My Rating – Must Read
Level – Moderate (written by academics, but for a popular audience), medium length (250+)
The basic thesis of the book is essentially the subtitle. Early education has become far too academic, with a focus on memorizing specific subsets of things (which doesn’t show actual knowledge or comprehension) and are not playing enough. The book is generally written about children under five, so the play is more of exploration and learning how things work. They use the example of teaching a kid to memorize 1+2=3, or having them understand, through play, that if they put one block on top of two blocks already stacked, there will now be three blocks stacked.
Chapter One, The Plight of the Modern Parent, lays out these play to memorization changes with fairly stark statistics, including the fact that in 1970 school age children (I believe that refers to 5-10 year olds) spent 40% of their time in play, but 1997 it was less than 25%; even worse 40% of districts no longer have recess. They also compare to how most other countries don’t bother learning to read until second grade or so, yet all (in the comparison) have better literacy rates and higher general levels of understanding.
The remaining chapters, 10 in total, explain how babies and children learn and then go through specific topics. Chapters two through 10 are – Brainchild: How Babies Are Wired to Learn; Playing the Numbers: How Children Learn about Quantity; Language: The Power of Babble; Literacy: Reading Between the Lines; Welcome to Lake Wobegon: The Quest to Define Intelligence; Who Am I? Developing a Sense of Self; Getting to Know You: How Children Develop Social Intelligence; Play: The Crucible of Learning; and The New Formula for Exceptional Parenting (the title is kind of play on the books that are out there, spoiler – they tell you to relax and let your children play and learn on their own, and to stop overscheduling them).
I bought this book when my daughter was maybe around two years old, but didn’t read it until she had already turned four. I thought because the title referred to flashcards that perhaps the materials would be focused more on five years and older stages of life, but it is actually the opposite, the learning focuses on babies to about five (though some of the fiveish advice would carry you a few more years). So, don’t make my mistake, go ahead and buy this book as early as you can in your child’s life (or pregnancy).
I’ll als say that, at least in some circles, this book may be a bit dated. It was published in 2003 and I think the flashcard and Baby Einstein books (which they debunk, along with having your kids listen to classical music) have all fallen out of fashion. I think older Millennials, like myself, missed the flashcard memorization part. Though I didn’t get to play 40% of the time, I don’t remember using flash cards until I was in high school. This book was written just after I started college, and I wouldn’t have my first child for another decade. It seems the peak affected children were the second wave Millennials and early Gen Z. My daughter starts Kindergarten this year (assuming schools open again) and we certainly have never felt the need to force her to memorize anything and we never bought any kind of flashcards or other ‘learning’ devices. I’ve read maybe six or seven early childhood education books (I understand the irony of claiming not to be worried) and I think we have a basic understanding from the literature that memorization shouldn’t be the focus, so that could be at play. Also, school was always easy for us, so we assume (maybe incorrectly) that it will be for our children as well and we don’t need to worry too much. That aside, most of my friends have small children and I don’t know many that are concerned with most of the issues brought up in this book.
I’d say maybe the exception to that is the overscheduling, which is definitely true with sports. All that to say, while some of the issues in the book (they state the wrote the book to help correct these issues, and it appears to have helped) maybe be less of a concern, but the concepts and studies cited in this book still remain timeless and useful. That was probably the most interesting aspect of the book to me – all the little experiments or tests you can run on your children. As I mentioned, my daughter was already to old for most, but I read this right before my sons were born, so they have been little test subjects. I really wish the book had an appendix that listed the studies and test you can do with your children. You can see in my summary above, the book is laid out by topic, which has a rough chronology, but doesn’t move straight line with growing children.
Overall, this book is great and incredible interesting, especially if you have the opportunity to try out the subject matters they discuss in the book. For anyone interested in early developmental stages of children, or want to understand the basics of learning of your own small children, this book is a must read.