When my child, Luke, was almost six years old there was a period of less than two weeks when he learned to pump himself on the swing, ride his bike without training wheels and climb to a previously unattainable branch of a favorite tree. Many parents have noticed this kind learning and growth explosion in our kiddos, when things just seem to click and come together all of a sudden.
I have enjoyed seeing this kind of learning explosion happen with many children over the years in terms of literacy learning, too. Sure, kids can and often do learn various skills and pieces of knowledge over time, but there are also these wonderful moments or bursts when all of a sudden things just come together and the child begins to jive with a different kind of literacy, maybe sounding out words on her own in writing, maybe blending sounds together to decode text, or suddenly picking up a ton of “sight words.” When this happens I see kids gobble up lots of skills and knowledge bits so quickly and easily in a burst of “getting it” in a new way.
It’s really exciting to be part of, but more than that it points out something interesting about the way learning happens. Learning doesn’t have to be a painful accumulation of skills and facts over time, on a timetable or timed for speed. Without some of the structures that force this obsession with time, I have noticed that people, yep that includes kids, can learn a lot in a short period of time, making big ole jumps in what we have traditionally called development, with great joy and ease.
So as adults one thing we can do is be patient and observant, but what else? And for that matter what are kids doing in the meantime, if they are not drudging through workbooks or direct instruction? One possibility is that kids are building up habits of mind or playing with taking on various identities. To me these do happen more over time, slow cooked into our bones, and they aren’t things you can sit down and learn in a lesson or be tested on at all. How do kids come to think of themselves as readers, writers or scientists (not that these academic-y identities are the only ones kids come to know!)? It’s complicated for sure, but part of it is by being surrounded with models and then having lots of space and time to play with the possibilities.
So here are a few examples of what I mean from this week at Roots. I posted to Facebook earlier this week the little anecdote below about a seven year old who named herself in a pretend play scene as “the girl who loves science.” This is much more than cute to me. This is one of the really valuable things that is happening as children play: they get to name and rename themselves as the play changes. It’s powerful to name yourself in this way and to know that you can name yourself again and again in lots of different ways! What if kids knew that it is really themselves who get to say who they are. In terms of reading, that their own ideas are more valid than what a grade, test or level system might say about them. In creating and recreating their dramatic play worlds, they come to know their own power to revise themselves and their world.
In two other moments this week I saw this kind of habit of mind around reading. On Friday at ImaginOn Children’s Library, we spent about thirty minutes hanging out in a play area with toys surrounded by shelves of books and comfy chairs. Two children decided to spend their time playing at reading chapter books. They each selected ones they wanted from a shelf and sat down to read. They occasionally would turn and chat with each other about what their books were about. In some settings these books would be seen as “above their reading level” and what they were doing wouldn’t be called reading at all. I don’t care one iota myself about reading levels or classic notions of what it means to read (seeing reading as only the ability to decode). I am much more curious about the story of literacy the two kids created. This story included several things that are very important to me as a literacy researcher. In their play world I gathered that self-selection of books, talking about books and feeling inspired by the environment were all important parts of what it means to read. Well, you would think they had been schooled by Harvey Daniels or one of the other great reading teacher gurus! These are exactly the ideas about literacy that progressive literacy educators have been trying to get into literacy instruction for years. I guess we have a lot to learn from the play of young children, huh?!
On another afternoon this week as kids were deep in fantasy play I saw someone borrow one of my books for teachers and families. I looked up and saw that actually almost everyone had one of these thick books in hand. I heard a six year old say to another child, “oh, I just love to read all day!” To me the value of this kind of moment is again much more than cute. It is totally equal in my mind with kids sitting for 30 minutes of phonics instruction on diagraphs. I know that these kiddos will have multiple bursts of literacy learning in their lives in which they eat up lots of bits of knowledge and skills. And I think part of coming to these moments of learning explosion is connected to the slower more complicated journey toward knowing oneself as a reader. The play’s the thing that does that, baby! So what can we , adults, do? Let the children play.