Nobel Laureates and Kiddie Flash Cards

Readers — This is a plea for standing back and letting childhood happen. When care about our children’s safety and success, but do not obsess to the point where we can’t magine either happening without our immediate and constant intervention, we free up both generations.

What can our kids do with that free time not spent with flash cards, Kumon, or classes? Goof around, “waste” time and stumble upon the things they love to do. Or so it seems to me, especially in light of this little insight from Linda Stone, coiner of the phrase “continuous partial attention,” as quoted in boingboing via James Fallows in the Atlantic (yes, a roundabout way to find itself here). Sez Stone:

I interviewed a handful of Nobel laureates about their childhood play patterns. They talked about how they expressed their curiosity through experimentation. They enthusiastically described things they built, and how one play experience naturally led into another. In most cases, by the end of the interview, the scientist would say, “This is exactly what I do in my lab today! I’m still playing!”

An unintended and tragic consequence of our metrics for schools is that what we measure causes us to remove self-directed play from the school day. Children’s lives are completely programmed, filled with homework, lessons, and other activities.. There is less and less space for the kind of self-directed play that can be a fantastically fertile way for us to develop resilience and a broad set of attention strategies, not to mention a sense of who we are, and what questions captivate us.

Yup. This summer, let’s make a pledge to give our kids some of that brain fertilizer known as free time. And, if they’re old enough, some unsupervised free time, at that. – L.

Tutoring session for potential geniuses.

Tutoring session for potential geniuses.

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21 Responses to Nobel Laureates and Kiddie Flash Cards

  1. EB June 2, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    I fully agree that kids need time for self-directed play. And a lot of it. But in the best-case scenario, that happens at home, after school, weekends, and vacation-time. School is not really set up to handle several hundred kids doing truly self-directed play. So for kids that have no real opportunity for this at home because their neighborhoods are not safe, there should be lots of opportunity for self-directed play at after-school care, day camp, etc. During the 9-3 hours, school should be enjoyable and allow kids to choose from among the activities that lead to solid learning — but it’s unrealistic to think that school can provide opportunities for truly free play.

  2. Steve June 2, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    Wernher von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16 1977) German rocket scientist and astronautics engineer, is responsible for one of my favorite quotes:

    “Basic research is what I am doing when I don’t know what I am doing.”


    My guess is most creative people would agree with this. But of course Bean Counters and linear personalities, like many school administrators, don’t understand this kind of thinking. They are clueless.

  3. Celeste June 2, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    Speaking from the perspective of a two-parent home in which both of us work outside the home 40-50 hours a week (probably the norm), summer break necessarily means finding camps and other activities for our kids to participate in during the day, until they’re older and can be left on their own for 8-10 hours a day. Weekends are free-wheeling though!

  4. J- June 2, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    I remember reading some years ago about the average IQ of Nobel Prize winners. A study conducted gave the average at 144. This was done using the older IQ scale, and when corrected to the modern scale, the average IQ for Nobel laureates is 128-132.

    What is surprising about this, is that this is the threshold between “above average” and “superior” and falls in line with the average IQ for MD’s and PhD’s. Meaning, it does not take a “super genius” to earn a Nobel Prize. What it takes is collaborative effort. Going through the list of Nobel Prized awarded in Chemistry/Physics/Medicine, the majority of them are awarded to teams, not to individuals.

    With this in mind, play – which teaches collaborative problem solving, is probably better for creating a Nobel laureate than drilling a 2 year old with flash cards.

  5. Gina June 2, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    A.S. Neill had the right idea.

  6. Emily June 2, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    My early childhood included a lot of free play, and a lot of outings to places like the library, walks in the woods, the beach, the park, museums, concerts, and other places that were educational, or involved physical activity, or were otherwise meant to be beneficial for my brother’s and my development. However, my mom also taught me to read starting around the age of three, because I asked her to. I also remember having flash cards (both with pictures and without), but I was allowed to play with them as I liked. I ended up using the reading flash cards a lot, and the math ones, not so much. When I was five, I used the reading flash cards to play a game with my then two-year-old brother. I’d set up the flash cards face down on my bedroom floor, like a race track (with a start and a finish line), and then challenge my brother to “race to the finish,” by reading all of the words as fast as he could. Of course, my parents did a lot to teach him as well, but they gave my race track game a lot of credit.

  7. Emily June 2, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    P.S., I forgot to mention, my brother and I also had dolls, stuffed animals, blocks/Legos/Tinkertoys, art supplies, sports equipment, and many other less “blatantly educational” toys, so it’s not as if we ONLY had flash cards to play with.

  8. hineata June 2, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

    Left to her own devices much of the time, my brightest kid routinely tries out new things. This summer she took to YouTube and learnt, not necessarily in this order:

    1/ Shrub pruning
    2/ Hair cutting and shaping
    3/ Fondant-making

    and she painted all sorts of rather good (for a kid) paintings. She can also write in complete sentences, and even the odd paragraph.

    Meanwhile Boy, who I did use flashcards with, only learnt how to write consistently in a readable fashion in Year 10, when he had a fantastic teacher who, thank the good Lord, now runs grammar programmes for the whole high school. And El Sicko, who always required extra help and attention, still drives me up the wall with her refusal to put much thought into her schoolwork.

    So, as stated before, I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to academics, beyond providing school fees etc it’s almost best to leave kids to their own devices…. they seem to turn out more able that way :-).

    Though if anyone in the family wins a Nobel Prize, it’s most likely to be El Sicko ….. she’s the one most able to bat her little eyelids and charm her way onto winning teams :-)

  9. Tannis June 3, 2014 at 12:09 am #

    I’m not an educator and I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have to think that there is a way to have both? Not the flashcards, heaven help me if I ever have to pick those up with my kids! But a set of standards that we hold our schools, and our kids, to so that we know that our education dollars are giving them the basics they need for whatever field they eventually choose. And then also the time to explore. My kids (4 of them so far) have gone through the primary level of Montessori and all of them came out of Kindergarten reading at least at “standard” and adding/subtracting up to four digits, well ahead of “standard” At the same time they have the freedom to explore other things at their own pace. Haven’t had the money to do a Montessori elementary school, but so far I’m really happy with our public schools and the education my kids are getting. Science classes seem to have room for exploration and in all the classes they are encouraged to choose topics for reports, choose their own books for “book reports”, etc which gives them the freedom to explore what they want.

    As for summer camps, I’m lucky enough to be able to stay home with the kids and cheap enough to refuse to pay for camps when I don’t need daycare :) but I would think that you could find camp programs that are set up with less “structured” time? Or if not, someone needs to start one!

  10. Jenny Islander June 3, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    I’m using Charlotte Mason’s method to homeschool my children. She was against abstractions for K and younger students and totally against scripting and leading. She pointed out that before you can tell a child to direct her eyes and ears to the teacher, she has to figure out how her eyes and ears even work. That’s the kind of thing you can’t teach from a lesson plan. She set aside toddlerhood through age 5 for unscripted concrete experiences, and her ideal “school” day at that age was spent outdoors with a picnic basket, for 4 hours or more if possible, and generally just barely within earshot of the caregiver, who would get up from her own work occasionally to ask her student(s) or child(ren) about what they were doing or point out something interesting. A few age-appropriate read-aloud books and daily gentle direction in forming useful habits made up the rest of her “curriculum.”

    I agree. And this used to be the conventional wisdom even in the schooling method currently prevalent, which she spoke against during her lifetime. I can remember people saying, “I can teach a preschool child to recite anything under a certain length, but that doesn’t mean the child understands it; sand tables, not tables of addition facts! Recess, not writing!” And now kids come home from K exhausted and mentally fried from working so hard. How does that help children learn? They’re all in the same place by age 8 or so anyway, so why exhaust the teachers and the students with all of this hurry-hurry-push-push?

  11. Katie G June 3, 2014 at 6:35 am #

    Hineata, you made me laugh about the shrub=pruning, simply because, well, why?

  12. Coccinelle June 3, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    @ EB

    I don’t see the problem, that’s what recess is for. Also, when I was in kindergarten, we had a lot of free play time. Why would it be different nowadays?

  13. anonymous mom June 3, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    @Coccinelle, it’s different today because we are operating under the false belief that earlier and more time-consuming academic instruction is better.

    In my state, it’s mandated that kindergartners have 90 minutes a day of math instruction, 120 minutes a day of language arts instruction, 45 minutes of science, and 45 minutes of social studies.

    As far as I can tell, that’s insane. Ask any homeschooler, and you can teach a child all the grade-level content they need at that age with under an hour of formal instruction per day. I realize that things take more time in a traditional classroom, but I have seen no convincing evidence that, say, 90 minutes of math instruction per day leads to better results than 30 minutes of math instruction.

    My son spent a year in a Charlotte Mason school, for third grade, where students didn’t spend more than 40 minutes per day on any academic subject, and didn’t work on academics for more than 20 minutes without at least a short break. They did all of their academics in the morning, and then the afternoons were for art, music, and creative play. They also managed to have two thirty-minute recess periods per day. The students are given one standardized test, in eighth grade, and they routinely score well above average on those tests. And this is a low-cost private school in an inner-city, so it’s not like it’s taking the most affluent students in the state by any means. Even with doing only 3-4 hours of academics a day in middle school, the students manage to outscore not just their average city peers but also the average students in the state in general.

    Germany, which has better educational outcomes than the U.S., has long had half-day schools, and is just recently phasing in full-day schools. Limiting academic instruction to 3-4 hours a day has not harmed their students. (The change to full-day school, as far as I know, is due more to economic and social pressures to make it easier for families to have two parents working full-time, rather than because there’s any concern about students not learning enough during their instructional time.)

  14. Amanda Matthews June 3, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    “but it’s unrealistic to think that school can provide opportunities for truly free play.”

    Not with their current setup. But that’s the problem. Schools are set up to churn out good factory workers, not Nobel laureates. There are few factories left in the US.

    I think that, instead of saying “How can we get kids what they need AROUND school” we should be saying “How can we CHANGE THE SCHOOLS to give children what they need and actually prepare them to live in today’s world?”

    There are already a few schools doing this

  15. Havva June 3, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    I’m a product of Montessori from ages 3-9 and do believe in giving kids academic tools as early as possible. I’ve found that learning at that age can come easily (and joyfully) with the right tools, and minimal instruction.

    That is not to say that flash cards for preschoolers or any of the common academic approaches used on preschoolers are appropriate. While I was soaking it all in at Montisssori, my parents tried some flash cards and learning games(more flashcards really) at home. Those were a frustration and disaster. I find there are three major problems with how we attempt to teach young children that are made infinitely worse by applying them to pre-K children.

    Problem 1: Lessons that aren’t physical or approachable.
    (I spent hours playing with the Montessori golden beads. Yes I was shown what 100 or 1000, or 200, or 3000 looked like in writing. But, I understood 100 and thus 200 and 1,000 and thus 3,000 because I could pick them up. And I could line up bars of 10 beads to look like the 100-flats. And I stacked 10 100-flats to make them look like the 1,000-cubes and measured 1,000 cubes with 10-bars to understand that every dimension was really 10 and so forth. No one told me to do those things but I liked playing with the materials so I did. And no one told me to quit goofing off or that it was time for something else. I still remember the feel of rolling a hand or a box across the 100 flats like a roller conveyor belt. It was visceral. I loved it.

    Problem 2: Attempts to push groups to learn the same thing at the same time.
    I think many fail to understand that learning is not a natural result of teaching (aka talking at kids). So we try to advance learning by talking at kids more. When really learning is an internal process and kids are very physical and visual at that age. What is needed are proper tools allowing little kids to approach a lesson with curiosity when they are in a mood for it. Then a teacher can give them just a tiny chunk of info once, then leave the kid to play with that info so that it has time to soak in and become part of how they think. Naturally re-answering the ‘what is this’ if asked. But also their friends who mastered it recently will answer that question too (reinforcing the lesson for both kids).

    Problem 3:Not focusing on mastery of the fundamentals.
    The golden bead came before addition. Understanding base 10 came before adding multi-digit numbers. Both of these were a key part of understanding addition. I’ve seen the opposite from my daughter’s day care. They put problems and solutions on the boards. They can get kids to add numbers to come up with the answers like 14, or 25 or however high they can count with a pile of Popsicle sticks. But ask the kid 2 hours later to read the answer written on the board for them and they don’t have a clue. Now counting the Popsicle sticks is an excellent activity. Adding to that pile and counting again, has some value. But the teacher writing baffling things can give the wrong impression of how learning occurs (as an external rather than internal process), lead to frustration, and really backfire. If that’s what teaching consists of (and all to often it does); then I’m right there with Lenore, better to let the kids just play.

    But more than I would like to see kids left entirely to their own devices. I would like to see questions inspired and answered. Because curiosity, exploration, and discovery *are* powerful forces. And those forces should be just as much part of academics as they are of play. Unfortunately far too many people (especially in our schools) believe that learning comes from drills, rather than experiencing information (aka playing with it).

  16. Jenny Islander June 3, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Some ideas to fix the public school system, AKA reasons why I homeschool:

    1-100. Class size. Class size, class size, class size. If the federal government fixed some egregious spending and taxation errors that I won’t go into here, they could hand a pack of money to every school district in the nation and say, “Please make sure that you have no more than 12 students per teacher in the higher grades, and some smaller number in the lower grades. This will pay the extra teachers.” Most of the programs and scripts and tools and timers being pushed at teachers today would be rendered irrelevant if they didn’t have to try to teach 20-30 kids at once!

    101. Use some of that money to pay hall, lunchroom, playground, and bus monitors. Their job will be to keep an eye out for children who are being leaned over, pushed, backed up, etc., by other children. Don’t waste time making can’t-we-all-get-along speeches at the bullies, and don’t look for reasons; just crack down on them early and often. Children who don’t feel safe can’t set aside their fear to concentrate on schoolwork, unless you want to raise a roomful of dissociators like me. (Years and thousands of dollars spent on therapy to root out the survival behaviors imposed on my by life at school. That shouldn’t have to happen.)

    102. Decouple school funding from test performance everywhere and forever. Teaching to the test =/= teaching comprehension.

    That’s a start.

  17. longtime_engineer June 3, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    I am thinking of Randy Pausch and his famous “Last Lecture.” He rewarded his students for spectacular failures. When I was younger I made a lot balsa airplanes but eventually got bored and ran out of money to buy new ones. So I learned hpow to make my own. As an engineer (and a substantial number of years away from my youth) what I learned from “play” is still useful.

    Too, I had actual wood shop, print shop, and metal shop with real sharp tools, made sand casting with liquid aluminum, walked around with sharply pointed pencils. These classes coupled with the engineering degree make me a whole lot more effective on the job. These unstructured tasks were well worth the risk.

    Almost off topic, the push for STEM could be a real problem if the STEMers try to impose a purely theoretical viewpoint on typical manufacturing shop practices. STEM education needs a few classes on speaking with people who do not have a restrictive technical background. Part of STEM should be a reality check.

  18. lollipoplover June 3, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    The biggest gift I can give to my kids is letting them be bored. Getting bored, looking around and finding ways to entertain themselves has brought out all kinds of hobbies and interests that I know I could never have introduced them to.

    Over the winter, my oldest(then 12) got a woodworking bench and tools. With the harsh winter we had and subsequent downed trees, he kept busy making all kinds of random creations- furniture, birdhouses, bows. He had all kinds of time to find the wood and loves making things with his hands. He also discovered wood burning and will do it for hours making elaborate etchings. No camp, just time with tools and an imagination that turns out some pretty cool work.

  19. Liz Hollander June 3, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    This is a little off-topic, but on the general subject of free rangehelicopter parenting and academic achievement I wanted to know if you, Lenore (or any of your followers) have found any studies that correlate helicopter parenting with student cheating. They certainly appear to have increased dramatically during the same decades. It’s my sense that kids with no independence are less likely to develop a sense of honor and I wonder if there’s any data to support it. I’d have posted this in the ‘Ivy-Leaguer credits helicopter parents’ post but the comments were closed.

  20. Liz Hollander June 3, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

    (That phrase in the first sentence of my comment was supposed to read ‘freerange versus helicopter parenting’ – sorry ’bout that)

  21. Sky June 4, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    Eh. Summers are LONG. Especially if one parent is at home in the summer, kids will have plenty of free time. Ten minutes a day of math worksheets and 30 minutes a day of reading and maybe even a few minutes a day of multiplication drills so they can actually master quick recall of their math facts (the ones they unfortunately did not master in school) is hardly going to squash their freedom or their souls. As for school itself – I think there’s plenty of down time in elementary school that involves kids doodling, chatting with their friends, playing with their iPads (yes, they’ve issued my kid an iPad), and working on fairly free-form “group projects.” I’m not there all day, so I don’t see what they do – but I see the work that comes home and I know what they’ve learned, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t spending more than 2.5 hours a day on truly *focused* instruction. And, also, for some kids, learning or showing off what you’ve learned is, you know, FUN. Some kids like to take summer classes or Kumon classes or even do worksheets. My kids ASK to sign up for half-day drama camps or sports camps or art camps or computer programming camps. And even so, they STILL end up with at least 8 hours a day of free play in the summer.

    “Class size.” Again, eh. I’m not against smaller class sizes, but it’s far from the panacea people imagine it to be. I’ve sent my kids to private and public school. The private school had about 17-19 kids in a class. The public school had about 18-20 kids in a class. Really, not much difference in size, but the private school taught them a lot more – not because the classes were smaller, but because the curriculum and methods of instruction they chose were superior and the discipline was better, allowing for more order and focus in the classroom.