Imagine that it’s 10:07 on a Tuesday morning in a public school classroom, and a little girl has her nose in a fiction book.

Subconsciously, she’s learning the archetypes of storytelling while expanding her imagination and building fundamental neural pathways. What a wonderful use of a child’s time. But because it’s 10:07 on a Tuesday, it’s now time for math. “Time to put the book down,” the teacher instructs. “Time for times tables.”

The little girl is annoyed and frustrated – understandably so. Her flow state of learning was rudely interrupted. Of course she has no interest in learning about numbers right now; she wants to be reading! During the math lesson, the little girl develops a bitterness towards these stupid, silly numbers. Naturally, she doesn’t perform well at the exercise, and grows up believing that she’s bad at math and “numbers just aren’t her thing.”

How is this productive?

It’s not, of course, but it stems from a fear of kids “falling behind.” Fortunately, for kids under ten, “falling behind” is not a concern. Older kids have the ability to catch up on basic topics – like learning state capitals or simple math equations – really quickly. In fact, kids don’t start school until they’re seven-years old in Finland, and they do really well academically. It’s a lot easier for a ten-year old to absorb something than a five-year old.

But when a five-year old loses the chance to develop valuable mental models because it’s 10:07 and “time for math,” their capacity for cognitive growth is stunted.

Stifled kids may develop a distaste for the learning process as a whole. They begin to see it as coercive and in constant opposition to their passions and interests; naturally, they resent it. They quickly learn how to scrape by, do the minimum, pass the class, and move on.

Forcing kids to “stay on track” with standardization is inhibiting their natural excitement to learn, which is far more detrimental than not being able to recite the presidents in order. Remember: older kids can catch up on these standardized topics fast. What’s important is that we steer away from standardizing kids’ excitement, and instead, focus on helping them develop cognitive capacity.

Children are self-driven…if you allow them to be

In “The Intellectual Lives of Children,” Susan Engel discusses the importance of prioritizing cognitive development in children before laying too many ground rules for behavior:

Unfortunately, in our homes and schools, we too often train children to behave rather than nurture their rich and active minds. This focus is misguided, since it is with their first inquiries and inventions―and the adult world’s response to them―that children lay the foundation for a lifetime of learning and good thinking.

Kids need space to grow, pursue, expand. Laying too many ground rules – too much of “do this, not that” – will smother a child’s independence and self-direction, making them reliant on other people to tell them what to do and how to act. This can lead to an unnecessarily confused, challenging adulthood. But when given autonomy as a child, they can develop self-confidence and a self-motivated desire to learn.

Take the story of Kevin Cooper, an unschooled kid who, by the time he was fourteen, had launched a business, bought a house, published an autobiography, and had countless business models in the works. Kevin tragically passed in a kayaking accident, but his fingerprints on the world of unschooling will remain forever.

In an essay he wrote for Bari Weiss’s publication, Common Sense, (what did this kid not accomplish?), he said:

“It isn’t that my generation isn’t capable. We just need the freedom, encouragement, and empowerment to show what we can do.”

What’s amazing about prioritizing cognitive capacity is that it’s not complicated. It can be as simple as letting your kid climb trees and roll around in the dirt.

Unfortunately, this is a sentiment that grates painfully against the school of thought that we need to “protect” our kids from the world, when in truth, we are often just hindering them from experiencing it themselves. Freedom can be as simple as arriving at an airport and telling your 9-year old, “Okay, get us to our flight.” With three-year old Kevin Cooper, it was as simple as letting him help change a tire and problem-solve how to organize the lug nuts.

Of course, not all kids are going to launch businesses and buy houses by their teenage years. But that’s not the point. The point is understanding what’s possible for kids when they’re given freedom.

The ethos of Kevin Cooper’s education shows us that when children develop self-confidence and intrinsic motivation, there is literally no ceiling to what they can accomplish. As parents, teachers, and facilitators, our job is to feed and release this energy, not get in the way of it.

Look to these schooling models for guidance

There are plenty of schooling models that work with kids’ flow states rather than against them.

Unschooling is a popular one. Kevin Cooper actually asked his parents if he could curate his own education. He had so many interests and curiosities that he wanted the freedom to pursue them unhindered. And in his short, beautiful life, it served him well.

Montessori education is another schooling model that allows freedom for kids to learn as they wish, but within a structured space. If a child wants to learn math, they can head over to a shelf full of math books, organized from beginner level to advanced, and spend however long they want practicing. Perhaps they learn in quick, short, energetic bursts – that’s okay. Perhaps they want to pore over these books for hours and hours – that’s okay, too. Both are better solutions than a rigid hour of “whether you like it or not” lessons that don’t fit either of these needs.

Forcing standardization on kids too early is like placing a swift-growing plant in a cardboard box. Kids are young and wild, reaching for the world around them, stretching their little limbs for more sunlight, space, freedom. Their curiosities cannot be neatly confined or constrained. Their excitement is buzzing with the electricity of childhood wonder. When we try to confine them with rigid structure, expecting them to grow in the same direction, at the same time, to the same height, we are only stunting their growth in the long-term.

Cultivating the self-driven desire to learn…this is the solution to harnessing and fostering kids’ excitement. We’re giving them a chance to grow into a thriving, face-to-the-sun adulthood by prioritizing their cognitive capacity first. Later on, they’ll be able to navigate standardization with a deep-rooted excitement to learn and a strong ability to soak up new information.

Remember: we are providing the sunlight, the space, and the freedom – not the cardboard.

Grace Smith

Grace Smith

Grace is a creative wordsmith with a zest for innovative storytelling. After getting her BA in English-Writing, she dove into the world of alternative education and hasn’t shut up about it since. On top of finding new and better ways to learn, Grace is a freelance content writer and strategist passionate about classic literature, killer cortados, and the perfect Spotify playlist.

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