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John Locke on Education and Play

Young children and a tutor in a plantation classroom.John Locke (1632-1704) is perhaps best known for his political theories and his influence on early-American political thinking. The notions of natural rights, social contracts, and governmental checks and balances, which he put forth in his Two Treatises of Government (1690), appear throughout the major documents of the American revolutionary period, including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. But Locke also held strong beliefs regarding education, and his letters to a friend on the subject eventually evolved into Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), a manual for the education of young gentry boys which emphasized morality and practicality in all aspects of instruction.

Part of Locke's philosophy involved play as a necessary and important part of the educational process. The following excerpts illustrate this concept:

"§69 . . . They must not be hinder’d from being children, or from playing, or doing as children, but from doing ill; all other liberty is to be allow’d them. Next, to make them in love with the company of their parents, they should receive all their good things there, and from their hands. The servants should be hinder’d from making court to them by giving them strong drink, wine, fruit, playthings, and other such matters, which may make them in love with their conversation."

"§73 None of the things they are to learn, should ever be made a burthen to them, or impos’d on them as a task. Whatever is so propos’d, presently becomes irksome; the mind takes an aversion to it, though before it were a thing of delight or indifferency. Let a child but be order’d to whip his top at a certain time every day, whether he has or has not a mind to it; let this be but requir’d of him as a duty, wherein he must spend so many hours morning and afternoon, and see whether he will not soon be weary of any play at this rate. Is it not so with grown men?"

"§130 Play-things, I think, children should have, and of divers sorts; but still to be in the custody of their tutors or some body else, whereof the child should have in his power but one at once, and should not be suffered to have another but when he restored that. This teaches them betimes to be careful of not losing or spoiling the things they have; whereas plenty and variety in their own keeping, makes them wanton and careless, and teaches them from the beginning to be squanderers and wasters. These, I confess, are little things, and such as will seem beneath the care of a governor; but nothing that may form children’s minds is to be overlooked and neglected, and whatsoever introduces habits, and settles customs in them, deserves the care and attention of their governors, and is not a small thing in its consequences."

"§149 . . . Children should not have any thing like work, or serious, laid on them; neither their minds, nor bodies will bear it. It injures their healths; and their being forced and tied down to their books in an age at enmity with all such restraint, has, I doubt not, been the reason, why a great many have hated books and learning all their lives after. ’Tis like a surfeit, that leaves an aversion behind not to be removed."

Source: John Locke. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. Vol. XXXVII, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-1914.