Why I let my six year old boy play with his toy engines rather than do his homework

Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, James the Red Engine and GordonIt’s Sunday night and yet again the homework is lying on the microwave, slightly crumpled from the journey home through the park on Friday. I pick it up. “Write three sentences about how to make friends with other people.” A nice bit of interpersonal skills based homework, exploring what it means to be sociable and how to do it. But, like most of the other homework sheets my six year old brings home with him, it will end up scribbled on and stuffed back in his homework bag, ultimately to end up on the scrap paper pile at school.

So why am I not going to insist that my son takes this worthy piece of work more seriously?

Because he can’t write, yet. He can’t write and he can’t read. Yet. I have no doubt that he will in time, but for the moment the fine motor skills, the concentration and most crucially the motivation are all lacking.

I’m not worried, and nor is my husband and I think (or hope) that if the school could take a step back from its targets and achievement charts, and look at the boy, not the writing it wouldn’t be so concerned either.

His EQ is advanced, he likes order, he plays the drums, he is physically fit and loves climbing, running and testing out his growing, changing body. He is a fantastic story teller. He loves doing jobs and finding out how things work. His favourite question is “why?” which can be a bit testing at times, but demonstrates a keen, inquisitive mind. Yet none of these important life skills are tested and measured or focused on at school.

So what picture is being built up about our lovely, bright, intelligent boy? That he isn’t any of those things (well, perhaps lovely, but not when he is disrupting a small group activity that he finds intimidating and unachievable and therefore threatening). That he is a “slow learner” and needs extra support, extra reading and writing at home that we must provide after his six hours of learning at school everyday.  We’ve helped him with letters from various engines and the Fat Controller. And that has helped to motivate him to read them and then reply to them, but still it is a real struggle for him.

And because he is a bright boy and notices things around him, he can see that the others in his class are reading and writing and doing their numbers and their work is being put up on the wall. He knows that he can’t read and write and that he can’t do his numbers and he knows that these are important skills to have that make the key people around you proud of you.

So what is happening is that his all too fragile confidence is slowly eroding further.

For my son there has to be a reason for everything. There is no point asking him to count the number of ladybirds in a puzzle book, “Why?”. But ask him to lay the table for supper and it’s done. All the right number of plates, knives and forks. Ask him to help cook some pasta and sauce and he’s there helping to measure everything out. Tell him there is a job that needs doing and he is under the sink with you, spanner in hand. So, for him, at the moment there is no real interest in reading and writing because there is no point.

But he does see a point to playing with his train track and engines, to building endless lines that stretch from his bedroom to his sisters’ with countless branch lines in between (yes, we’re all getting very good at the lingo). And when he’s built these tracks the stories start. Great dramas played out by him with his four year old sister equally engrossed and his one and a half year old providing added danger for the engines as she negotiates their tracks.

And through this play that gives him so much pleasure (it’s the first thing he wants to do in the morning and last thing he wants to do at night) he is learning, he’s story telling. He’s learning why there is a point to reading and writing – to tell stories and read stories.

All reading and writing is about the imparting and gathering of stories. That’s how our various civilisations have always developed and flourished and grown, through a shared story.

The brilliant Dr Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man talks about the master sword makers of Japan and how their knowledge of how to make steel swords that were both flexible enough not to break and yet hard enough to hold a sharp edge was passed down from generation to generation through ritual and ceremony due to the lack of scientific formula and written language. Why isn’t more of this done in our schools? Teaching through doing, learning through imitating the masters? We start off in the right direction in the foundation years at primary school, but come to year one and there is significantly less of it and year two it’s as good as out the window.

A lot of learning is done without the need for reading and writing. Our schools are too caught up in ticking boxes and reaching targets and have lost the ability to step back and look at the child and see how they are developing and growing in different areas at different rates. We need to have the courage to trust our children and their ability to judge for themselves when it is the right time to take on more skills and which skills those should be. We should be teaching our children to learn, in that way they will have a life full of opportunity and possibility rather than a string of tests trailing behind them that leave them adrift once they get out into the real world and find life is not all about cramming bits of knowledge for the next test.

It’s the weekend again and a new style of homework has arrived. Now my son is bringing back lists of words to learn for his weekly spelling test. He’s up there now, trying to copy out the words in the little boxes provided: box, fox, cat, sat…

So when he gets up in the morning and asks to play with his train track and when it is bedtime and he’s had multiple stories read to him and he asks to play with his engines before sleep, I let him. Because he’s not playing, he’s learning. Who has fallen off the tracks this time? Which engine is going to bring the fairground rides to the village green? Can Gordon pull all those heavy coaches up Gordon’s hill without James’s help?

There’s a lot going on in that lovely head of his. And if it wasn’t for comparisons, targets, focusing on early high achievers, it would be enough.

Call us now to get membership of The Intergalactic Writers Guild for your school’s children.

Tel: 01865 779944




10 comments on “Why I let my six year old boy play with his toy engines rather than do his homework

  1. AMEN!!! As a professional educator turned home schooling mother, I am with you 100%. Both of my children are brilliant in very non-testable ways, and thus would slip through the system with substandard marks. You keep nurturing his love of learning in general, and it will come.

    One suggestion to pique his interest in the reading/writing thing…. Since he tells such good stories, try taking dictation of one of them. Type it in a “handwriting” friendly font (where the “a” looks normal…maybe comic sans?) in big letters. Then read it with him, pointing to the words. Make a nice big fuss about how he “wrote” that story (you just did the letter part). Return to it periodically and see if he can “help” you read some of the smaller words. His story is surely more engaging to him than the boring slop they put in primers.

    Just a thought. Worked for me and mine.

  2. Can you get this book in the UK? http://www.amazon.com/Wow-Im-Reading-Activities-Williamson/dp/1885593414/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1333555980&sr=8-1 It’s called “Wow! I’m Reading!” and it’s designed for parents and kids. All the activities are interactive, practical and fun. NO worksheets. NO tedious little boxes to fill in. It doesn’t feel like “school”. It feels like a natural extension of life, and it involves all the senses (yes, even taste). Very adaptable. A kid will learn how to read by the end of it. It’s very well organized.

  3. Love your blog, brings back memories of my own struggle at school, standing up ‘doing the spelling test’ left me unable to spell up until now, thank you spell checker and computers. Sounds like you are spot on, follow your innate mothers intuition and your son will guide you in your learning as much as you his. Say no to one size fits all. I spent my childhood riding horses and escaping everything on my pony, gone for hours at a time. Learnt fractions through his feeding and everything through my interaction with horses. 🙂

  4. Very poignant on the day my 11 year old boy has just spent the week taking his SATs. He hated holding a pencil with a passion, and homework was a weekly battle since he had to colour in a “Jolly” phonic every week in Reception. Taught me A LOT about whe it all goes wrong for boys in our education system (designed by women). My daughter is six and she “LOVES” homework. I compare her books to my sons Year 1 books and gawp.
    All almost irrelevant – he is taking Level 6 tests next week and his writing is very good now (handwriting still terrible of course).
    Most of the skills boys naturally spend their early years developing are held in higher value in the jobs market than handwriting.
    But which of my children is more likely to go into teaching, I wonder….?

  5. Read also, Leonard Sax’s book, Boys Adrift for more info on boys’ learning styles. Quite USA focused, but compelling, nonetheless.

  6. The other side is that is the education system he will face for the rest of his life. Writing/reading/regurgitation to prove understanding. If unable to keep up and put in the lower sets it becomes harder to learn and more likely to be disruptive as the learning does not make sense.
    On the positive side to it though, what you describe is the problem in a feminised learning system. My daughter is 6 writes lovely and loves homework. My son 9 has an amazing memory but has only recently got to the point of good hand writing and would still learn better through touch and sight than sitting down and writing/colouring like my daughter does so well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s