In Defense of Play

As a follow-up to the post about the iPhone app for teaching characters to children, I have a quick story. As L was practicing writing his Chinese numbers for his Mandarin immersion summer camp homework, he proudly showed me that he knows the correct stroke order for each of them. I asked if his teacher had taught him that, and he said, “No, I learned it from your phone.” So the app works (and he loves it). They just need to add more characters; there are only a handful and they are a bit randomly selected (tang 汤, soup, is a useful vocab word but is a complicated character that maybe doesn’t need to be in the first dozen learned).

On a marginally related note, I read a great op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, by child development expert Alison Gopnik, about how children learn and the importance of play. We sent L to a two-week session of Mandarin immersion camp at his school, which overall was a big success. But as great as it is to have a child who is so excited about learning characters and Chinese in general, I felt a little uncomfortable sending him to a camp that was so academically intensive. He learned a lot and had fun, but my idea of summer is play, play, play, ice cream, more play. The point of the Times article, which I found refreshing and true, is that young children learn best through free-form play because they naturally challenge themselves to seek out new experiences and knowledge, without needing fancy toys and DVDs to do it for them. The last paragraph of the article says it all:

But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.

While the summer camps and all the many Chinese teaching props out there are crucial and valuable, our kids have always learned the most Chinese through conversations with their father, games they play at school, songs they enjoy listening to, teachers or caretakers they feel close to, and books they love reading over and over. Flashcards can only go so far. Kids need to play.



  1. That iphone app seems cool. I don’t have an iphone, but there is a website you might want to check out. It isn’t for kids, so it doesn’t have pictures or fun little rewards or anything, but I’ve found my character recognition has gone through the roof. Anyway, might see if your son will try it! I agree that kids definitely need that play time, I see a lot of kids around here in school (my school!) all summer, on the weekends, in the evenings….ugh. Anyway, here’s the website:

  2. [...] on the topic of play (about which I feel strongly), here is an excellent public radio program on “the educational power of things like play, [...]

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