This is one of my favorite stories, not just because of what happened, but because of how it radically changed my ideas about education.

Our family moved when our youngest was about 3 years old. It wasn’t just a change of houses. It was a radical, half-way-around-the-world, live-with-your-parents-until-your-furniture-finds-you kind of move. In short, it thoroughly rocked our world, but for our son, the greatest trauma was losing access to the educational computer game he’d received as a Christmas present. This was back in the days before laptops and tablets, mind you. Our computer was a big, bulky desktop unit, but he was fascinated by it. He often watched as we used it and longed for the day when he would be allowed to use it, too.

Finally we found a home. Finally our boxes arrived. We began to unpack and establish a “new normal” in our lives, and part of that new normal was daily hounding by our little guy.

“Did you find my game yet? When can I play my new game?”

By the time we found the box with the game in it, our little guy had turned 4. He’d been very patient, so you can just imagine how excited he was as he watched my husband loaded his game onto the computer one evening. He could hardly wait to play!

Unfortunately, back in those days, most computer software had a passcode of some sort to protect against piracy–in this case it was a film strip showing Mickey Mouse in various colors and poses. The instructions on the screen said to check the box the program came in to find out which Mickey Mouse pose would open the game. But the box had been crushed during packing. Somehow the manual showing “which Mickey” to click had fallen out.

We checked the packing box. No Mickey.

My husband called the service number on the game carton to request a new pass code. The customer service rep said they’d mail it. Should arrive in 3-5 days…an eternity for a 4-year-old.

Sadly, my husband explained to our son what had happened and that he would need to wait just a little bit longer.

There were tears. (Some of them might have been mine.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when I passed by the office the next day and heard our son laughing and playing Mickey’s 1-2-3s!

“How’d you get in?” I asked. “Did you guess the right Mickey?”

“No,” he answered. “I guessed two or three times, but if you guess wrong the game throw you out.”

“So how’d you get in?”

Without pausing in his play he explained. “I watched Daddy load it, so I backed up to the MS-Dos shell. (He said it funny, but I knew what he meant.) It always gives you the default Mickey on top, so I clicked that one.”

I just stood there.

Our 4-year-old had basically hacked our home computer!

Here’s what I learned–and what began to radically change my ideas about education:

Children are like little sponges for collecting knowledge. From the moment they’re born, they watch and listen and experiment, trying to figure out how the world works. They want to do what their parents do. They reach to learn and know and grow like little plants reach for sunlight.

I’ve blogged about this before, but…

What if we trusted their instincts and our own and played along with their natural passion for learning?

Children are like little sponges for collecting knowledge. What if we trusted their instincts and our own and played along with their natural passion for learning? Click To Tweet

What if we took advantage of their burning desires and interests and taught them, progressively, how to “do life” as they were “doing life”?

These thoughts came flooding back to me this morning as I read this really excellent post from the Foundation for Economic Education. Dan Sanchez’s whole article is well worth your time to read, but here are a few nuggets to serve as appetizers:

  • We are all born autodidacts — self-educators — blessed with an instinctive drive to acquire, exercise, test, and improve new abilities that will help us thrive in life.
  • Great parenting means facilitating self-directed education by providing children with access to resource-rich environments, and then stepping back and allowing them maximum freedom to engage with those resources however they please: in other words, freedom to play.
  • Just as hunter-gatherer children learned to play with primitive tools by observing their elders, modern children need to see adults and older children using the tools of their work and pastimes. So access to “human resources” is just as important as material resources. Parents must first and foremost provide access to themselves.
  • [A]dults, in trying to be good teachers, too often obstruct and sidetrack the efforts of children to self-educate: especially once children are enrolled in school…Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.

If I could leave you with one big take-away message, it would be this:

PLEASE, for the love of your child’s academic future, don’t be afraid to step away from the textbooks! Learning is literally child’s play!