Talking to my builder about play

I've been having some building work done on my flat this past fortnight (hence the infrequency of posts recently). When not choking on dust or searching for clean socks, I've been having some very interesting conversations with my Argentinian builder, Sergio.

Every summer Sergio comes to London to build kitchens and bathrooms, and then goes back to Argentina to live like a king with his wife and kids. The first thing that surprised me about him (aside from his punctuality) is that he's actually a qualified geologist. He used to work in the oil-drilling industry, but the financial crisis of 2001/2 left him unemployed despite having "commercially valuable" skills. So, he came to visit his sister over here, did some work on a few friends' flats and houses, and hasn't looked back.

What really intrigued me about his story was how he acquired his building skills. He's never had any formal training or instruction, but his father ran a builders' supplies merchants and he grew up playing with the materials. At the age of six he build a twenty-foot racetrack for his remote control car, out of wood and concrete. As he grew up he treated his parent's house as a playground, moving walls and redecorating just to see what things would look like. (His first act on inspecting my kitchen was to tear my bedroom wall down and move it 15cm to the left.) When he came to England, all he needed to turn his skills into a career was to learn the conventions for building in the UK. For that, he needed people here to teach him the rules - but he learned much more quickly because he'd taught himself so much already.

Learning starts with curiosity. If we have that, and the space to explore it, then we can learn. Sometimes we need teachers to help us learn "the right way" of doing things, and peers to help us reflect on our experiences. But Sergio's story suggests that if you want to find your own way of doing something, self-guided play is the best place to start. And once you've got that, learning the conventions is much easier. So perhaps we should be spending more time and money encouraging curiosity in our children, and not just "teaching" them things?

Of course, if my kitchen falls apart in six months, I may revise my opinion. But I'd trust someone who loves what they do over someone qualified going through the motions any day.