Learning is not Always Fun

I read a blog called Mayaland. I love reading Maya’s blog. Her approach to life and raising kids warms my heart. They have adventures, a pond which sometimes has a turtle, a dog, there used to be goats, and they build houses out of found parts. I truly respect Maya for the life she has built and how she is raising her kids.

Maya unschools her kids. This is a form of homeschooling that doesn’t require structure or formal lessons. Instead it lets the kids follow their own interests. Maya wrote about how it works for them. I’m so glad that it does work for her family, but that post made me cry. In particular, this sentence hit me hard:
“learning is easy when you’re having fun”
Because I do not think that all learning can be fun for all people. I do not believe that a dyslexic child, left to herself, will automatically learn how to read when she is “ready.” There are a host of other challenges and disabilities which act as road blocks to learning because the associated activities can’t be fun. At least not until a certain level of skill is acquired first. Yes it is possible to use future fun as an incentive to get over the hard bits, but for some people learning itself is hard. Worthwhile, rewarding, but hard.

I remember fourteen years ago when my two and a half year old son was tested for developmental delays. That test revealed much, as did the classes and education that came afterward. The classes taught me how to teach him. My son did not know how to communicate beyond a couple dozen words. He did not even know how to point to indicate something he wanted. Toddlers point and insist on the things they want. They demand and reach to communicate. My son didn’t. The teachers gave me a simple activity to teach my son how to point. An M&M candy in a cup with a black dot on it. I put my son’s finger to the dot and gave him the candy. We played the game four times and the lights went on. Suddenly he pointed at all the things he wanted and his world was larger. A simple adult-structured activity gave him a tool that enabled him. Yet that first time, I had to grab his hand and put his finger on the dot. I had to push him to do something that did not come naturally to him.

When the time came to teach my son to read, I used exactly the book that Maya dismisses as a waste of time. I didn’t need a structured reading program for my older child. She took to reading easily, but my son needed someone to break things down for him. He needed smaller steps, different steps. Truthfully, he probably would have been content to grow up without ever learning to read. He’s sixteen now and still does not seek out reading, but the fact that he can read enables his life in hundreds of ways. I suppose it is possible that left to himself, he would have tackled reading in his own time. But back in first, second, third grade I had to choose whether to push or to let him continue not knowing. I chose to push, to create structured activities, to insist that he learn skills that I knew would make his world a larger place. It was learning to read that finally taught him how to speak comprehensibly to the world at large.

My son has an auditory processing disorder. All language was scrambled on the way into his brain. This was a large part of his developmental delays. It was why, even at ten years old, he spoke in sentences that sounded like he’d thrown the words into a cup and pulled them out in random order. Given context and familiarity with him, we could figure out what he meant. But when he started reading sentences, he finally learned that spoken sentences should have a natural rhythm and order. Requiring him to learn to read made it possible for me to talk to my son, and that is truly worthwhile. He is amazing inside his head. He sees things that I don’t. He thinks in ways that are unique to him and now he can share that with me when he couldn’t before. It is possible that his innate brilliance would have eventually led him to read without my structured lessons, but I would have missed out on years of being able to talk to him. I don’t regret those years, nor the educational pushing that gave them to me.

My choices are different than Maya’s, which does not mean that either of us is wrong. It just means that we have diverse challenges, children, resources, and capabilities. We definitely agree that people learn best when the process is enjoyable. I structured my son’s lessons in games as often as I could, because games spoke to him. I just think there is also value in learning that comes in ways that require a person to do something hard that they dislike.