How Children Learn



Babies and toddlers have a wonderful ability to learn and develop.  Our 9-month-old could sit A levels in locating and eating newspaper, cardboard and magazines and he would get straight As. He has also expressed a strong interest in studying for an honours degree in Climbing The Stairs. We have a 4-year-old who holds a PhD in Detecting Hypocrisy, and is a professional Kicker Of All Inanimate Objects.

In his book, How Children Learn, John Holt writes:

What is lovely about children is that they can make such a production, such a big deal, out of everything, or nothing … All that energy and foolishness, all that curiosity, questions, talk, all those fierce passions, inconsolable sorrows, immoderate joys, seem to many a nuisance to be endured, if not a disease to be cured. To me they are a national asset, a treasure beyond price, more necessary to our health and our very survival than any oil or uranium or name what you will.

But something disturbing happens when a child reaches his 5th birthday, for no sooner are the candles blown out, than his ability to learn or develop hits a plateau. Um, not so much. Yet this is what our compulsory school system would have us believe. Well actually, you may say, I did teach my son to crawl, chew his food and cut his first tooth – all by demonstration via an electronic whiteboard. And I did teach him later on to speak his native tongue by means of a reputable textbook. Um, no again.

The only good reason for playing games with babies is because we love them, and delight in playing these games with them and in sharing their delight in playing – not because we want someday to get them into college. It is our delight in the baby and the games that make the games fun, and worthwhile and useful for the baby. Take away the delight, and put in it’s place some cold-hearted calculation about future I.Q. and SAT scores, and we kill the game, for ourselves and the baby.

These babies and toddlers learn this stuff because it fascinates them. The baby thinks: Oooooh that computer cable looks interesting, let me pull it and lick it until I understand it. The toddler says: This adult’s contraption looks unbreakable, but maybe if I bash it hard on the floor for a few minutes, it might crack – let’s test it out.  Thousands of people would probably agree that much of their useful knowledge was acquired outside of school, or even since they left.

It may be true enough that in learning purely physical skills, such as sports … we generally have to learn easy movements before we learn hard ones. That is how the body works. But it is not how the mind works … What makes things easy or hard for our minds has very little to do with how little or how much information they may contain, and everything to do with how interesting they are and, to say it once again, how much sense they make, how connected they seem to reality.

So we have a 7-year-old daughter who dances beautifully, and interprets the music so sensitively. But can she stick a ballet class? Not likely. (Believe me, we’ve tried.) She also has a marvellous talent for setting up imaginative games in every corner of the house, or failing that in the middle of the hallway. It’s a trip hazard to the rest of us, but perfect sense to her. Then there’s our 9-year-old with his near-expert knowledge of British birds. He can point out a nuthatch to a disbelieving RSPB Ranger, or share various astonishing facts (did you know, a Peregrine Falcon can dive at the speed of a Formula 1 Racing car ie 220mph?) How he acquired encyclopaedic knowledge with a few books, a few documentaries and a few walks is down to the fact that he is interested.

The tricky thing is to not doubt them. How can we be confident that he will master equations in the same way he learned to climb out of his cot? And will she one day write clearly and accurately just because she once held her spoon for the first time and shovelled yoghurt? With tender, loving care, we believe so.

Holt writes that his book can be summarised in just two words: trust children.

Nothing could be more simple – or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves – and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.

It is only in the presence of loving, respectful, trusting adults that children will learn all they are capable of learning, or reveal to us what they are learning … Of two ways of looking at children now growing in fashion – seeing them as monsters of evil who must be beaten into submission, or as little two-legged walking computers whom we can program into geniuses, it is hard to know which is worse, and will do more harm. I write this book to oppose them both.

John Holt was an experienced schoolteacher who helped lead a mid-20th century movement for school reform in America, but concluded that not many people desired reform and so he began to encourage home education. He has authored several books on these topics, including How Children Fail and Teach Your Own.


  1. March 29, 2015    

    I have this book on loan at the moment from my library as I being to consider if we will HomeEd – really interested to read your opinions on it.
    thanks for sharing with #weekendbookclub x

    • March 29, 2015    

      Hi Sarah, John Holt’s work is so helpful. 🙂

  2. March 30, 2015    

    This looks like it could be a great book. #weekendbookclub

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