I'm sometimes asked what my son does all day. After all, a child his age would typically have his hours neatly divided—school and home, weekend and weekday. My son, unschooled as he is, knows no such division. His time, when I consider it, is spent cycling on his balance bike, cooking, being read out to, dreaming, vehicle-watching, and visiting car showrooms or spaces housing rescued animals. If I had to sum up his life in a word, I would say it is a life of play.
I must admit—there was a time I assumed that childhood was preparation for adult existence; and such preparation demanded learning (in a neat, half-hour silos) math and science and history.
I no longer hold the view.
In part because I don't view childhood as rookie bootcamp, as a precursor to whatever rigour adults are meant to align themselves with. I view childhood as a season, fleeting, whole unto itself.
In part, too, because I've realised—my son has made me realise—that learning cannot be detached from play. Specifically, from play that is unencumbered by adult-driven goals of counting and spelling.
When my son and I visit the animal shelter, we sometimes feed the donkeys, darling creatures with the ability to (quite literally) dig their heels in if in trouble. When and how did adult donkeys learn the trick? Not by attending Donkey School. Not in PE class. But while playing as babies. As they cavorted and bucked, as they brayed and nipped one another, they picked up invaluable life skills.
So it is with all mammals, indeed with any creature with flexible (rather than rigid) instincts—instincts that are only ever meant to be 'shaped through learning and practice provided by play' (Peter Gray).
Put simply, the more a creature has to learn, the more he is expected to lark around. This is why, in the animal order, primates are the most playful, and among primates, human beings, chimps and bonobos—wondrous learning machines—are the monarchs of unbridled exploration—but if, and only if, they're granted full freedom to explore.
Somewhere along the way, we have distorted childhood learning—full days of free-flowing, often outdoor, discovery—into regimented study within four walls. And we have come to refer to the latter rather than to the former as knowledge-gathering; as a necessary first step to becoming an erudite grown-up.
This isn't how we, as a species, evolved. This isn't how we were meant to acquire the skills of today and tomorrow. This isn't what our children are biologically equipped for.
Now, I watch my gambolling son pause beside a rescued tortoise—a tortoise he has named Truman after a creature in a book by the same name. What does he learn as his fingers touch a patterned shell? I don't know. I don't think it is possible to know. But I believe his body gathers vital information about the natural world, about a species unlike his own. My son spends ages with the tortoise, until clouds gather, and Truman walks languidly into a cave.
The next day, as my boy cycles, as he feels winter's light settle on his skin, he informs me, 'Right now, Truman is coming out of the cave.'
'What makes you say that?' I ask.
'Because tortoises are like me. They like to sunbathe.'
They do. A former amphibian parent, I know that tortoises seek basking spots; that without half a day of sun, their bodies give way.
How did my son discover the fact? I guess he learnt in play.
Dharini Bhaskar is the author of These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light. She is working on her next novel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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