Over the summer, I read a wonderful op-ed in The New York Times, Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think, by Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at Berkeley. She explains why unstructured play and discovery is so important for babies and young children. She writes:
Babies and young children are designed to explore, and they should be encouraged to do so.
The learning that babies and young children do on their own, when they carefully watch an unexpected outcome and draw new conclusions from it, ceaselessly manipulate a new toy or imagine different ways that the world might be, is very different from schoolwork. Babies and young children can learn about the world around them through all sorts of real-world objects and safe replicas, from dolls to cardboard boxes to mixing bowls, and even toy cellphones and computers. Babies can learn a great deal just by exploring the ways bowls fit together or by imitating a parent talking on the phone.
She worries about how misguided parents and educators take the wrong lessons from experiments showing that babies actually engage in statistical reasoning, experimental discovery and probabilistic logic to
conclude that they need programs and products that will make their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults, should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards to get them to recognize the alphabet. Government programs like No Child Left Behind urge preschools to be more like schools, with instruction in specific skills.