In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness

February 1, 2008
Alexandra N. Helper, MD
Volume 25, Issue 3

In Defense of Childhood, by Chris Mercogliano, is an elegant book about societal challenges to children's innate spontaneity and exuberance. It is based on the author's more than 3 decades of experience as teacher and, ultimately, director of the Albany (New York) Free School.

By Chris Mercogliano
Boston: Beacon Press, 2007
224 pages • $24.95 (softcover)

In Defense of Childhood, by Chris Mercogliano, is an elegant book about societal challenges to children's innate spontaneity and exuberance. It is based on the author's more than 3 decades of experience as teacher and, ultimately, director of the Albany (New York) Free School.

Children at the Albany Free School, which is a kindred spirit to the famous Summerhill School in England, are not constrained by rigid curricula, standardized tests, or inflexible teachers. These students are not pushed into particular academic pursuits but are encouraged to follow their inner muse. Mercogliano and the Albany Free School have a predilection toward natural outdoor activities, encouraging students to use their imagination to create exciting environments to explore. This master teacher's personal joy at seeing children grow is obvious in his writing.

Among the book's many colorful anecdotes is one describing the seemingly proverbial child with a reading delay. But here the child's teachers stand back, no one rushes to perform neuropsychological testing. Instead, one day the student is inadvertently captured by a topic that sparks a desire to read about it. And he does, without adult intervention. He learns rapidly and is soon reading with competence above grade level.

The author includes another engaging tale of Madison, a youngster whose parents allow him the freedom to roam in the nearby neighborhood without the now-standard parental warnings about abduction or attacks. Madison uses this freedom to imagine his neighborhood as a baseball field. He spends hours throwing balls against walls and up hills, all the while muttering a play-by-play narration of the "game" to himself. Madison is so deeply involved in his imaginary game that he even hesitates to come in during a rainstorm. Mercogliano feels that Madison will be a sturdier adult with a rich inner life for having had this time to be outside, free of fears, and deep in imaginary play.

In Defense of Childhood is more far-ranging than just a teacher's recollections. Among other topics, the author reviews the history of childhood, explains neurocognitive development, proclaims his thoughts on the impact of video games and television, and discusses the value of reading aloud to children. Without preaching, he encompasses knowledge from the fields of parenting, biology, psychology, and literature as he lays out his personal philosophy of education.

Mercogliano fascinates the reader with stories of other educators and their attitudes toward educating youth--both Tolstoy and Thoreau, for example, ran schools for several years. Both expressed their belief that schoolchildren needed to have a sense of freedom, with ample free time to use their imaginations and a hefty dose of understanding and compassion from their teachers, so that each child's unique needs could be met. Significantly, Mercogliano quotes Thoreau: "What does education do? It makes a straight cut ditch out of a free meandering brook.'' In Defense of Childhood makes it clear that all children would benefit from this approach to education: keep the children free and meandering.