Thursday, October 8, 2009

Playing His Way

Today, I'm sharing a piece from the Apple Pie archives. This is the story of how my son Ben taught himself. What I want you to notice is how the element of play was essential -- woven throughout his experiences. In short, he played his way to a very high level of competence in a number of areas. The lesson for us is to notice what our children are already doing, how they are already playing, and to let them dive into learning that way.

With play, our children transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Play is the doorway to a magical world where almost anything is possible. It unleashes their potential and imagination and concentration like nothing else. We are wise if we pay attention to this and encourage them.

My second son, Ben, was not built for the traditional classroom. He'd be the first to agree with this. Bright, inquisitive, and chatty, he was usually in motion. Sitting still was painful. He was the extreme version of a hands-on learner. Simply put, he needed to learn in a different way. This was hard for me to understand at first. His bent for learning and his interests were a mystery that would take me years to unwrap.

From the time he could walk, he had a fascination for machines and for building things. Recently, I was cleaning out the attic and found a cardboard box covered with wrapping paper. A pair of eyes was drawn on the lid, accompanied by the words, "Scientist's Treasure Chest." Inside the box, I found bits of wire and string, ear phones, magnets, pieces of small gadgets, a gyroscope, iron nails, and so forth. Ben had plans to build things from whatever he collected. I remember him trying to persuade us to keep a broken washer and dryer, so that he could take them apart. He wasn't sure what he'd do with the parts, but he knew they'd come in handy.

A sympathetic relative gave him a child's camera when he was six years old. The yellow plastic machine was his delight. He took pictures of everything. We have photos for posterity of the food we ate, Lego men in various postures, toy cars and trucks, our cat, and Mom with a mop. He also tried some investigative journalism. He took snapshots of people who looked interesting or suspicious, just in case. More than once, I realized too late that the little yellow camera was working in a restaurant, at the library, or on the street. From time to time, we studied light and optics and worked with lenses, but mostly the camera was a machine, and that was what fascinated him.

When we took our trip west for Joshua's birds, it was natural for Ben to become our trip photographer. This month-long odyssey across the country served as his hands-on unit study in geography and photography. We used a lot of maps and studied all the aspects of geography at each location. Ben learned to take clear, interesting photos of the scenery. Once we were home, he wrote a paper about the trip. But that wasn't all.

By the end of our month-long odyssey, Ben had become an amateur photographer with a deep appreciation for natural beauty. That fall, he used some money from his great-grandmother to purchase professional equipment. He began taking photos in earnest. Each year in high school, he designed and completed his own photography course. He studied books by his favorite photographers and steadily improved in competence and skill. When we moved to the Poconos, he discovered new spots where he could experiment with his camera in nearby ravines and woods. His pictures of local waterfalls are still a family favorite.

For his high school graduation present, he planned a trip for outdoor photography to
Olympic National Park. The detail in his arrangements was remarkable. He knew the light before he arrived -- the best time of day for a photo, the chances of clear or cloudy skies, the best angle for the sun, the average temperature and wind speed, the colors of the terrain, the quality of the air, the direction his camera should aim in, the spots he wanted to shoot, any special equipment he would need. He knew this for every single shot. His photos speak eloquently of his discipline and focus.

He had taught himself everything that he needed to know. He had worked hard, long hours to achieve professional results and to have an experience that many of us only dream about.

Just for the joy of it all.


  1. Cassandra! I loved this post - What a special son you have and what an inspiration it is to read about him. I am so grateful we can homeschool so we can craft a learning environment that fits our special children rather than having them stuck in a school system that teaches everyone the same way. Bravo!


  2. I think our boys are related! Our ds designed a computer case/backpack when he was about 10, that had doors, compartments and a place for a battery and inverter. He cut the pieces for the backpack out of metal from an OLD DRYER, soldered them together and covered them with camo duct tape. It really is amazing even if I say so myself! My boys are constantly taking things apart and putting them together. Now days it consists of snowmobiles, 4-wheelers, etc. My oldest will probably get a degree in mechanical engineering. They do most of their work on their own. My youngest son rebuilds computers and is working on teaching himself programming. Guess what he wants a degree in????

    - Luv-n-Life @ The Homeschool Lounge

  3. Cassandra, that is an inspiring post about Ben; it's amazing how if we let our children "explore" the world around them and the things in it, what remarkable results will come out of it. I think that institutionalized education can frequently compress the individualality and creativity of the majority of our youth today.

    My son too, if I let him go.... teaches himself. Since he was a toddler, he was totally into cars and trucks, through the years he has taught himself all about cars. Right now he is taking apart a car that was given to him for his sixteenth birthday and is putting all new parts in it. He has made me very proud. He has also by watching me over the years, has taught himself how to cook. He's amazing!
    Thank you for sharing this post with us.

    _ Tammy E. Willard @ The Homeschool Lounge

  4. Fabulous post, and so true! My 14 yr old son has had a passion for boating/sailing since he was a little boy. He has since read everything he can get his hands on, built his own "mast and sail" from an old tree log, spare rope and a piece of tarp, to practice the things he has learned in his books. He is also passionate about the keyboard, and when he gets on the computer, goes immediately to YouTube to view videos of pianists playing such things as Beethoven (his favorite composer). He puts the keyboard in front of him, and learns to play by watching the video and imitating the player. He also creates his own music.

    My youngest has a passion for animals of all sorts, and watches videos and reads everything he can get his hands on to learn more. His knowledge amazes me.

    My daughter is 17, and loves to write. One way that she has improved in this area is to imitate her favorite writers. I have seen her writing go from choppy and confusing, to eloquent, in just a matter of years.

    I never did anything special for any of them......just provided tools (books, videos, the internet, etc.) for them to follow their passions.

    Thanks for sharing!

    - Stephanie @ The Homeschool Lounge


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