Education & Play Grow Kids

Children Learn Naturally if We Let Them

Cute Girl Reading a Book at Home
Written by Kerry McDonald

My newly-minted one-year-old is learning to walk. Increasingly and more boldly, he will grab a grown-up’s hand and take the lead on where to go. His confidence is building, his hand grips are loosening, his independent half- steps turn into whole ones. He watches those around him: his big brother and sisters as they dance, and jump, and run. He dances with them, imitating their moves and gestures. He takes it all in. He is learning, growing, as children simply do.

We tend to accept this early natural learning, generally not feeling the need to rush our children’s first rolls or first crawls or first steps. Yet, as children age, we often increasingly feel the need to intervene in their learning: to start teaching them instead of allowing them to learn, in their own way, in their own time, when surrounded by the rich resources of their culture.

As Dr. Peter Gray writes:

“Through their own efforts, children figure out how to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm, and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social worlds around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything. This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children reach five or six. But we turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.”

Perhaps nowhere is this trend to intervene and manage a child’s learning more apparent than in reading instruction. At ever-earlier ages, we are expecting children to learn to read, interfering with their own distinct reading timelines. The vast majority of children, when surrounded by literacy, will naturally learn to read, all on their own. Some will be early, or “precocious,” readers. Some will be late readers. But most children will learn to read all on their own when surrounded by books, by reading, and by people who value books and reading.

In a thoughtful article, written by the director of the must-see documentary Schooling The World, Carol Blackwrites about reading instruction around the world. She notes that in Finland, formal reading instruction doesn’t begin until age 7, similar to the age it begins in most Waldorf schools, when many more children are developmentally ready to learn to read. She writes:

“So one hypothesis is that American schools are not only assuming the normal developmental window for reading to be too narrow, they’re also placing it too early. In other words, it’s not like expecting all children to take their first steps at the average age of twelve months: it’s like expecting them all to take their first steps at the precocious age of ten months. In doing this you create a sub-class of children so bewildered, so anxious, whose natural processes of physical and neurological development and organization are so severely disrupted, that you literally have no way of knowing what they would have been like if you had not done this to them.”

Most of us would think it absurd to worry if our child wasn’t a “precocious walker.” We would laugh at the idea that we would need to intervene if our child wasn’t walking at 10 months. We would find it silly to undertake walking interventions if he wasn’t walking at 12 months. We would reject labels of “slow walker,” or “walking challenged,” if he wasn’t walking at 14 months. Yet, we seem to systematically believe that children should read, and read proficiently, on a similarly arbitrary timeline and at ever-earlier ages — stretching the limits of childhood adaptability.

My older daughter didn’t walk until she was 15 months. She learned to read,all on her own without instruction, when she was 4. My older son began walking (running!) at 10 months. At just shy of six, he isb eginning to show interest in reading. Some children don’t read until age 10 or older. This is natural human variation, a bell curve of human difference that we seem to willingly accept for some childhood actions but not for others.

We can get off this accelerating treadmill of childhood. We can reject efforts to coerce young children, some barely out of diapers, to read and write and excel at rigorous academics at startlingly early ages. We can bring back play, recognizing its natural, evolutionary importance in the lives of highly-thinking mammals, and allow childhood to be filled with endless hours of self-directed, creative, unstructured play.

We can halt efforts to make childhood a race to some amorphous top, and instead allow childhood to be–simply and slowly–childhood.

About the author

Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University, where she studied education administration, planning, and social policy. Kerry lives and learns together with her husband and four, never-been-schooled children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can email Kerry at, and visit her blog at Whole Family Learning.