Even before I started kindergarten, I attended a Montessori school. For those unfamiliar, a Montessori school will not seem much like a school in the traditional sense. A visitor to a Montessori establishment would find children of many different ages all piled together in the same room. The children would be observed and helped by the teachers present, but really you'd be correct if you noted the children were directing their own time. In fact, it may look like the children are playing - drawing, playing games - settled into small groups about the room, or perhaps working alone.
The thing is, they are playing. The theory of Montessori is to look at the world as a child does; teach the child, do not correct the child; allow her to explore her surroundings, but aid learning by providing toys with a goal.
Many people are skeptical of this methodology, but it's gaining ground. And I have nothing but good things to say about it, and thanks for my parents for sending me. By the time I went to first grade, I knew world geography, I knew multiplication tables through 5's and I understood the relationship of 10 to 100 to 1000. Not bad for age six.
As a result, the idea of learning through games and toys is not only natural to me, I see it as a necessary part of education. The ancient Chinese proverb, most often attributed to Confucius, "I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand" is never more demonstrable than in educational play. Children are more likely to respond to a lesson taught through fun than through lecture, it is their nature.
And so, now that education is moving onto computers, I delight in the notion of games with a goal. Not only are we teaching the children the basics of education in a way they can understand and enjoy, but we are familiarizing them with technology. The way our world is moving toward a networked economy and community, this familiarity with technology is vital to their success, as it will be of even more import in their lives than our own. Why not give them a head start on that while teaching them the three R's?