It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Let’s rehearse reality

During an interview recently, a parent asked about my “curriculum”. When I launched into a description of play and activities, she sort of waved me off. She wasn’t interested in hearing about just play. She wanted to know what they were learning. She was, it became clear, interested in knowing about the books I read (which I do, of course!), how I teach them about letters, numbers, shapes, colours.

Hmmm. Unless I can make some headway into her educational priorities, I doubt we’d be a good match, this mother and I. Worksheets and drills? At one and two years old?

Just play,” she says.

“You can be Wally, and I’ll be Fred.”
“And this,” Nigel hands Malli a block, “is your hammer.”
“Okay. I will hammer here!”

“Play is a child’s work”. Whether you attribute this quote to Adler, Montessori, Weininger, or someone else, it remains true. Everything a small child needs to learn, he learns through play. Even when we become adults, for that matter, the most effortless learning happens when we’re playing with the ideas, making a game of it. For a smallchild, it’s never “just” playing.

“Hey, Wally. Wally? Bring that piece of wall over here, okay?”
“This piece?”
“I’m brinn-inn it.”
“Now you don’t have a bathroom any more. Now there is no wall, and there is no bathroom, so you’ll have to go live somewhere else, far, far away from your house.”

When they’re playing, they practice problem-solving, they rehearse social situations, they deal with emotions.

“I’m not living in my house?”
“No, you have to live in a new house, and Wally and Fred will fix your old house. You live in a new house, with a new bedroom and no garden and no playing soccer in the back yard.”

They confront anxieties.

“Why can’t I play soccer?”
“Because the new house has nice grass and too much chairs and tables and a big umbrella, and the soccer ball might break the grass and make the chairs dirty.”
“I have a hammer!”
“Yeah. Let’s build the wall. We can build the wall, and make the bathroom again.”
“I’m building a toilet!”
“A toilet to poo in!”
“Uh-huh. You build the bathtub.”

Sounds of industrious hammering, as they construct a toilet and tub out of blocks and blankets. In play, they sort out confusing aspects of their lives.

“Build, build, build!”
“Are we done, Nigel?”
“I’m not Nigel, I’m Fred.”
“Are we done, Fred?”
“Almost. The bathroom is almost done, and the new bedroom is almost done, and the big family room is almost done. The house is much bigger.”
“We are buildinn a new, big house.”
“Not a new house, just a bigger old house. It will be my old house, just with another bathroom and another bedroom and more playing room.”

They deal with stress. They practice reality.
Sounds of hammering. Block pounds into block. Towers clatter.

“Are we done, Fred?”
“We are done! It is a beautiful new old house! Now I can come back!”
“Yeah! I will have a beautiful new old house, and I will go back soon.”

“Just” play? I don’t think so.

July 14, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. question: Is the parent Asian? ( South east asian, Indian…)

    coz she sounded like my parents and their generation of extended family 🙂

    love the way the tots incorporate their parents responses to their ‘why cant I…?’s

    So some tot got his ball taken away by some nice grass and glass? too bad for him/her!

    Not in this case, no, but I’ve heard tales of Asian parents from other clients, so it seems they share a mindset. Yes, it’s fun to hear echoes of adult words in the mouths of the tots — this translation was pretty clear; sometimes the echo is awfully distorted!

    Comment by Suzi | July 14, 2008 | Reply

  2. Reminds me of one of the families I interviewed for – they wanted to me to provide lesson plans for their (not quite) 2 and 5 year olds for EVERY day that I’d be there. And this was during the peak of my reading John Holt. It didn’t sit well with me (why in the world does a two year old need a lesson plan to get through his day?) and I ended up taking a different job.

    I love the conversation between “Wally and Fred” – the responses were so mature!

    Education with children this age is best done as a response to their interests (and their weaknesses), I believe. Coming in with a curriculum and lesson plans is artificial and impersonal. Do I try to lead them to the next stage and phase? Of course! Each one, individually, as they display readiness. I suppose you could argue that this constitutes an informal lesson plan, but most people who use the term are thinking of something much less personal and organic.

    Comment by Angela | July 14, 2008 | Reply

  3. At the center our son goes to, we have teacher conferences twice a year where they map out what they are doing with the kids to all of us parents. This is mostly for the older (school age) children as they do pre-school and kindergarden at our center. I was amazed at the parents in our class (18months to 2 1/2 years) asking about what kind of lesson plans they had in place to further the kids’ learning.

    There are two problems with this. First, I talk to Jeffrey’s teachers every day. I didn’t need a conference for it, I read what comes home with him and inquire everytime I am there. I also hang out when I have the opportunity (which is encouraged) so that I can see the interaction between the kids and staff.

    Second. The kids are toddlers! They don’t need lesson plans and strict schedules. I am happy with them because they play. Jeffrey is easily learning sign because the school is heavily associated with the deaf community and MANY staff/parent/children are hearing impaired. They read, they sing, they take walks, they’ve learned to wash their hands on their own. All of these things make me glad. A lesson plan does not.

    Conferences can be a good idea, meeting other parents, getting a sense of the community of the school. You’ve discovered that others of the parents approach their child’s learning quite differently than you. If you came to feel that these parents dictated the approach the staff took, you might reconsider your child’s enrollment there. Lots to learn — but none of it strictly parent-teacher!

    It sounds like you have Jeffrey in a lovely setting. The bi-cultural nature — the hearing and the deaf — that’s wonderful. What an advantage for him!

    Comment by Dani | July 14, 2008 | Reply

  4. I remember asking the same question when my child started 2 year old preschool. While I understand the concept of learning by playing, what I wanted to know was that the teachers were giving the right kind of play.

    Wow, this is a hard thing to communicate without sounding nuts. I wanted to know that they were offering specific motor skills, art, social, language and pre-reading, and early math building activities. I needed to know that the teachers were thinking ahead on this, not that playing kitchen just happens to be a learning activity, but that the teacher is balancing various types of activities with a vague result in mind.

    Of course lots of completely “free” play is great too, but I was paying for a preschool so I wanted some structure. In a home daycare, I would probably want some reassurance that you weren’t just turning them loose while you watch television all day. I read you regularly, so I know better, but there are definitely some home cares in my area where caregivers don’t give much care. Or maybe the lady is crazy, who knows?

    “Teacher is balancing various types of activities with a vague result in mind.” That probably describes my “curriculum” — though mostly, the result I’m after is quite, quite specific. Thing is, essentially none of the goals I have in mind are academic. With children three and under, my goals are emotional and social: they learn to take turns, to share, to be considerate, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’; kindness, confidence, patience, compassion, tolerance, awareness of others, expressing needs appropriately, managing their emotions… If I achieve any degree of success in these goals, the parent is absolutely getting value for their money — the best value.

    Letters, numbers, colours and shapes are far, far secondary to these goals. This is not to say that we don’t do these things. We do. Four of the five children can identify the intial letter of their name. They can all count to ten by rote. The oldest two can actually count (with one-to-one correspondence). They all know most of their colours. They all have a good-sized repertoire of songs and nursery rhymes. And all this has happened without a single lesson plan.

    Too often, by “lesson plan”, parents mean drills and rote repetition and memorization of facts: none of which are very effective learning tools, anyway. Your definition of the term, though, seems more in keeping with the philosophy expressed in this post, so I don’t think we’re too far apart.

    Comment by MJH | July 14, 2008 | Reply

  5. You are encouraging one of the most important brain functions of all, self-regulation. Check out this article – the things it suggests sounds like your house.

    Thank you! That was very interesting. The only downside to it for me seems to be that the constant stream of verbiage that pours, pours, endlessly pours out of Nigel as he plays is “a type of self-regulating language … shown to be predictive of executive functions.” Which means, I suppose, that I have to put up with it… Oh, well. I suppose the “self-regulating language/executive functioning” can be the silver lining in a very noisy cloud.

    Comment by Laura D. | July 14, 2008 | Reply

  6. “Hmmm. Unless I can make some headway into her educational priorities, I doubt we’d be a good match, this mother and I. Worksheets and drills? At one and two years old?”

    My question is, as a child care provider of toddlers (really, babies) why would you even be expected to have an educational plan at all.

    “Just play” seems to me (parent of a 20 and a 13 year old) to be the optimum situation.

    Actually, I would be questioning any caregiver who touted being able to teach a group of two year olds their ABC’s and 123’s.

    If you, by yourself, can keep a GROUP of toddlers engaged, encourage co-operative play and provide a stimulating and safe environment for them EIGHT HOURS A DAY, FIVE DAYS A WEEK, FOR OVER TEN YEARS, then you are already a Saint in my book.

    Some people need a reality check.

    Aww… I don’t really think I’m one of the select group who really deserve Sainthood, but I completely agree with your point that the best goals for this age are getting them to co-operate, and many other basic social skills. The most academically skilled person in the world will not succeed if they are unable to function in society. Let’s start with the essentials! Knowing you can’t hurt someone just because they disagree with you is more critical than being able to identify 17 types of clouds. (And I love cloud identification!)

    Comment by Zayna | July 14, 2008 | Reply

  7. It is my feeling that there is plenty of time for learning “educational” stuff, and that much of that comes from other activities, anyhow, like readign aloud, which I know you do, answering their questions, and having alphabet puzzles/ magnets/ blocks around as well as lots of stuff for imaginative play. I totally don’t subscribe to the idea of feeding your child flash cards or using “educational” toys. Stimulation comes in lots of different forms, and play that includes physical play and imaginative play will provide tons of goodness.

    Comment by kittenpie | July 15, 2008 | Reply

  8. The UK has a national curriculum that starts at 0 (yep, birth-3, 3-4, 4-5, then school key stages)

    But, it does specifically say not to “teach” at under 5 years, but to learn through play. AND it says what they should be learning is social interaction, general lifeskills & lifestyles, respecting and interacting with their environment and such like. No ABC’s or 123’s mentioned, although obviously they do get “taught” – “how many worms can we see as we dig the garden? 1,2 ,3 ,4” “look how blue the sky is today, let’s play outside!”

    ALL pre-schools, child-minders and day cares have to follow the national curriculum. In theory, we should have model citizens in another twenty years time:)

    Comment by juggling mother | July 15, 2008 | Reply

  9. If I have kids one day I’m coming to live near your house so you can be their carer. I love reading these stories. 🙂

    Comment by chosha | July 15, 2008 | Reply

  10. There are 17 kinds of clouds? o_O? Damn, I know like, 7. Must research.

    Comment by chosha | July 15, 2008 | Reply

  11. I’m taking a two year Montessori training diploma right now and it’s totally a hybrid of lesson plan and play. All of the stuff in a Montessori classroom is designed to teach kids stuff, but it’s fun for them! Kind of like how digging a hole in a garden is tedious for an adult, but kids love it, and it teaches spatial references and motor skills and so forth. The lesson plan part comes in because the teacher needs to keep track of which students have done what activities, so s/he can introduce the child to the next set, or make sure that other activities are being done.

    Comment by Karin | July 15, 2008 | Reply

  12. Coming out of lurkdom….Greetings from a fellow daycare provider in the U S of A. I recently lost a family that was looking for more STIMULATION. Perhaps she also wanted worksheets for her 9 month old. Well goodbye to bad rubish LOL, unfortunately sounds like this group made its way to Canada and found you. Good luck with that, I’m off to tie these kids to chairs so I can nap…no stimulation here…strictly forbidden!

    Comment by Rita | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  13. How interesting. I was just reading about an approach to education that’s premised (partly) on the idea that there’s no such thing as “play”. It struck me as very odd, but maybe they just define play more narrowly, I’m not sure.

    Here, at least, many daycare centres use the idea of “learning programmes” as a selling point, so maybe that kind of marketing is just filtering through to parents, who then feel like their children might be left behind if they, too, don’t have some kind of structured plan. (Though, to be honest, I think the learning programmes are more structured on paper than they are in the actual daycares. Even in preschool, I tend to see more playing than rigorous learning.)

    Comment by Kat | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  14. […] Wally and Fred have been a repeating theme in Nigel’s conversations for months now, ever since he and his family moved into a rented house (”our fresh house”) so that Wally and Fred could build an addition onto his old house. […]

    Pingback by Don’t argue with his reality « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  15. Wow! When I have kids, I’m moving to your town to be near you. 🙂

    Comment by yukonchatterbug | July 27, 2008 | Reply

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