Archive for the ‘What is wrong?’ Category

I love Penelope Leach. I’m going to come right out and say it. My love affair started long ago when I was in my early teens and I found one of her parenting tomes, cracked spine and well-thumbed, on a shelf in my parents’ junk room. Once I’d discovered it, I often snuck in there in unguarded moments (somehow I felt this was an illicit activity) to find out how to bring myself up.

When I was about to become a parent myself, I randomly decided to read everyone but her. I think the memory of the seventies-style cover of the book my parents owned made me think she must be Old and Out of Date. So I read Gina Ford (talk about out of date!) and the Baby Whisperer and Dr Miriam Stoppard. It wasn’t until I was seven months pregnant with baby number 2 that I found “Your Baby & Child” by Penelope Leach (in a very modern-looking binding) in a charity shop for the appealing price of £1, and decided to see what she had to say. I have been dipping in and out of her book every since, mainly reading about toddlers, and everything she says just makes such perfect sense.

Here is something I read in a section on how to join in with toddler play that made me rethink my life:

“Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for [your toddler’s] games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the 10 minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words: “that’s enough”. You cannot play with him all day but […] do try, sometimes, to seem willing or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Penelope Leach, 2003, Your Baby & Child, p. 408.)

(The fancy referencing and the elipsis and such are for you, Dad.)

I read this and realised that I am always limiting my playtime with the Toddler. I will play with him for a little bit, but I am always plotting an exit strategy to get back to Important Things like the washing up or Twitter. As an excellent parenting course I attended put it: I am always half-busy. Never with my mind completely on my children, or completely on something else, but always doing both at once and not giving my best, full attention to either. This is not something to beat myself up over, though of course I do, because it is normal. There is not enough time in the day to spend every second completely focused on either the children or the house work or being self-employed, because something will end up not done. You have to multi-task sometimes.

However, I decided that I can, once a day, give the Toddler my unlimited time and attention for something he wants to do, and not stop until he wants to stop. I have tried it with playing his favourite game, Doodlebugs, which is actually very enjoyable. It is no hardship to spend 20 minutes playing Doodlebugs, or playing football, or drawing numbers on the pavement with chalk. And the thing I secretly fear – that he will never ever want to stop – is not true. He does eventually tire and want to do something else. Just not as quickly as I do. But that is okay.

I am not just telling you about all this to show how I am growing as a parent and a human being. There is something in particular that struck me about this passage from Penelope Leach’s book: “He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Leach, 2003, p. 408) (for you, Dad) The reason my Toddler – and, it turns out, any toddler – wants to play or do the same thing for hours on end is not because he is obsessed, not because he is a bit boring, but because he is learning. 

A case in point: This weekend, the Toddler was playing in the garden while my husband was cooking on the barbecue – this was a fascinating new phenomenon. To observe it better, the Toddler ran inside to get an apple and installed himself on a garden chair with a good view of Daddy.

“Doing, Daddy?”
“I’m doing the barbecue. What are you doing, S?”
“I’m doing apple.”
[pause for munching]
“Doing, Daddy?”
My husband said they must have had this exact conversation about twenty times in a row. When the apple was gone, our son ran inside, got a pear and carried on where he had left off, except now he was “doing pear”. Daddy, being a good sport, was very happy to keep going for as long as the Toddler wanted to. What was he learning? I imagine he was learning about chatting, about turn-taking, about how you can use the verb ‘to do’ to describe an activity, but primarily about how you ask and answer questions, which is a relatively new feature of the Toddler’s language.

A while back, I wrote about the wonders of self-education. I have been looking on, in awe, as my son has taught himself to count and to recognise letters and their sounds, while I have spent my professional life witnessing British teenagers come out of secondary school unable to spell or do simple maths. The question I asked in that post was: what has gone wrong between the joyful self-education of the pre-school years and the antagonistic reluctance to be educated that you find in schools? Now I ask it again. It would seem that toddlers are built for learning. By instinct, they know what to do. They find something that interests them and they are not quite competent at yet, and they explore, experiment and repeat repeat repeat until they have mastered it. We don’t need to teach them how to learn. They know. In fact, we’re mostly the ones trying to stop them doing it.

So, let’s start the debate once more. What do you think? If we start from scratch and invent school as if it had never existed, what would it look like? How can we use what children are born with to help them learn? Should we have listened to Socrates? Or Montessori? Or just Penelope Leach? Tell me what you think in the comments and let’s re-imagine education!

PS: If you haven’t already, watch this amazing TED-talk by Ken Robinson on the subject.

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh


The Toddler is like a sponge. He repeats everything we say and takes an interest in everything around him. He wants to know how things work, what things mean, where they go, what you can put in them and particularly what else you can do with them: the skin off a bit of pepper becomes a flag, a tube of soaps becomes a truck and his crayons can be rearranged to become a racing car.

His main love at the moment is numbers and his favourite is number 8. He will gleefully shout out any number he spots around the house or in the supermarket or anywhere else really, but number 8 deserves an extra dose of toddler-volume: “EEEEEEEEEIIIIIIGHT!!” he roars gleefully when he sees it anywhere. He also has very sharp eyes, as it can take Mummy and Daddy a little while to see where he’s spotted it.

It never ceases to amaze us what he is learning at this early age, and all with great enjoyment, prompted by his own interest. He can count up to ten and is working on eleven and twelve. He can count backwards from ten and adds “Blassoff!” for good measure. He recognises the numbers up to ten.  Best of all, he can make the number seven from Found Materials: he will nibble on a square of toast until only two sides are left, hold it up reverently and exclaim: “Seven!” He is also practising counting objects. Sometimes he is very good at it: this morning he pulled three of his books off the shelf and counted: “One, two. Three books.” Straight after that, he jumped from book to book and counted them again, but this time he got to nine. So not quite there yet.

And now, he is starting to discover letters. He knows that letters make sounds, though up until recenty not which sound belonged to which letter. He would scribble on the steamed up shower enclosure with his finger, spelling out: “m-a-m-a: Harry!” or “e-m-a: Maisy Mouse!” But suddenly, last week, the Toddler picked up one of his Cheerios and held it up for me. “O!” he said proudly. Since then he has been finding “o” all over the place. At lunch today, he curled a slice of red pepper around so the ends met and said: “o, Mummy!”

What strikes me most about all this, other than that my son is clearly a genius, is how much he loves discovering all about letters and numbers, in other words: reading, writing and maths. These are subjects that schools and colleges are battling to teach their students, from age 3 up to age 16. I used to work in a college, and the number of students who would come through the door at age 16 or up with shockingly poor maths and English skills was astounding. Yet my son, at 2 years of age, is going around educating himself. I’m sure he will be reading before he gets to reception.

I am not trying to say that my son is anything special – although clearly he is in the eyes of his doting mother. Lots of toddlers I meet are interested in numbers and letters, colours and animals, but also science: how things work, what they are for and what else you can do with them. My question is this: what has gone wrong between the unbridled enthusiasm for learning of the toddler years and the painful apathy of the school years? Why can we not harness the thirst for knowledge that our children show early on and channel it into learning Maths, English, Science and goodness knows what else they might be interested in? I think it is time to scrap everything and start with a blank page. It is time to re-imagine education.

I’ll get back to you once I’ve done that.