Yesterday a young Learner and I decided that we would spend the first half of the day at the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin, TX. We had a wonderful time crawling through the museum and interacting with every possible exhibit, and climbing on the ones that invited us to. By lunchtime we were both pretty hungry (and tired) so we decided to eat lunch. However, every table in the cafeteria was taken so we moved into the courtyard to look for a place to sit down and eat our bagged lunches. We eventually found our way to a smaller courtyard that was filled with large foam blocks and plastic pipes situated around a large puddle on sandy gravel. We sat on the lone bench and tore into our food.

Soon after comparing lunches and allowing the young Learner to have some of my food, a group of students from a nearby public middle school walked into the courtyard with two of their teachers. As the students made their way toward the foam blocks and the puddle, one of the teachers yelled at them, warning them to stay away from the water. The teacher then sternly lectured the students individually, whenever they so much as looked at or moved toward the puddle. The teacher also told a student to spit out his gum because, as she said, “you’ve been chewing on that piece of gum long enough.” I asked the Abrome Learner what she thought of the interactions between the teacher and the students. She said the teacher was mean.

The teachers then shepherded the students out of the courtyard as a couple ventured in with their young son. The little boy made a beeline for the puddle and immediately began jumping up and down in the deepest part of the puddle. This made his dad roll his eyes while his mother laughed with delight. Instead of trying to get the boy to stop jumping, the mother asked him if he was having fun while he tried to splash her. She told him that he was coming up just short of hitting her with water, so he experimented with different ways of jumping to make more of a splash. Only when he started to drift toward me and the Abrome Learner did the mom gently ask him to come back toward her so that we didn’t get hit with water. The boy soaked his pants with muddy water and eventually tired of the game, and then the family said goodbye to us. I asked the Abrome Learner what she thought of how the boy’s parents responded to him jumping in the puddle. She said they seemed nice.

Soon thereafter, two moms with several children came into the courtyard. The moms were deep in conversation and let the children roam freely. Only when one of the girls walked into the puddle did one of the moms ask her to please not step in the water. The moms repeated the request a couple of times, but never raised their voices. And neither mom prevented the children from playing at the edge of the puddles or from trying to manipulate the water with the pipes that were laying around.

The young Abrome Learner and I decided it was time to get on with our day so we left the moms and their children in the courtyard. We moved across the street to an outdoor playground where a group of elementary school students were having lunch. As the Abrome Learner took to climbing on a large dragon sculpture, I listened to the teachers telling the young students to “keep your butts on those benches,” “drink your milk,” and “my name is not ‘hey.’” I turned and watched the Abrome Learner challenging herself as she climbed the various parts of the sculpture in a carefree but determined way. And I reflected on how differently the children were treated in the courtyard with the puddle.

Like the elementary school students eating lunch, the middle school students in the courtyard were treated as if they were unruly troublemakers, sure to make a mess that would do harm (or at least greatly inconvenience the adults) if they weren’t prevented from exploring and engaging with all of the world around them. Kind of ironic considering this children’s museum was built with the intention of visitors physically interacting with the exhibits. Time and time again, the children were sharply rebuked before they had done anything that was remotely close to socially unacceptable; they were unable to even begin to engage in activity that might turn problematic in some way. The kids looked miserable—on a field trip!

On the other hand, the little boy who was jumping in the puddle looked elated. His parents may not have fully approved of how he threw himself into what was readily available in the courtyard, but they certainly seemed to appreciate it. Only when the boy came close to getting us wet was he redirected back toward his family. And while the boy soaked his pants with muddy water, it did not seem that the parents considered that too much of an inconvenience. Maybe they brought towels with them.

The final group of children also seemed to have a lot of fun. They were treated respectfully by their moms, but were given more explicit boundaries on what they could not do—walk into the puddles. While these children missed out on the joy of learning the best way to jump in a puddle, they still found ways to play with the water without getting their clothes soaked. Maybe those parents forgot to bring towels with them.

I know there are many who believe that kids are trouble waiting to happen. That they should be seen and not heard … and keep their hands in their pockets, of course. But I doubt that even those adults would argue that the middle school students were not deprived of learning opportunities while they were in that courtyard, relative to the other children. The only group of people that I believe might argue that the middle school students were better off than the other kids are those who have been trained in “classroom management” techniques. Those folks may have felt that anything that was not related to an exhibit was not educational, because it was not directly tied to some scientific principle (meaning no one had put up a placard explaining what scientific principles were on display), and hence it was a waste of students’ time. And because they are forced to spend so much time trying to force students to learn what they are tasked with teaching them, and because classroom teaching is so difficult if all students are not in line, control becomes a precondition for learning in their eyes.

But when one is trained to believe that the job of students is to learn from institutions (e.g., schools, museums), then they also start to miss out on what the parents clearly had not yet lost sight of. What matters for young people goes well beyond learning, particularly academic learning. The parents recognized the value of children being able to explore and play. They knew that the children would be better off when they were free to play. And quite frankly, parents are much more likely to care about the happiness of their children than many teachers are because what really matters to parents goes far beyond test scores and grades.