How Children Learn

by John C. Holt

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: April 24, 2024
How Children Learn
How Children Learn

Discover how to trust children's innate learning abilities and create nurturing environments for their development. This book summary explores the key insights on moving beyond traditional techniques and embracing a more holistic, emotionally engaged approach to child learning.

What are the big ideas?

Shift from Technique to Trust in Children's Learning

The book emphasizes moving away from traditional structured educational techniques that aim to control children's learning. Instead, it advocates for trusting children to learn on their own, highlighting their innate ability to explore, discover, and acquire knowledge without forced intervention.

Examples include allowing children to solve puzzles at their own pace and encouraging self-directed reading.

Critique of Value-Free Science in Understanding Children

The author criticizes modern scientific approaches that detach values from the study of child development, arguing that understanding children demands a more holistic, emotionally engaged perspective that recognizes the depth and complexity of their experiences.

Criticism centers on brain research labs and the approach of figures like Marvin Minsky.

Biographical Method as Superior for Child Development Studies

Promoting the use of biographical methods in studying child development, the book praises researchers like Millicent Washburn Shinn for their detailed, longitudinal observations of children, which capture the nuances and progressive stages of development better than statistical analyses.

This method contrasts with the more common statistical or experimental approaches in child psychology.

Rejecting the Mechanical View of Human Nature

The book stands against the view of humans as mechanical beings, advocating for a more complex understanding of human nature that respects emotional and psychological depth.

The discussion includes a critique of the 'organism as machine' perspective prevalent in some scientific circles.

Importance of Emotional Environments in Children's Development

Highlighting the sensitivity of children to the emotional states of adults, the book underlines the importance of creating nurturing, respectful, and calm environments that enable children to thrive and reveal their true capacities.

This is illustrated through children's reactions in experimental settings, such as the 'eye camera' experiment.

Fantasy as a Constructive Element in Child Learning

The book challenges the dismissal of fantasy in child development, asserting that children use fantasy not as an escape, but as a means to engage with and understand the real world, supporting their learning and emotional development.

Critiques of Montessori's rejection of fantasy and the imposition of adult-directed fantasies are discussed.

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Shift from Technique to Trust in Children's Learning

The book advocates a fundamental shift from educational techniques to trusting children's natural learning abilities. Rather than imposing structured methods to control and direct children's progress, the book emphasizes allowing children to learn organically through self-directed exploration and discovery.

One key example is letting children solve puzzles and challenges at their own pace, without constant adult intervention. The book highlights how children intuitively set increasingly difficult tasks for themselves, driven by an innate desire to learn and grow. This self-directed approach allows children to build confidence and mastery, rather than feeling threatened or discouraged by externally imposed learning.

Another example is encouraging children to learn to read on their own timeline, rather than forcing the process. The book explains how children naturally progress from scribbling to writing meaningful messages, gradually developing reading skills at their own pace. Respecting this natural progression, rather than imposing rigid reading instruction, allows children to maintain their enthusiasm and love of learning.

The core insight is that children possess a remarkable capacity to learn when given the freedom and trust to do so. By shifting away from controlling educational techniques, the book advocates empowering children as the primary agents of their own learning and development.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of shifting from technique to trust in children's learning:

  • The teacher was concerned that disadvantaged children were not reading the books in the classroom, only turning the pages and looking at them. The author realized that this "casual looking at books was a sensible and almost certainly a necessary first step to reading" for these children who had hardly ever seen books before.

  • The author explains that children's "first hunches" about words and reading are "extremely faint and tentative" and it takes time and repeated confirmation for these hunches to become stronger and more certain knowledge. He relates this to his own experience learning to read music, where he was hesitant to trust his initial hunches.

  • The author recounts teaching 5th grade students with a tachistoscope device, but realized a homemade, inexpensive version would have been just as effective, emphasizing that the key is allowing children to explore and learn at their own pace, not forcing techniques on them.

  • The author cautions against programs and techniques aimed at "the deliberate training of intelligence", stating this could do more harm than good by making people believe intelligence is a product that can be manufactured, rather than trusting children's innate abilities to learn.

  • The author highlights examples of teachers who are "leader-draggers", controlling children's minds and bodies, and are threatened by the idea of children learning independently. He advocates for giving children more "autonomy in learning" rather than forcing them down a predetermined path.

The key is allowing children to diversify their own work and learn through self-directed "Messing About" rather than strictly following a prescribed curriculum or technique. The author emphasizes trusting children's innate curiosity, abilities, and pace of learning.

Critique of Value-Free Science in Understanding Children

The author strongly criticizes the detached, "value-free" approach of modern scientific research on children. This value-free science treats children as mere "specimens" to be observed and analyzed, rather than as complex, feeling human beings. The author argues that truly understanding children requires an emotionally engaged, holistic perspective that recognizes the depth and richness of their experiences.

The author contrasts this value-free science with the more humane, sensitive approach of earlier child development researchers like Millicent Shinn. Shinn understood that observing children does not mean "doing something to them" or tampering with their natural development. In contrast, the modern brain research labs described in the text use intrusive methods that strip away the "simplicity and spontaneity" of the child's experience.

The author sees this detached, mechanistic view of children as symptomatic of a broader problem in science - an "intellect without heart" that has lost sight of the human element. True understanding of children, the author argues, can only come from an approach grounded in empathy, respect, and a sense of wonder at the unfolding of human potential. This is the kind of approach exemplified by researchers like Glenda Bissex, who saw her study of her son's development as a "special bond" and "mutual enjoyment" rather than just clinical data collection.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight:

  • The author criticizes the "language of hell, of intellect without heart" used in describing the brain research lab's work, which focuses on "time windows" and "advanced mathematical pattern-recognition" rather than understanding the child's experience.
  • The author contrasts this with the "humane and sensible voice of Millicent Shinn", who emphasizes that observing children should not mean "doing something to them" and that the "whole value of an observation is gone as soon as the phenomena observed lose simplicity and spontaneity."
  • The author critiques figures like Dr. Mary Meeker, who discusses "multi-stimulation" and "developing the many pathways in the brain" rather than responding to a baby's cries out of "love and sympathy."
  • The author praises Glenda Bissex's approach of observing her son Paul's literacy development, which became a "special bond" and "mutual enjoyment" between them, rather than a detached, value-free scientific study.
  • The author contrasts the brain research lab's work with the "spirit" of Millicent Shinn's final words about the "swift, beautiful year" of a baby's first birthday, which capture the author's own "mixture of interest, pleasure, excitement, awe, and wonder" in observing young children.

The key point is that the author believes understanding children requires an emotionally engaged, holistic perspective that recognizes the depth and complexity of their experiences, rather than a detached, "value-free" scientific approach focused solely on the mechanics of child development.

Biographical Method as Superior for Child Development Studies

The biographical method is a superior approach for studying child development compared to traditional statistical or experimental techniques. This method involves detailed, long-term observation of individual children, capturing the nuanced, progressive stages of their growth and learning.

Researchers like Millicent Washburn Shinn exemplify this approach. They closely watch children's day-to-day activities and interactions, documenting their evolving abilities, perspectives, and behaviors over time. This allows for a rich, holistic understanding of the child's development that statistical analyses often miss.

In contrast, common psychological studies rely on controlled experiments or population-level data. While valuable, these methods can overlook the unique experiences and trajectories of individual children. The biographical approach provides a more authentic, in-depth view of how children perceive the world and learn within it.

By chronicling the lived experiences of children, the biographical method offers "encouragement to look at individuals in the act of learning" - the drama, challenges, and triumphs of their development. This provides deeper, more meaningful insights to inform how we support children's growth and learning.

Here are key examples from the context that support the superiority of the biographical method for studying child development:

  • Millicent Washburn Shinn's detailed observations of her niece's development, capturing the "fascinating drama of evolution daily, minutely" rather than just statistical data.

  • Glenda Bissex's longitudinal study "Gnys at Wrk" following her son Paul's literacy development from age 5 to 11, which provided "encouragement to look at individuals in the act of learning" rather than just generalizations.

  • Bissex's account of how Paul became an active participant in the research, sharing his own reflections on his earlier writing and reading, demonstrating the depth of insight possible through this approach.

  • The contrast drawn between the "subtle and complex" brain research using advanced technology versus the "humane and sensible voice of Millicent Shinn" emphasizing the importance of observing children's "simplicity and spontaneity."

  • The example of the child "Tommy" whose speech the author was able to interpret through patient questioning and observation, rather than just dismissing it as unintelligible.

The key is that the biographical approach allows researchers to capture the nuanced, progressive, and highly individual nature of child development, in contrast to the limitations of statistical or experimental methods that can miss important details and context. The examples illustrate how this approach provides richer, more insightful data on the lived experience of child development.

Rejecting the Mechanical View of Human Nature

The book rejects the notion of humans as mere machines. It advocates for a more nuanced understanding of human nature that respects our emotional and psychological depth.

The text critiques the prevalent view in some scientific circles that sees humans as akin to organisms or machines. This perspective is seen as invalidating the richness of human experience and consciousness. The book argues against reducing humans to a set of mechanical laws or processes, insisting that our subjective experiences, free will, and sense of self are real and meaningful, not just delusions.

Instead, the book suggests that we trust in the natural human capacity to learn and grow, without the need for constant external control or instruction. It posits that children are inherently curious and capable learners, and that the best approach is to provide them with opportunities to explore the world on their own terms, rather than imposing rigid teaching methods. This reflects a belief in the complexity and autonomy of the human mind, in contrast to the reductive mechanical view.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of rejecting the mechanical view of human nature:

  • The critique of Marvin Minsky's views, which "express contempt for the deepest feelings we humans have about ourselves" and dismiss human experiences as "not real and not true."
  • The discussion of the "invalidation of experience" where Minsky claims that "our strongest and most vivid experiences of ourselves are not real and not true" and that machines will soon "feel about themselves" the same way humans do.
  • The anecdote about the woman who asked "If I do not feel I exist, why should I not kill myself?" in response to the dismissal of her feelings as trivial. This highlights the emotional and psychological depth that the mechanical view fails to account for.
  • The critique of the idea that "intelligence, as we understand it in people, can be ascribed to a machine" and the warning against the "delusion that we can know, measure, and control what goes on in children's minds."
  • The emphasis on the "mystery" of the human mind and the acknowledgement that "we will never get very far in education until we realize this and give up the delusion that we can know, measure, and control what goes on in children's minds."

These examples illustrate the book's rejection of the view of humans as mechanical beings, and its advocacy for a more nuanced understanding that respects the emotional, psychological, and experiential depth of human nature.

Importance of Emotional Environments in Children's Development

Children thrive in nurturing, respectful, and calm emotional environments. They are highly sensitive to the emotional states of the adults around them. When children feel safe, supported, and valued, they are able to fully reveal their natural curiosity, creativity, and intellectual capacities.

Experiments have shown that even young children react strongly to subtle emotional cues. For example, in the 'eye camera' study, infants were able to detect and respond to the slightest changes in an adult's gaze and facial expressions. This demonstrates the profound impact that the emotional climate has on children's development and learning.

By creating homes and schools filled with warmth, patience, and genuine care, we empower children to explore the world with confidence. This allows their inborn drive to learn and grow to flourish. In contrast, environments dominated by stress, criticism, or indifference can stifle a child's natural enthusiasm and self-directed learning. The emotional landscape is just as important as the physical one in supporting healthy child development.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about the importance of emotional environments in children's development:

  • The context discusses how even very young babies, as early as 8 weeks old, are more curious, smile more, and stay awake longer when their cries are responded to and they feel understood. Mothers who are more responsive to their babies' cries have been found to have babies who cry less and develop more secure attachment.

  • The passage states that the "passionate anger of so many crying two- or three-year-olds" often comes from feeling misunderstood, rather than just from not getting what they want. The author emphasizes the importance of paying serious attention to children and trying to understand them, even when needing to deny their requests.

  • The context highlights how adults can easily underestimate the seriousness and philosophical depth of young children's questions and concerns, and instead dismiss them as "ignorant and silly." The author cites examples of profound questions raised by young children that parallel the work of great philosophers.

  • The passage describes an experiment where the author read a challenging book (The Odyssey) to first-graders, who were engaged and interested, showing that children can handle more complex material when adults create an environment of shared interest and enthusiasm.

  • The context emphasizes that children learn best not through "slow, steady schedules" but through "great bursts of passion and enthusiasm" about particular interests, which adults should nurture rather than interrupt.

In summary, the key examples illustrate how children thrive in emotional environments characterized by attentive responsiveness, respect for their intellectual capacities, and opportunities to pursue their natural curiosities and enthusiasms, rather than rigid schedules and dismissive attitudes.

Fantasy as a Constructive Element in Child Learning

Children's fantasy play is a crucial element in their learning and development, not an escape from reality. Rather than dismissing fantasy as unproductive, we should recognize it as a powerful tool children use to engage with and understand the real world.

The book critiques approaches like Montessori's that discourage children's fantasies. Instead of allowing children to freely explore and incorporate materials into their own imaginative scenarios, these methods impose adult-directed fantasies, stripping the materials of their full learning potential. In doing so, the adults are the ones trying to take reality out of the blocks, not the children who are trying to put more reality into them.

In fact, children's fantasies are often attempts to expand their understanding and control of the real world around them. Whether it's a child writing messages or a group playing "train", they are not escaping reality, but actively exploring and practicing the skills and experiences of adulthood. Stifling this creative process can be deeply detrimental to a child's learning and development.

The book argues we should embrace and nurture children's natural inclination towards fantasy play, as it is a vital means for them to construct their own understanding of the world. By allowing this freedom, we empower children to take an active role in their learning, rather than passively receiving adult-directed instruction. This fosters their intrinsic motivation and self-directed growth.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight that fantasy is a constructive element in child learning:

  • The author describes an episode where children could not complete simple tasks with mathematical materials until they were first allowed to freely play and fantasize with the materials, making them "real" and part of their "living world." This shows how fantasy helps children engage with and understand abstract concepts.

  • The author criticizes traditional Montessori schools for discouraging children's fantasizing with materials like the Pink Tower and Brown Stair, insisting they be used only for the intended mathematical lessons. The author argues this takes away the "reality" the children want to add to the materials through fantasy.

  • The author praises the growth and learning of Paul, whose mother documented his self-directed writing development. Paul began with "scribble-writing" and messages that had personal meaning to him, rather than just practicing skills. This shows how fantasy and personal engagement drive early learning.

  • The author describes how he read advanced literature aloud to young first-grade students, who were engaged and interested, even though they couldn't fully understand it. This suggests fantasy and imagination can support learning beyond a child's current abilities.

  • The author recounts his own childhood experiences of fantasizing about train travel with his sister, using simple household objects. This illustrates how children use fantasy to engage with and understand the real world around them.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "How Children Learn" that resonated with readers.

For a long time I have been interested in my own thoughts, feelings, and motives, eager to know as much as I can of the truth about myself. After many years, I think that at most I may know something about a very small part of what goes on in my own head. How preposterous to imagine that I can know what goes on in someone else's.

Understanding oneself is a complex and ongoing process, and even after much self-reflection, one can only scratch the surface of their own thoughts and feelings. It's arrogant to assume that we can fully comprehend another person's mind when we barely understand our own. This realization fosters humility and recognition of the intricate nature of human consciousness.

The person who really needs to know something does not need to be told many times, drilled, tested. Once is enough.

When someone is genuinely interested in learning, they tend to absorb information quickly and effortlessly. They don't require repeated explanations or rigorous testing, as their curiosity drives them to understand and retain the knowledge. In fact, a single exposure to new information can be enough to spark a deep understanding, eliminating the need for tedious repetition.

But the greatest difference between children and adults is that most of the children to whom I offer a turn on the cello accept it, while most adults, particularly if they have never played any other instrument, refuse it.

The innocence and curiosity of childhood allow young minds to embrace new experiences with open arms. Unfettered by fear of failure or embarrassment, children are more willing to take risks and explore unknown territories. In contrast, adults often let self-doubt and hesitation hold them back from trying new things. This disparity highlights the importance of preserving a sense of wonder and adventure in our lives.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "How Children Learn"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. Why should educators prioritize a child's freedom in learning over strict educational techniques?
2. What are the benefits of allowing children to set their own learning challenges?
3. How does the nature of children's interaction with books change when they are not forced to follow a structured reading program?
4. Why is it a mistake to consider intelligence as a product that can be manufactured through specific programs or techniques?
5. How does a detached, 'value-free' scientific approach affect the understanding of children according to modern scientific research?
6. What essential elements are missing from modern brain research methodologies when it comes to understanding children?
7. How does an emotionally engaged perspective contribute to the understanding of children?
8. What advantages does the biographical method offer for studying child development compared to statistical methods?
9. How does the biographical method contribute to understanding individual learning processes in child development?
10. Why might controlled experiments miss important aspects of child development that the biographical method can capture?
11. How do longitudinal observations provide more valuable insights than one-time studies in child development research?
12. Why is the idea that humans operate purely according to mechanical laws considered insufficient?
13. What does the text suggest about the natural capabilities of children in learning?
14. How does the book challenge the relation between machines and human consciousness?
15. What viewpoint does the book advocate regarding how education should recognize human mind complexity?
16. Why is it critical to understand the non-mechanical attributes of human nature in educational settings?
17. What qualities in the emotional environment help children to unlock their creativity and intellectual capacities?
18. How do very young babies respond when their emotional needs are adequately met by adults?
19. What negative consequences might arise from environments where children experience stress, criticism, or indifference?
20. Why is it important for adults to take children's questions and concerns seriously?
21. What impact does an enthusiastic and supportive adult presence have on children's approach to learning complex material?
22. Why is children's fantasy play considered more than just escapism in learning contexts?
23. What is the drawback of educational approaches that discourage fantasy in children?
24. How does fantasy play contribute to a child's development and understanding of abstract concepts?
25. What benefits come from nurturing a child's natural inclination towards fantasy?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "How Children Learn". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you create learning environments at home or in school that prioritize children's independence and initiative in learning over structured methods?
2. How can you incorporate more empathy and engagement when interacting with children in your care or family?
3. In what ways might you improve your understanding of the children around you by dedicating time to observe them in their natural settings?
4. How can you implement the biographical method in your own observations or studies of child development to gain a more comprehensive understanding of individual learning trajectories?
5. How can you foster an environment that respects and nurtures the psychological and emotional complexity of individuals, particularly in educational or professional settings?
6. How can you create a more emotionally nurturing environment at home or in classrooms to enhance children's curiosity and creativity?
7. How can you integrate fantasy play into educational activities to enhance children’s understanding of real-world concepts and subjects?

Chapter Notes


  • Shift in Research Focus: The chapter highlights a shift in psychological research, where the study of very young children and their learning has become an important field, in contrast to the earlier lack of attention to this area.

  • Limitations of Brain Research: The author expresses skepticism about brain research, arguing that theories like the right-brain left-brain theory change rapidly and fail to capture the complexity of the mind. The author suggests that learning about the mind is more akin to exploring the depths of the ocean rather than figuring out how to start a car.

  • Concerns about Experimental Methodology: The author criticizes research that makes unreliable judgments about people's behavior based on observations in highly artificial and threatening situations, using the example of the "eye camera" experiment on children as an illustration.

  • Critique of the "Organism as Machine" Perspective: The author strongly disagrees with the notion that organisms, including humans, are nothing but machines, considering this idea to be "mistaken, foolish, harmful, and dangerous."

  • Importance of Biographical Approach: The author highlights the work of Millicent Washburn Shinn and Glenda Bissex, who used a biographical approach to study children's development, emphasizing the value of observing the "actual unfolding of one stage out of another" rather than relying solely on statistical methods.

  • Caution against Tampering with Children: The author emphasizes the importance of observing children without "tampering" with them, as Millicent Shinn and Glenda Bissex did, in contrast to researchers who may inadvertently or intentionally harm children through their experiments.

  • Critique of "Value-free" Science: The author criticizes the "value-free" and detached approach of some modern scientists, exemplified by the brain research lab and Marvin Minsky's views, arguing that this approach fails to account for the depth of human experience and can lead to the "invalidation of experience."

  • Importance of Loving and Respectful Relationships: The author suggests that children will only learn to their full potential and reveal their true nature in the presence of loving, respectful, and trusting adults, in contrast to the "tinkerers, dissectors, and manipulators" who may drive children into artificial behavior or deception.


Here are the key takeaways from the Chapter:

  • Children are highly curious and eager to explore the world around them: Little children like Lisa are fascinated by objects and machines, and want to examine, handle, and test them to understand how they work. They have a strong drive to make sense of the world and do the things they see bigger people doing.

  • Children learn through play and experimentation: Children like Lisa and Tommy learn a lot through playing with objects like typewriters and player pianos, experimenting with how they work and what happens when they interact with them in different ways. This hands-on, trial-and-error approach is how they build understanding.

  • Children have remarkable patience and concentration: Contrary to common assumptions, young children like Lisa and Danny can focus intently on tasks like solving puzzles or operating machines, persistently working to get things right even when faced with frustration.

  • Children are highly sensitive to emotions: Young children like Lisa are very attuned to the emotional states of those around them, and can be deeply affected by even subtle signs of anxiety or tension from adults. This makes it important for adults to be mindful of the emotional environment they create.

  • Children resist unsolicited teaching: As seen with Tommy, young children often react with anger and frustration when adults try to teach them things they haven't asked to learn. They want to explore and learn at their own pace, and resent being told they "need" to learn something.

  • Children learn through observation and imitation: Watching adults and older children perform tasks, and then imitating them, is a key way that young children like Tommy and Danny build understanding and skills. Having opportunities to observe real work being done is valuable.

  • Children's play and experimentation reveal their emerging capabilities: The author is repeatedly surprised and impressed by the level of dexterity, problem-solving, and abstract thinking that young children demonstrate through their play, which challenges common assumptions about their abilities.

  • Children benefit from freedom to explore and discover: The author argues that by giving children freedom to investigate the world around them, make mistakes, and learn through trial-and-error, we can nurture their natural curiosity and confidence, rather than dampening it through excessive control and instruction.


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Babies Discover Speech Through Experimentation: Babies often make sounds by accident and then repeat them because they enjoy the way they feel and sound. They gradually learn to associate these sounds with meanings and use them to communicate.

  • Babies Learn to Speak by Speaking: Babies do not learn to speak by first mastering the individual skills of speech, but by actively trying to communicate and speak. The act of speaking is how they learn to speak.

  • Babies Understand More Than They Can Express: Young children often know and understand more than they can put into words. Asking them direct questions about what they know can confuse and frustrate them.

  • Correcting Children's Speech Can Be Counterproductive: Constantly correcting a child's speech mistakes can discourage them from speaking and make them self-conscious, rather than helping them improve. Children often correct their own speech mistakes over time.

  • Children Learn Language Through Exposure and Conversation: Children learn to speak by hearing language used naturally around them, not through formal instruction. Allowing children opportunities to converse freely with others is more helpful than direct teaching.

  • Children Invent Their Own Words and Grammar: Young children often create their own words and grammatical structures as they experiment with language. This shows their active engagement in learning, not just passive imitation.

  • Lack of Conversational Practice Hinders Academic Skills: Children who do not have enough opportunities to practice speaking and conversing often struggle with other academic skills like reading, writing, and following instructions.

  • Free, Unstructured Conversation is Crucial for Language Development: Providing children with uninterrupted time to talk freely with each other, without teacher control or correction, is essential for developing strong language and communication abilities.


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Children's Sensitivity to Competence Models: Children can feel humiliated and threatened when confronted with someone who knows much more than they do about a subject. This reaction is common in both children and adults, as it can make them feel ignorant and incompetent.

  • Allowing Children to Learn at Their Own Pace: Children should be allowed to learn to read at their own pace and in their own way, without being pushed or tested constantly. Forcing children to learn before they are ready can destroy their confidence and desire to learn.

  • The Importance of Meaningful Learning: Children learn best when they are engaged with material that is meaningful and connected to their lives, rather than rote memorization of disconnected facts and skills.

  • Self-Directed Learning: Children often teach themselves to read by exploring books, signs, and other written materials at their own pace, without formal instruction. This self-directed learning can be more effective than traditional teaching methods.

  • The Role of Writing in Learning to Read: Many children learn to read by first learning to write, starting with scribbles and progressing to more conventional writing. This allows them to explore the connection between written and spoken language in a personal and meaningful way.

  • Avoiding Unnecessary Testing and Correction: Constantly testing and correcting children's mistakes can undermine their confidence and prevent them from developing the ability to self-correct and learn from their mistakes. It is important to allow children to explore and discover on their own.

  • The Importance of Access to Diverse Materials: Providing children with a wide range of books, signs, and other written materials, as well as the freedom to explore them, can be more effective for learning to read than formal instruction.

  • The Limitations of Standardized Testing: Standardized tests often fail to accurately measure children's true learning and understanding, and can lead to harmful labeling and assumptions about their abilities.


  • Respecting a child's natural courage and caution: The author observed that children's courage and confidence rise and fall like the tide, and that it's important to respect this natural rhythm rather than trying to force them to do things they are afraid of. Pushing a child beyond their limits can make them more timid, while allowing them to return to a more cautious state when needed can help them progress faster.

  • Learning through exploration and imitation: The author observed that children, even with limited instruction, can learn complex skills like playing softball by watching and imitating others, rather than through direct teaching. They learn best when allowed to explore and practice at their own pace, rather than being forced to stand and listen to explanations.

  • Developing reflexes and awareness: The author noted that one of the key skills a swimmer needs to develop is the automatic reflex to block the mouth and nose when water rises over them. This is a subtle skill that young children lack, and need to learn through experience and practice.

  • Using games and play to address challenges: The author found that playing games, like spraying water in the child's face and having the child blow it back, can help the child develop the necessary reflexes and awareness to deal with water in their face, in a fun and engaging way.

  • Gradually reducing support and allowing independence: The author described how he gradually reduced the amount of physical support he provided the child, allowing him to explore the water more independently and develop his swimming skills. This gradual reduction of support, rather than abruptly removing it, helped the child build confidence and a sense of mastery.

  • Recognizing and respecting a child's sense of accomplishment: The author acknowledged that he and the child's mother were mistaken in not allowing the child to swim in the deep end, as the child had clearly earned that right through his progress. Denying him that opportunity led to a disappointing and frustrating experience for the child.

  • Allowing children to learn at their own pace: The author provided examples of other children who learned to swim at their own pace, without formal lessons, demonstrating that children will learn when they are ready, and that forcing instruction on them before they are ready can be counterproductive.


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Children's Ability to Draw: Children do not simply copy what they see, but rather represent their understanding of objects through symbols. Learning to draw realistic representations requires developing specific techniques and skills.

  • Importance of "Messing About": Children need unstructured time to freely explore and experiment with materials before being directed to specific tasks. This "messing about" allows them to build mental models and develop their own understanding.

  • Limitations of Formal Instruction: Formal instruction that focuses on memorizing facts and skills can dull children's natural curiosity and problem-solving abilities. Children learn best when they are allowed to pursue their own interests and make their own discoveries.

  • Value of Children's Art: Children's art can reveal remarkable creativity and talent, even at young ages. However, this potential is often stifled by a lack of access to quality materials and an emphasis on standardized academic performance.

  • Importance of Scale and Perspective: Understanding concepts like scale, proportion, and perspective are important mathematical and spatial skills that can be developed through hands-on activities like drawing, model-making, and exploring geometric shapes.

  • Diversity of Learning Paths: Children learn in diverse ways and at different paces. Allowing them to follow their own interests and curiosities leads to more engaged and meaningful learning, rather than forcing them down a single prescribed path.

  • Role of the Teacher: The teacher's role should be to facilitate and support children's self-directed learning, rather than to control and direct it. This requires providing a rich environment of materials and resources, and allowing children the freedom to explore and discover.


  • Children use fantasy to get into, not escape, the real world: Children's fantasies are not about being omnipotent or doing impossible things, but about trying to do what adults do and gain competence in the real world. Their fantasies are grounded in reality and serve to help them understand and make sense of the world around them.

  • Fantasy allows children to test and explore reality: Through fantasy play, children set themselves real problems and try to solve them legitimately, as they understand the rules of reality. This helps them expand the boundaries of their experience and understanding.

  • Fantasy helps children make sense of the world: Because children have limited experience, they use fantasy to fill in the gaps and create mental models of reality that work for them. Their fantasies grow out of and connect to their real-world experiences.

  • Fantasies are personal and cannot be prescribed: Children's fantasies are unique to their own interests and experiences. Attempts by adults to direct or control children's fantasies can stifle their natural development and connection to the real world.

  • Fantasies can lead to deeper engagement with the world: The emotional connection and sense of wonder that children develop through their fantasies can motivate them to learn more about the real-world objects and concepts that inspire their imaginations, as seen in the examples of Seymour Papert's fascination with gears and Robert's love of trains.

  • Montessori's rejection of fantasy is misguided: The Montessori approach of discouraging children's fantasies with materials like the Pink Tower and Brown Stair is counterproductive, as it takes away the reality that children are trying to add to these objects through their imaginative play.

  • Fake fantasies imposed by adults are harmful: Forcing children to pretend to be things like snowflakes or flowers, rather than allowing their own natural fantasies to emerge, can stifle their true imaginative development and connection to the real world.


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Reasoning too soon can lead to incorrect conclusions: The author tried to logically solve the Hako puzzle, but his incomplete mental model of how the pieces moved led him to incorrectly conclude the puzzle was impossible, when in fact it could be solved.

  • Exploration and "messing about" are important for building mental models: The children who were able to solve the Hako puzzle did so by first exploring the pieces and their movements, rather than trying to reason it out logically from the start like the author did.

  • Explanations are often ineffective for conveying understanding: The author observed that even experts often fail to effectively explain complex topics to novices through verbal explanations alone, as the novice lacks the necessary mental models and background knowledge.

  • Children learn best through direct experience, not just explanations: Children learn best by directly interacting with and exploring the world around them, rather than just being told information. Trying to teach children solely through explanations can actually undermine their natural learning abilities.

  • Children have an innate drive to learn and make sense of the world: Children are naturally curious and motivated to understand the world around them. They will actively work to fill gaps in their understanding, rather than needing to be externally motivated to learn.

  • We cannot fully know or control what is happening in children's minds: The human mind is complex and largely opaque, so educators cannot assume they can perfectly measure, predict or control the learning process in children's minds. Educators need to trust and facilitate children's natural learning processes.

  • Children learn best when given freedom to direct their own learning: Allowing children to explore their own interests and direct their own learning, rather than forcing them to learn predetermined content, is more effective for facilitating deep, lasting learning.


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Children love learning and are extremely good at it: The author has observed that children are naturally inclined to learn and are highly capable of it, contrary to the common belief that children need to be forced to learn.

  • The book did not change how schools deal with children: The author had hoped that the book would encourage schools to trust children to learn on their own, but schools and the public remained resistant to this idea, believing that children need to be controlled and forced to learn.

  • The book may have encouraged some adults to take children more seriously: While the book did not change the education system, it seems to have convinced some parents and teachers to observe children more closely, think more carefully about their behavior, and develop more respect and trust for them.

  • Attempts to deliberately train intelligence are misguided: The author expresses concern about the growing trend of designing techniques and programs to deliberately train children's intelligence, as this could lead to harmful consequences and the belief that intelligence is a product that can be manufactured and bought.

  • Responding to children's needs should be out of love, not just for developmental purposes: The author criticizes the idea of responding to a baby's cry solely for the purpose of developing their brain functions, arguing that this reduces children to a collection of neural pathways rather than recognizing their inherent worth and the need for love and care.

  • Children's energy, curiosity, and passion should be celebrated, not seen as a nuisance: The author emphasizes the beauty and value in children's exuberant behaviors, such as twirling, leaping, and exploring the world with wonder, and argues that these should be embraced rather than seen as a problem to be managed.

  • Love, not techniques, is the foundation of true learning: The author concludes that it is love, not artificial methods or "intelligence training," that lies at the heart of children's learning and growth, and that we should strive to let children learn and grow through this love.


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