Helicopter in flight. Photo courtesy David Merrett via Flickr Creative Commons.

Why we should give kids more freedom to play -- and learn

Whenever the term ‘helicopter parent’ is thrown around, I feel a creeping sense that I’ve been found out and named.

I worry about my kids and their safety. A lot.

In the interest of being generous to myself, my anxiety over my children is due, at least in part, to their having been born with a genetic disorder that affects their bones and connective tissues. Although they have the mildest possible form of the condition, they are far more prone to injuries -- including bone fractures and sprains -- than other children.

One year, they had three broken legs between them, which is to say, three out of four of my kids’ legs have been broken at one time or another. It was excruciating, but it was also several years ago.

But that alone does not explain the source of my anxiety, which even I cannot name or identify. A friend told me it’s just what happens when you become a mom, and that it gets better over time. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether Americans are living in an age of intense parental anxiety.

A new book -- Free to Learn -- by Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, has assuaged my anxiety in one area at least. We’ve moved around a lot, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, that, along with other factors, has led us to teach our kids at home. And that has given them a kind of freedom they’d be unlikely to find in any school -- a freedom, that, according to Gray, seems to be essential for optimal learning.

While I started out with Type A lists, goals, schedules, and lesson plans, some of which worked very well, I discovered that many of the things I thought were necessary and helpful really weren’t. Once my older son became proficient at reading, he devoured books that were ‘supposed’ to be a part of the curriculum purely for his own enjoyment, and, at 8 years old, he’s capable of answering some of my questions pertaining to things having to do with both science and history.

Gray works off of the hypothesis that human beings are designed to learn. Learning is unstoppable, as the researcher Sugata Mitra discovered when his experiments designed to demonstrate the necessity of direct instruction ended up demonstrating the opposite, and to paraphrase Mitra’s TED talk, one of the best things a teacher can do is stand aside and watch in awe.

For those of us who see the stamp of a Creator, a higher being, upon children, this idea calls us to a new kind of faith.

Can we tend our children as we would a garden, recognizing that while it’s up to us to provide safety, protection, nourishment, and attention, there is a process that must unfold according to its own plan--according to the plan of nature, as some would see it, or, as others would see it, the plans of God?

Some parental anxiety -- and what’s often implied by the term ‘helicopter parent’ -- is the result of wanting to control our children more than we really can; more than we really should.

But Gray’s book addresses more than just individual parents and families: he argues that our school system, with its ever-increasing emphasis on standardized testing, does more to crush innate curiosity and the desire to learn than it does to allow children the freedom to learn.

Many factors are in play here, but at stake is nothing less than the freedom of children to be who they were created to be.