Although I've been writing a lot of highfalutin posts lately about classical music and architecture and grit and reading Shakespeare and Ben Franklin in their original forms, we also love homeschooling for its long stretches of free play time. I was struck by the continuing interconnectedness of play and learning recently. For the past week and a half or so N. had been reading The Chronicle of Flight: A Year-By-Year History of Aviation, a book he recently rediscovered on his bookshelves. Trains are usually his vehicle of choice for reading material and for play, so I noticed when he suddenly became absorbed in airplanes. I kept stumbling over the book lying open in different rooms. Soon I started seeing long-neglected toy planes around the house. Then I came home to a paper airplane airfield all set up in the living room. Another day N. took the paper airplanes (made from an old collection of paper planes N. tortured various houseguests into making a couple years ago) outside for test flights down a neighbor's hill. Planes showed up in our conversations and in N.'s stories about his imaginary world.
This playing-and-learning, which I believe is so crucial, is also entirely unmeasurable. I can show you the pictures I took, artifacts of a process that I was only tangentially part of (through conversation). But most of this took place in N.'s head. No project or composition or product (much less a test score) came out of it. Nonetheless I believe that not only did he learn many specific nuggets of information, he also flexed his creativity, something alarmists warn us children have less and less opportunity to do.
Though we can't quantify what exactly N. learned as he read about and played with planes, we can note what we provided that made this process possible: we bought a book, years ago, on the $3 discount table at Borders and stored it on an accessible shelf for the unpredictable moment when it might be appealing. We made those paper airplanes (nominally with N.'s help) from that excruciatingly difficult kit his half-sister gave him for his birthday one year, and we kept all the planes in a bag in the play room even though many times we really wanted to toss them as so much clutter. And most importantly, we made sure he had unstructured time to explore the bookshelves, read, and play without interference. We trusted that there was something good happening, and we didn't try to turn this sudden interest into a Thing. Sometimes it's just good to play!