Fairy tales are unique, not only as a form of literature, but as works of art which are fully comprehensible to the child, as no other form of art is. As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meaning from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment. When given the chance, he will return to the same tale when he is ready to enlarge on old meanings, or replace them with new ones.
In order to master the psychological problems of growing up—overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation —a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams—ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures.
The High School Survey of Student Engagement, probably the single best study of how high school students feel about school, reports that 66% of high school students say they’re bored in class every day. Seventeen percent say they’re bored in every class every day. Only 2% claim they’re never bored in class. Why so bored? Eighty-two percent say the material isn’t interesting; 41% say the material isn’t relevant. Another research team gave beepers to middle school students to capture their feelings in real time. During schoolwork, students were bored 36% of the time, versus 17% for all other activities. No wonder a major Gates Foundation study ranked boredom the most important reason why kids drop out of high school.
Play is regarded by many as trivial, as a waste of time or as a way of using up excess energy. But, as I have said, we have all done it, and it has often had a profound effect upon us. Yet as adults we often only value it as a sanitised and adulterated experience for our own children. It certainly is an enigma.
When young children play they have an agenda independent of anything we adults might want to do. It is as if they are embarking on a research programme, where they are collecting and analysing data, and constructing and testing their own theories of what life is all about (see Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1967, 1970, Gopnik 2002).
Instead of making students conform and submit, college showers students with acceptance. This doesn’t merely fail to prepare students for their future roles; it actively unprepares them. College raises students’ expectations to unrealistic heights, leaving future employers the chore of dragging graduates back down to earth.
Not only do we supervise and protect, as one would expect of say a master craftsman overseeing an apprentice. All too often we over-supervise and over-protect, and stifle life-learning and experience. It is as if we are not just frightened by the potential threat posed by traffic and strangers, but are afraid of everything when it comes to our children. In one sense this is understandable, but in another are we not simply attempting to avoid reality?
Reformers tend to see summer learning loss as an argument for year-round school. If summer makes students stupid, let’s abolish summer. The flaw in their thinking: everyone graduates eventually. Once you graduate, you’re no longer in school—and learning loss kicks in.
To be and become well-adjusted and skilled human beings, children are driven to explore and experiment. This drive is not only directed at the physical environment and at the non-human species that also live there, it is also directed at any other children.
Does education have any effect on genuine intelligence? Despite decades of research, we really don’t know. What we do know is that education has far less effect than meets the eye. The effect of education on intelligence may not be entirely hollow, but it is largely hollow. The effect of education on intelligence may not be entirely temporary, but it is largely temporary.
Most critics of our education system complain we aren’t spending our money in the right way, or that preachers in teachers’ clothing are leading our nation’s children down dark paths. While I semisympathize, these critics miss what I see as our educational system’s supreme defect: there’s way too much education. Typical students burn thousands of hours studying material that neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives.
…the major lessons I can draw from the literature of the past thirty years are that play is critically important to human development and evolution; that it takes place most effectively in a variable, enriched environment, and although perhaps created by and operated by a team of adults, must not be adulterated by them, or contaminated by their non-play agendas.