Children are born with soft skulls--literally and figuratively. Politically incorrect, huh. But face it, children are designed, biologically, to come into the world prepared to absorb all sorts of stimuli and begin to make sense of it as information. They're not doing this through language.. it's much more like osmosis. In the early stages, they have no real cognitive filters. Their perception is pure and unstructured.
Slowly, their universe begins to coalesce, and take shape. They begin to recognize and make sense of things. But this is personal. It does not happen according to some universal law of human nature. Their cognitive infrastructure takes shape in relation to the world around them. It is their specific experiences which give it form. And since at this stage, children are not yet able to reflect critically on those experiences, it is important for adults to give some consideration to the tacit effects of those experiences.
Chomsky (2003) and others have discussed the importance of things like media literacy as a form of intellectual self defense. But this presupposes linguistic ability and capacity for abstract and reflective thought. These things take years to develop to a level of sophistication where real intellectual self defense is possible. In the early years in particular, children are not yet ready to discern and discriminate in this manner. Their very nature, as voracious learners, makes them highly susceptible to outside influences. Their development depends heavily on the environment they are immersed in, the things they are exposed to, and the primal experiences they gain through interaction with their physical and social world. Sitting a kid down and having them watch TV is not simply exposing them to whatever the messages are on the TV. It is also teaching them passivity. It is teaching them to sit and be quiet and let the external world stimulate them. It is conditioning them in a way of being in relation to the world surrounding them.
Many toys put children into the same kind of situation. They are designed to entertain, or to educate in some kind of trivial way. Even those which claim to be teaching problem solving or letting children "create" do so in a very structured manner.. they have step by step instructions, activity cards, challenges, and objectives.. There is a subtle message here too. The message is one of complacence and obedience.. following rules to get to a predefined outcome. Sure there is also perseverence in there, but the foregrounded message is one of control, where they toy is deciding what the child should do rather than the other way around.
With all the hype around slow food and doing things slow in general, free ranging, and great lectures circulating like the hurried child, it's surprising that nobody is talking about slow play. There is so much value in giving children a chance to explore on their own, to come up with their own rules, their own games... to play without a pre-defined or adult imposed goal. Play is the natural way that young children learn.. it's part of what they are designed for. And by imposing too much structure in play, adults are inadvertenly undermining the development of important foundational capacities.
This is not to downplay the role of adult authority. Ironically, adult authority also has a kind of political incorrectness to it as well. But there is a difference between the macro structuring of children's lives, and the micro-managing of overly structured play. Childern do need structure. They need to learn what is okay and what is not okay. They need to learn the parameters for acceptable behaviour, which will slowly become internalized into civic virtues. There is sound logic to Steiner's (1997) idea that a respect for authority in the early years provides the foundation for the development of a sense of justice. But the place for this authority is not in the constraining of children's play.
Where I am going with all of this is to stress the important role adults have as designers of children's social and physical world.. because this provides the foundation for their cognitive infrastructure. Since critical thinking can only truly come later, what is needed is a critical approach to environmental design, to support the development of the right fundamentals. Contemporary theories and research in cognitive science (see Clark, 2008; Robbins & Aydede, 2009) underscore the degree to which environmental engineering is also personal-engineering.. In building our physical and social worlds, we build (or rather, we massively configure) our minds and our capacities of thought and reason. Like it or not, grown-ups are social engineers, and child-rearing is brain-washing. The whole process of socialization is one of endoctrination. This is unavoidable. The only open question is around how and in what way we want this to happen.
Chomsky, N. (2003). Chomsky on democracy and education. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing the mind: Embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. New York, NY: Oxford University.
Robbins, P., & Aydede, M. (Eds.). (2009). The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Steiner, R. (1997). Education as a force for social change. New York: Anthroposophic.