Time to learn

I love Penelope Leach. I’m going to come right out and say it. My love affair started long ago when I was in my early teens and I found one of her parenting tomes, cracked spine and well-thumbed, on a shelf in my parents’ junk room. Once I’d discovered it, I often snuck in there in unguarded moments (somehow I felt this was an illicit activity) to find out how to bring myself up.

When I was about to become a parent myself, I randomly decided to read everyone but her. I think the memory of the seventies-style cover of the book my parents owned made me think she must be Old and Out of Date. So I read Gina Ford (talk about out of date!) and the Baby Whisperer and Dr Miriam Stoppard. It wasn’t until I was seven months pregnant with baby number 2 that I found “Your Baby & Child” by Penelope Leach (in a very modern-looking binding) in a charity shop for the appealing price of £1, and decided to see what she had to say. I have been dipping in and out of her book every since, mainly reading about toddlers, and everything she says just makes such perfect sense.

Here is something I read in a section on how to join in with toddler play that made me rethink my life:

“Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for [your toddler’s] games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the 10 minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words: “that’s enough”. You cannot play with him all day but […] do try, sometimes, to seem willing or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Penelope Leach, 2003, Your Baby & Child, p. 408.)

(The fancy referencing and the elipsis and such are for you, Dad.)

I read this and realised that I am always limiting my playtime with the Toddler. I will play with him for a little bit, but I am always plotting an exit strategy to get back to Important Things like the washing up or Twitter. As an excellent parenting course I attended put it: I am always half-busy. Never with my mind completely on my children, or completely on something else, but always doing both at once and not giving my best, full attention to either. This is not something to beat myself up over, though of course I do, because it is normal. There is not enough time in the day to spend every second completely focused on either the children or the house work or being self-employed, because something will end up not done. You have to multi-task sometimes.

However, I decided that I can, once a day, give the Toddler my unlimited time and attention for something he wants to do, and not stop until he wants to stop. I have tried it with playing his favourite game, Doodlebugs, which is actually very enjoyable. It is no hardship to spend 20 minutes playing Doodlebugs, or playing football, or drawing numbers on the pavement with chalk. And the thing I secretly fear – that he will never ever want to stop – is not true. He does eventually tire and want to do something else. Just not as quickly as I do. But that is okay.

I am not just telling you about all this to show how I am growing as a parent and a human being. There is something in particular that struck me about this passage from Penelope Leach’s book: “He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Leach, 2003, p. 408) (for you, Dad) The reason my Toddler – and, it turns out, any toddler – wants to play or do the same thing for hours on end is not because he is obsessed, not because he is a bit boring, but because he is learning. 

A case in point: This weekend, the Toddler was playing in the garden while my husband was cooking on the barbecue – this was a fascinating new phenomenon. To observe it better, the Toddler ran inside to get an apple and installed himself on a garden chair with a good view of Daddy.

“Doing, Daddy?”
“I’m doing the barbecue. What are you doing, S?”
“I’m doing apple.”
[pause for munching]
“Doing, Daddy?”
My husband said they must have had this exact conversation about twenty times in a row. When the apple was gone, our son ran inside, got a pear and carried on where he had left off, except now he was “doing pear”. Daddy, being a good sport, was very happy to keep going for as long as the Toddler wanted to. What was he learning? I imagine he was learning about chatting, about turn-taking, about how you can use the verb ‘to do’ to describe an activity, but primarily about how you ask and answer questions, which is a relatively new feature of the Toddler’s language.

A while back, I wrote about the wonders of self-education. I have been looking on, in awe, as my son has taught himself to count and to recognise letters and their sounds, while I have spent my professional life witnessing British teenagers come out of secondary school unable to spell or do simple maths. The question I asked in that post was: what has gone wrong between the joyful self-education of the pre-school years and the antagonistic reluctance to be educated that you find in schools? Now I ask it again. It would seem that toddlers are built for learning. By instinct, they know what to do. They find something that interests them and they are not quite competent at yet, and they explore, experiment and repeat repeat repeat until they have mastered it. We don’t need to teach them how to learn. They know. In fact, we’re mostly the ones trying to stop them doing it.

So, let’s start the debate once more. What do you think? If we start from scratch and invent school as if it had never existed, what would it look like? How can we use what children are born with to help them learn? Should we have listened to Socrates? Or Montessori? Or just Penelope Leach? Tell me what you think in the comments and let’s re-imagine education!

PS: If you haven’t already, watch this amazing TED-talk by Ken Robinson on the subject.

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh


19 responses

  1. Fascinating Judith. Great great post. I’m writing a feature currently on the importance of praising your little ones, and the big thing, is that it is linked to attention, positivity and self-esteem. You will be encouraging your toddler to be a confident and happy young boy by giving him the time he craves, AND deserves. I get your thoughts totally and often find it harder said than done, but since I began getting sleep again, I find I have more patience and am more inclined to get down on their level and play. But, good for you for writing this very important read! And I love the fancy referencing, (reminds me of Uni). x

    • Yes, SLEEP! I find sleep = patience and patience = much better parenting. I will look forward to reading your post on praise. It is so vital, but also easy to get wrong. Also, it needs to be fine tuned to individuals and to their age and stage. (Thought about this a lot as a teacher)

      And as for referencing – my Dad is an academic, and I spent many summers in my teens tending to his online bibliography as if it were a garden. I am now schooled in about four different systems of referencing and merrily mix them all up. Thank goodness I won’t ever need them again! (I think…)

  2. What a thought-provoking post. I love Penelope Leach too! I really must dig out her book again, and have another look through, now that Austin’s older. I don’t know a great deal about education, but I do know that, if D and I are able to make an effort to talk and play with Austin, not only does his behaviour improve, but his learning leaps ahead. It’s the same with Gwen. And I’ve also noticed that Austin is desperate to keep up with his peers. So since starting pre-school, where they place a greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy than we have done at home, he’s taken a much bigger interest in letters and numbers. Note to self: must listen to Judith/Penelope and allow more time for play!

    • I just love the way Penelope Leach acknowledges lots of different strategies for dealing with babies and young children, gives parents their due as those who know their children best, but also brings in her own knowledge, biology, psychology and all sorts of things that help you make the best decision. And the child is always at the centre, looking at what they need, and assuming the best of them instead of the worst. Sorry, there I went again, bit of a fan girl! So yes, I think we could all do with listening to her more, me included. About an hour after I pressed ‘Publish’ on this post, I invented a new game that the Toddler loved, involving an invisible dog, and he wanted to play it over and over. Instead of heeding my own advice, I got bored, wandered off to make lunch, and then shouted at him when he would not stop nagging me to keep playing Invisible Dog. *hangs head in shame*

  3. Oooh I’ve not read Penelope Leach *off to check Amazon* . I totally relate to this post. It is so hard to play until their game ends. And yet on the days I do, I (usually) end up engrossed and having fun with her.

  4. A really thought-provoking post. I always tried to allow unlimited play time with the girls, but often life got in the way and I had too much to cram in. Luckily being twins, they would often continue where I’d left off and playtime would go on for ages.
    Your son sounds completely adorable btw.

    • Ah yes that must be an advantage of twins, though I imagine they are so much harder in many other ways! And yes, I do think my son is rather adorable, haha! 🙂

  5. I have not read her books but in fairness i think she maybe talking some sense, i know i need to devote more time for what Joshua wants to do when he wants to do it, although lets be honest there really is so many times you can sing round and round the garden isnt there!

  6. Great post, thank you. This reminds me of Oliver James’ exhortations to ‘love bomb’ your children. (Which I confess I only know about through reading reviews, tweets, and discussions about it on Mumsnet, which represent my main sources of information these days).
    Anyway, it’s all about attention and participation, isn’t it? I am feeling rather inspired to spend some time playing with my two tomorrow. Your comment about getting back to housework or twitter made me smile rather too wryly….

    • Attention and participation. I will put that on my list of topics to explore for my next education post – I’ve decided this needs to become a regular thing until I’ve fixed school. Thanks for commenting!!

  7. What a great post. I am not aware of Penelope Leach – although I’ve heard – and ignored – the others!! For pregnancy, I really enjoyed reading Zita West’s books, being a midwife I pretty much trusted what she said. I think that we only learn from things by doing things – not only as toddlers but also all those who run the education system! And, like you there have been many times where I have only half-played with Grace (guilty Mum mode!!). Thank you for linking this discussion to PoCoLo xx

  8. Great post! I am a teacher and find education depressing. We are getting it wrong. My son five and daughter two love to learn. At secondary school the pupils want spoon fed and to do as little as possible. I don’t know what the answer is but my guess is that it involves more autonomy for both teachers and pupils. The system is broken, it destroys our natural love of learning. If I had the nerve I would home school my children, it makes more sense to me. Secondary is worse, lots of nice things happening at Primary schools. Secondary is a different story.

    • Oh Stephanie I just noticed I’d never responded to your comment here! Of course you must be a teacher from your excellent educational blog, I should have guessed. I agree, the key must be autonomy. We need to trust good teachers to know what they are doing and let them get on with it without too much government intervention, and we need to trust children more to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.

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