What Is On Your Reading List?

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I never expected to devote an entire blog posting to a single book. Alison Gopnik’s new work, The Gardener and the Carpenter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux published it in August) has propelled me to do just that. I strongly suggest that anyone in the world of play and playgrounds – including planners, parks department personnel, play activists, designers, funders, parents- rush to their library and get a copy ASAP. It would not be wasteful to consider even buying a copy

Gopnik, a world class psychology and philosophy professor at Berkeley, uses the metaphors of a “gardener” and a “carpenter” to distinguish between two types of caregiving for children: the former nurtures the child as he or she grows but knows when to keep an appropriate distance and let children figure things out for themselves; the latter is a craftsperson who directs and controls every aspect of child development in order to create a perfect child/product.  As Gopnik writes, loving children “isn’t to show them the way, but to help them find a path for themselves, even if the path they take isn’t one we would choose ourselves, or even one we would choose for them.”

Gopnik’s genius is that she argues for the “gardener” mode by breaking childhood into a series of necessities that include love, independence, exploration, listening, observing, imitating, cooperating, communicating. She supports each of these areas with the most recent and cogent scientific studies. She is not prescriptive; she does not offer rules to bring up kids or guidelines to evaluate how they learn or instructions on places where children spend time. Like the good gardener, Gopnik suggests that adults come to their own conclusions by being armed with advanced knowledge of what kids need to flourish. Her range of sources, including evolutionary biology and neuroscience, is outstanding.

Don’t be put off and think you will be tortured to read all of this scientific data. Gopnik writes in an accessible, lively, and often personal manner. I don’t want to trivialize her significant accomplishment by saying it is “fun” to read but Gopnik knows how to make it enjoyable to digest difficult material. She does not neglect, however, to give you full information for the studies she names. Her discussion of play, for example, is reasoned and cautious with clear indications of what we know we don’t know. At the same time, the entire book is filled with excellent references that show how play can be exploratory and cooperative. Gopnik makes clear that it is essentially necessary. Her citations might be useful if you are trying to convince a park patron that old “post and deck” models are not viable for enhancing kids’ social and cognitive growth or to ask your school board to put less emphasis on “content” and more on process, critical thinking, and social interactions.

Gopnik’s book has ramifications for all aspects of childhood: individual freedom, educational curriculum, after school activities, and socialization of young kids as well as teens. She wants adults to know that by being flexible and savvy they could “help create a new generation that is robust and adaptable and resilient, better able to deal with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.” She reveals information to stimulate that in a book that is filled with grace and humor. I urge you to read it.

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