In her guest post on the blog earlier this week, veteran homeschooler Milva McDonald wrote about the ways in which she helped her children learn the 3 Rs. One of her bullet-points on reading really stood out to me:
Yes! I couldn't agree more. As August comes to a close and back-to-school time emerges, children all across the country will hand in their various summer reading logs and get an assortment of rewards, ranging from stickers and pencils to free meals at a local restaurant or free admission to a museum. In some library systems, students participating in summer reading programs can enter for a chance to win a "grand prize," like an iPod or a digital camera.
I have a visceral reaction to programs such as these. I know what some might say: Libraries are just trying to encourage reading. What's so wrong about that?
I can think of no better way to stomp out a child's natural love of books and reading than to ask her to read X number of books in X period of time and then give her a prize for doing so. I recall vividly as a second-grader getting so excited about the sheer competition of summer reading programs that I read merely for the game of it, for the prize at the end, without any interest in what I was actually reading. It wasn't until college that I once again learned to appreciate reading for the sake of reading, and not simply as a means to an end.
Libraries are the lifeblood of our family's learning. We spend a great deal of our time at various libraries, listening to librarian-led story times, gathering books that capture the children's interest, soaking in the sheer volume of books and resources available all in one public place, appreciating the importance of reading and literacy. Setting up reading as a rewards-based competition with certain milestones and markers and comparisons to others creates unnecessary obstacles to a child's natural curiosity and drive to learn when they are given the freedom and opportunity to do so.
But, some might say, what about the children who aren't surrounded by literacy on a daily basis, who don't have parents who love to read, who don't have mountains of books in their homes? What about them?
I would say it's all the more important for those children to learn to appreciate reading for the sake of reading, and not for the sake of a sticker. Libraries and other community-based organizations can use summertime as an opportunity to ignite--or reignite--a child's natural curiosity, to help a child who is deprived of home-based literacy to discover the joy and adventure that can be found in books, to help a child understand that why she may want to dig into books all summer is so much more than a check-mark on a library form or the promise of a plastic frisbee.
Children are natural learners. They don't need to be coerced or cajoled into learning. They don't need competitions and rewards. They need to be given the freedom to learn what they want, when they want, how they want. They need to be given the freedom to ask their own questions, to find their own answers, to uncover their own interests without others dictating the way. And they need the commitment of their parents and their community to offer them the necessary time, space, resources, and guidance to do this.
Children need support, not stickers.