I was recently discussing with a friend my understanding of why kids no longer being interested in books is not the worst thing. If you would have asked me about this years ago, I would have agreed; kids not reading is terrible! Of course not reading as many books would affect their intelligence and imagination.
But after 13 years of motherhood, my mind has expanded and I have seen for myself first hand that reading many books is not synonymous with intelligence or imagination. I no longer think that reading is the best way for kids to increase and expand their intellect, imagination, and happiness. Before I can get into the why, I want to provide a bit of context.
From a young age, my daughter never gravitated toward books. I did my best to encourage her in that way, especially because her father and I loved reading, but she simply was not interested. I would feel so self-conscious about this and would often worry that this would hold her back and affect her success in school.
Fast forward. At age 13, my daughter is still not a fan of reading and has read little books compared to others her age. The irony of this is that she is the most imaginative person I know. What I have observed about my daughter is that she loves and adores play. Ever since she was very young, that is what she has enjoyed more than anything. She possessed an amazing and innate ability to play and was not shy in asking other kids to join her in her play. I observed something fascinating about this. Her play and self-exploration through self-expression expanded her in ways other kids her age were not expanded. To date, her drawing and art is light years ahead of mine when I was the same age. She has written many scripts and stories and is one of the kindest, funniest, and wittiest kids I know. She can drop her sense of self in a second and step into different characters and worlds without thinking. She has maintained her childlike innocence and wonder and is not left with heavy burdens and thoughts of performance in school and trying to be an age that she is not. She loves cosplay and exploring herself through becoming different people. I am not saying all this just because I’m her mother. My daughter is one who loves to laugh and have a good time. She loves to play and explore and that is how she learns.
Currently, she spends a lot of time playing make believe, drawing, making animations, writing scripts, exploring computer programs used by people twice her age, and communing with other creatives her age. She has friends from all across the world and they collaborate on art and share art with one another. According to all the standardized tests, she is average when it comes to reading and writing and mathematics, and yet she has accomplished some amazing things for her age that no test could ever capture.
Recently, my daughter began self-exploration through musical theater. She took a strong interest in Broadway. It didn’t surprise me one bit. Her love of play and make believe has now transferred to something much more tangible. She is in a musical theater camp right now and is exploring herself through the lens of acting and dancing. She loves theater and performance art. For her, that does the same thing as someone who expands through reading books. She even expressed to me that she has little interest in the spiritual practices I engage in, because musical theater does that for her—offers her connection to a deeper self and space of wellness.
Everything I have learned as a parent has shown me that people learn in many different ways and reading is just one way. It isn't the best or most superior. All forms of learning are equally valid. I used to worry that my daughter's disinterest in books was a serious problem until I opened my mind and realized that people learn in different ways and she simply is not like kids who learn through books. She can read well and that is enough. I choose not to stifle her genius because it does not look the way I think or believe it should, or the way society says it should.
It was Einstein who said "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." Kids these days are exploring different ways to learn besides reading books. Before we had technology, reading books was the gateway to learning. Before books it was language and the oral tradition side by side play and traditional roles. Technology is transforming that.
In the Torah, it says the masculine spirit is captured in the written word, but it is the feminine spirit that is captured in the oral. We live in a masculine focused society that does not see the value in the feminine way, which is freedom, flow, and more focused on being in the body and self-expression. My question is: what if we placed our value on this type of learning and let go of the idea that reading books and masculine learning is the superior form of learning? What if we married the two and allowed space for our children to discover the style of learning that most suited them?
More than books, the focus should be on a child's happiness and self-expression. Numerous countries have actually cut the time children spend in school and emphasized play and what they found is children learn more and perform better when they have more time for unstructured play and self-exploration. If they enjoy reading books, that is wonderful. But not all children do and many learn more through interactive play.
I believe the current struggle many children are experiencing in American schools is due to the disconnect they are experiencing between their body, mind, and spirit. They are not being taught how to tap into this other way of learning I am talking about—play over classroom time; time spent in nature and time spent imagining and flowing and being. A way that is not standardized and limited to numbers and data or the number of books read. Learning that is not based on performance, but instead a learning that is based on enrichment and enjoyment.
I've encouraged my daughter from when she was small to follow her happiness and I have seen her thrive through it. And honestly that never really included books. When she was struggling in school, it was because her teachers attempted to put her in a box limited to one way of learning. Once her education was tailored to her interests and freedom of imagination and alternative learning, everything changed, and she is thriving.
I do absolutely see the value in books, but I do not think that reading books is the litmus test to a person's intelligence, genius, talent, happiness, thriving, and capability. That extends far beyond a book. A book is simply a tool, a capsule for learning, like a vitamin or supplement. A book and reading provide theory and possibility, but it is in the being and the experiential that people grow. And that’s where play comes in. Play gives not just our kids, but us adults the opportunity to learn and grow in a way that nourishes and entertains us. Some want to demonize this element of modern learning; that the need for constant entertainment is stifling growth and degrading the intellect. I disagree. I see entertainment and play as vital to it and if we can learn to tap into this element, we have the opportunity to rear up a society of present and happy adults. Our living, our playing, and engaging in life is the nourishing soul food that is our true growth. It is what happens when you put the book down.
Books are wonderful. I do not feel animosity towards books in the slightest measure. I simply see that books are not the be all end all of learning.