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Mother Nature's Pedagogy: Play and Self-Education

Children are born with instinctive drives to play, explore, and educate themselves. In fact, free play is essential to normal physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development. This presentation will feature extensive, detailed observations of children in both modern and traditional cultures, as well as studies with animals, which show the critical importance of play and the harm done by play deprivation. What's curious is that, despite all this evidence, prevailing educational efforts increasingly restrict children's access to play. Most schools run exactly counter to what we know about human nature and the nature of learning. It is past time for us to create learning environments that tap into children's natural drives rather than suppress them. Once we unleash the play instinct, learning will be optimized: children will be happier, more self-reliant, and better prepared for life. This presentation will showcase the power of natural learning and the lifelong value of play.

Learning Objectives

  1. What are the negative consequences for children's development of restricting their opportunities for free play and exploration, in and out of school, to the degree that we do today? Is there a causal relationship between the decline in children's freedom over the past sixty years and the rise of childhood anxiety, depression, helplessness, and suicide over this same time span in the United States?
  2. How did children in hunter-gatherer cultures become educated? What is the evidence, from research in hunter-gatherer cultures, that children's natural playfulness, curiosity, sociability, and attentiveness to the culture around them are exquisitely designed, by natural selection, to serve the function of education? What are the conditions of life in hunter-gatherer cultures that made children's self-education possible?
  3. How can the lessons learned from hunter-gatherers be transferred to our culture today? What is the evidence that, given an appropriate educational setting, children's natural educative instincts can function beautifully today? What happens when children and teenagers are provided with adequate educational opportunities but no educational coercion? In what ways is our modern information age conducive to a return to the educational methods of hunter-gatherers?



Bruce Smith, staff, Clearview Sudbury School

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