Last updated on March 24th, 2019 at 12:34 pm
Many people are fond of the phrase “play is children’s work,” a notion attributable to Friedrich Froebel, the “inventor” of kindergarten. And so it is. In fact, play is a powerful learning tool for people of all ages—Einstein called it “the highest form of research”—and a generator of creativity.
However, Western society differentiates between play and work and, by prolonging childhood, we shelter children from work. Instead, we inflict upon them mindless “work” related to the pseudo-reality that is school (and which is supposed to prepare them for the so-called “real world” of adult work.) At both school and home, we “allow” them to “help” within certain constraints—usually relating to cleanliness and efficiency—and we think it’s cute when they pretend to do real work with the aid of toy tools.
In contrast, life learning involves kids doing their own real work, motivated by their own real interests and goals… and being around adults who are also doing their own real work. One of the foundations of the life learning experience is adults making the real world accessible to children and young people.
Unfortunately, there are few places where children can experience the adult world. Most children—and even many home-schooled ones—don’t have nearly enough opportunities to be with adults who are doing their own thing in the real world and not, as John Holt once put it, “just hanging around entertaining or instructing or being nice to children.” The working world of adults is not very accessible to children due to fears they will get hurt, get in the way of or slow down production, or abuse or break the equipment.
However, there are many opportunities for children and young people to learn in and be of service to the real world (some of them generating money as well). They include volunteering with community organizations, participating in their parents’ businesses or at their workplaces, working for pay or as apprentices at neighbourhood businesses, and running their own businesses.
Our daughters Heidi and Melanie grew up living and learning in the midst of our busy home-based magazine publishing business. They were never required to “help” but they often happily participated—and were paid when they did so. We trusted them to use the tools of that business; they never abused those tools out of respect for the part they played in making our family’s livelihood. And they often put all that office equipment to good use in their own money-making enterprises when they tired of stuffing envelopes for the family business.
Although I don’t want to romanticize the past or ignore the abuses against children that took place a few centuries ago, there was a time when children routinely had the opportunity to do real work at their parents’ side, as well as on their own accord, and to be involved in the life of their communities. In our more complex modern world, this same type of opportunity and respect for children’s abilities is still possible if we all share a sense of responsibility for helping develop the minds that will lead us into the future.
Coercion, exploitation and danger should be the barriers to children’s work, not cultural assumptions about their capabilities or behaviour. German sociologist Manfred Liebel in his book A Will of Their Own: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Working Children writes, “Take the hazard out of the work, not the child.”
And who knows, as we help create opportunities for our children to do real work, they just might help us learn how to play!
Read more about life learning in FREEDOM TO LEARN: Foster life-long learning in your child