge, think critically, and apply their own spin. But if it’s important to us, we can help all children develop it. There’s nothing a homeschooler can do at home that schools can’t replicate with their bigger budgets and long days. Schools can be havens of reading, writing, making, producing, and critical thinking; they can offer up natural playscapes and organic gardens and long-term projects. They can do everything I’m doing at home. If they don’t — if it’s just not an important enough priority for us as a community — then it’s a little hypocritical to expect the kids to make up for it during their very limited free time.

My kids’ ability to confront ideas actively rather than passively is what project-based homeschooling represents to me, and the way my children react to their ever-changing world is what reassures me that we’re on the right path. 

The technology is always going to be changing and evolving. If our children are active learners and creators, they’ll master it, they’ll control it, and they’ll make it their own.

Read part one here:

Why I Don’t Worry about My Kids’ Screen Time, Part I



Why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time, Part 1

Published by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2011 at 09:08 PM

There’s a billboard in my town that makes me grind my teeth into dust. It shows a kid’s hands holding, on the left, a video-game controller and, on the right, a turtle. Then it says something along the lines of “unplug”.

I was ranting about it the other day and one of my sons rolled his eyes (nicely) and said, “Mooooom, they’re just telling people to, you know, go outside more.” And yes, I get that. But they are doing it in a way that makes me crazy.

The whole either/or mentality is what gets to me. By positing the game controller against the turtle, the message is “video games: bad, playing outside: good.” Why isn’t this a good way to get kids outdoors? Because if they reject the left side of that equation, they may automatically reject the right side. This kind of shaming argument runs a serious risk of turning kids off the outdoors.

It won’t bother my kids — they’re die-hard readers and campers. But I worked for years in a school environment, and I constantly had to take kids and convert them into readers — convince them that they were wrong about hating to read, about not wanting to read, about wanting to do anything but read. When you try to promote something good (reading, playing outside) by pitting it against something kids love (comics, video games), you REDUCE the chance they will approach that good thing with interest and an open mind.

I tie this to the “books are broccoli”* approach. Imagine a cartoon where a teacher is handing two parents a sheet of paper and saying, “Now, the way we introduce children to hating learning is to first get them to hate reading. So require your child to read 30 minutes every night and then fill out and initial this form.”

If you want to suck the fun out of anything that your child enjoys doing, I suggest you force them to do it for 30 minutes every night, fill out a form, and have you initial it.

What is the message there? Reading is broccoli. It’s good for you. You won’t do it unless we make you. Eat your broccoli. Read!

The kid who liked to read sees reading turned into an assigned chore. He gets the message: Reading isn’t cool, dude. It’s something no one would do if they weren’t forced to do it — or rewarded for doing it. And by the way, you don’t get to pick out what you read anymore. That book is too young for you; that other one is too old. And neither of them are leveled readers. Here, read this flat, melba-toasty book for a half an hour and then I’ll initial your form. Make sure you get your form signed or I’ll make you read it again. It reads or it gets the hose.

Who is that billboard for, anyway? And does that method work? If parents love the outdoors, if they hike and camp and garden and play outside, their kids are likely to be spending time outside having fun. Many parents, however, seem to be of the “do what I say and not what I do” camp. They are indoors on the computer, watching TV and movies, maybe even reading (!), and they are waving their kids outside. In this scenario, no wonder the kids are bitter, their pale little faces pressed up against the window watching Dad play Halo and Mom skype to Grandma.

The billboard seems to be a vague scold toward parents. “Tsk, it says — make your kids go outside. It’s good for them.” But would the billboard work if the kid on the left were holding a book? Or homework? Or art materials?

Adults want to control kids. They want them to do the things they want them to do, and they want them to enjoy the activities they want them to enjoy. In the 70s, bespectacled children everywhere were being told they were “reading too much” and they needed more fresh air. Banished to the outdoors, they might climb into a treehouse with a copy of “Treasure Island” in their back pocket only to see an angry parent down on the ground, yelling at them to get down here and put that book away, mister. You will run around and play whether you want to or not. Childhood: You’re doing it wrong!

These days, parents research on their iPhone for ways to get their kids to read more and limit their kids’ screen time as though it were a magical alchemy: Less Minecraft = More Jack London. Either/or. You can’t read and play video games. You can’t play outside and watch TV. By pulling this string, I cause the reading activity level to rise.

You’re never going to convince an adult gamer that video games are bad for kids — not because he’s clinging stubbornly to his addiction, but because he’s amassed enough anecdotal evidence to know you’re wrong. Kids who play video games read (sometimes they learn to read so they can play the games), they problem-solve, they have raucously good fun with their family and friends. Trying to explain that it’s all bad, bad, bad just makes you sound like the Luddite codger you are.

Does it ever work to encourage activity A by denouncing activity B? Books are broccoli and kids need their broccoli so that makes TV and video games candy. Sweet, delicious candy. I’m in my 40s but even I know: candy good, broccoli bad.

The either/or approach focuses on scarcity. The glass is half empty, your day is almost gone. Your free time is as scarce as hen’s teeth. Don’t waste it on things you enjoy! Invest it in these more intellectually valuable pursuits instead!

An entirely different approach would be to present books as candy, the outdoors as candy. Wow. I think I just blew my own mind.

How different it would be if, instead of scolding children to stop doing A and go do B whether you like it or not, we just shut up and took them on a hike in the woods, then came home and read “Treasure Island” aloud while drinking hot chocolate.

How different it would be if, after playing video games together as a family, we read “The Hobbit” aloud.

How different it would be if we read a book together then watched the movie version. Together.

Part one of why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time? Our glass is three-quarters full. We have plenty of time — time to read, time to play, time to hike and camp and garden, time to play video games and watch a movie together.

Exposed to all of these activities, my kids love to read. They like to camp and hike and play outside. They like to take long dog walks. They like to play video games, and they love family movie night. They like TV.

I don’t worry about their screen time because it doesn’t negatively affect their love of literature, and they will happily “unplug” to play catch in the yard or go on a walk in the woods.

This is partially due to the fact that we have structured our life to allow time to enjoy all of these things. We haven’t pared their free time down to a thin shaving and forced them to decide how they want to spend their spare half hour per day of relaxation. It’s also partially due to something I’ll discuss tomorrow in Part 2.

Whenever you make it about “give up this thing you really love,” you are probably going to lose. Even if you win on paper, you are still losing in the ways that count. You’re losing credibility. You’re losing their attention. You’re losing their trust.

You are sending all kinds of subtle, between-the-lines messages about what’s broccoli and what’s candy. You’re sending those messages every day when you choose how to spend your free time, too. Before they learn how to velcro their shoes, kids know when your words don’t match your actions.

We have to change our entire approach and start saying, “If these things are really important to us — as a family, as a community, as a society — then we need to start enjoying them, together.”

We need to show our kids by example and as cohorts that reading and playing outside and all the other healthful things we value are the absolute bee’s knees, the epitome of fun, the best possible way to spend a Thursday night or a Saturday morning. We’re unlikely to convince our kids if we don’t believe it ourselves.

So step one really is: Rearrange your life to match your values. Then you won’t have to preach anymore, because your kid will already know.

*Once again, I am using “broccoli” as code for “something good for you that you personally don’t like”. Feel free to substitute spinach or brussels sprouts or whatever doesn’t suit your fancy. Just remember whatever it is, it has to be good for you as well as something you have to choke down against your will.

Read part two here.

The Sliver, or How to stop fighting about screen time

Parenting with abundance vs. scarcity

Novelty is good

Published by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2011 at 12:15 AM

The muppets are in Wired magazine doling out life advice, including how to rejuvenate your relationship. Interesting tidbits include

"Take on a new challenge and the excitement of tackling it will rub off on your relationship."


"Novel or exciting pursuits also stimulate the brain to pump out more dopamine."

Novel and exciting pursuits — they make you happy, and they strengthen your relationships. Not just your spousal relationships, I’m guessing.

Do you make regular time for doing something new and challenging? Do you include your kids?

The qualities of play

Published by Lori Pickert on June 8, 2009 at 01:38 PM

When productive work is suffused with the qualities of play — that is, with freedom, creativity, and imagination — we experience that work as play. … In our culture today, those people who have the most freedom of choice and opportunity for creativity within their work are most likely to say they enjoy their work and regard it as play.Play Makes Us Human, Freedom to Learn Blog, Psychology Today

Homeschooling toddlers and preschoolers

Published by Lori Pickert on October 27, 2008 at 03:01 PM

Some years ago my studio teacher showed me an online forum of art teachers where one person was expressing her annoyance at having to teach Kindergarten students, which she felt was “a waste of my time”. Other teachers chimed in with sympathy and understanding.

Now that doesn’t represent all art teachers, of course; my friend was indignant and said she wished these men and women could visit her studio and see the work produced by three- and four-year-olds. They were expressive, creative, and meaningful — actually, much more so than the typical cookie-cutter art produced by older children at many schools.

Yesterday I mused about the blog posts I’ve read recently about “distracting” little children when their older siblings are busy learning. Many adults, both at home and in school, seem to think that investing time helping the youngest learners is time better spent elsewhere.

Another post for another day, but I get tired of hearing “children’s work is play” used as an excuse to put small children in the corner with a box of blocks. Children’s work is play, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful or less worthy of attention and support. They learn through play; they express what they know through play. That isn’t to say that it isn’t also their work.

Why should small children be wooed away from older children who are hard at work?

The child who is digging in the dirt with a stick at the edge of the group will swiftly (as we mothers know) turn into a child who has the ability to participate fully. You can take advantage of exposing her to the type of work you hope she will do, or you can try to distract her away from it to make more room for the older children.

In doing so, you do a disservice to both groups. The younger children are losing the chance to learn in the easiest, most pleasant way — at the feet of their loved ones. The older ones are losing their chance to display their mastery to an adoring audience. In a mixed group of children, both groups benefit.

If you are teaching a traditional curriculum, dedicating a portion of your schedule to project-based learning will allow your children to not only acquire basic skills but learn to apply them, acquiring valuable habits of mind along the way. Letting your youngest children marinate in this atmosphere of engaged, excited learning is the best way to effortlessly raise relentless learners.

If you are unschooling, introducing preschool-age children to project work means that by age five or six you will have what I call a project-oriented child — an avid learner who reaches confidently for resources (including adults) to learn about what excites his interest.

Creative players of childhood

Published by Lori Pickert on October 17, 2008 at 02:20 PM


What happens to the creative house, store, and restaurant players of childhood in middle school? Children who invented new worlds, objects, and environments and set up everything as a great display at home come to school and say they have no ideas. It is these home players — the ones who can design all spaces, animate all objects, and design any new project — who need support. — George Szekely


Published by Lori Pickert on August 30, 2008 at 03:02 AM

I highly recommend the documentary Where Do the Children Play?, showing now on PBS.

Free play is slipping away from children’s lives. Yet time spent building forts or exploring outdoors, caring for animals, pretending or problem-solving with peers are now being shown by a wide body of research to be essential to healthy development, spiritual attunement, and emotional survival. Open-ended play in places that offer access to woods, gullies and gardens, ditches, boulders, and bike paths enhances curiosity and confidence throughout life.

Project: Tepee

Published by Lori Pickert on October 4, 2007 at 10:14 PM


I whipped up a tepee for younger son yesterday. He was talking about how much he wants a treehouse, and I pointed out that the upstairs deck is very much like a treehouse.

He was quite dubious.

I bought three six-foot-long pieces of bamboo a couple years ago for about $7.00. I was planning on making a tepee for school — maybe out by the garden, or maybe an inside tepee for a special reading nook.

So today I fetched those never-used pieces of bamboo, rooted around in the closet for an old canvas duvet cover, produced a pair of scissors and announced I could make him something cool, something super-cool, that would be even better than a treehouse.

tipi2.jpgThe pieces of bamboo were tied together with twine in three spots. I removed two of the twine "bracelets" and left the remaining one to hold the top of the tepee together.

I cut one corner off the duvet (did I mention this is a no-sew project?) and popped it over the top, then cut along one seam so it would be tepee-shaped.

tipi4.jpgI cut straight up one seam to make the door, then I cut out a window and rolled it up, securing it with a little clamp. (I traced a magazine to make a more-or-less rectangular window.)

We threw an old pillow on the floor and younger son found a plastic bin to hold art supplies and a pair of binoculars; he was delighted that the bin also made him a little table.

tipi5.jpgFinal result: For $7.00, we have a fantastic play structure that will entertain him all fall. And if it rains, we can pop the fabric in the washing machine and dryer. (The pillow comes in at night.)

He says it's better than a treehouse, for sure.


More tent & tepee goodness:

Eren's cowboy camp on her blog, This Vintage Chica

Plains Indian Tepee

HGTV's much more complicated DIY tepee

Grow a Beanpole Tepee