Saturday, December 3, 2011

How--and how not--to resuscitate the magic of childhood

One of the most common edworld justifications for spending less time on the structured teaching of core academic subjects, particularly in the early grades, is that children no longer have enough time in their lives for unstructured, imaginative play.

On this point, I'm in total agreement. For several generations now children have spent less time in yards, streets, and parks, and more time in front of screens; less time unsupervised in basements and attics and more time in scheduled, structured day cares, camps, and extra-curricular classes; less time playing games and more time doing homework (even during summer vacations); less time running around freely in open spaces and more time in adult-directed sports. And the toys that adults provide them with--from prefab minikitchens with plastic food, to verisimilitudinous costumes, to lego "kits" complete with instructions--leave hardly any room for their imaginations. Even today's playgrounds, with their uniform, space-hogging climbing structures (that more or less tell you how to play on them) and their dearth of unstructured spaces are less inspiring than they used to be. And everywhere, in our safety-obsessed, bully-vigilant society that imagines pedophiles lurking around every corner, parents are hovering in the background, ready at the drop of a hat (or the raising of a stick) to jump in and defend, moderate, or turn even basic block playing into teachable moments.

One can only wonder what this means for the happiness--and stress levels--of today's children, not to mention the memories they will take away from childhood. What about their capacity for imagination and creativity; their ability to socialize in unstructured, unscripted situations? What about their symbolic reasoning skills? If all their "imaginative" toys resemble the real things, what will inspire them to imagine an oblong block as a telephone or a cardboard box as a cave?

But does the remedy lie in altering what happens in our elementary school classrooms--specifically, in having children spend less time in structured, teacher-directed math and reading activities? Much of the problem, after all, is in what's happening--or not happening--after school, and (reluctant though people are, especially those in the business, to realize this) there's a limit to what schools can do about broader societal problems. Indeed, in their drive to be all things to "the whole child," schools have already seriously compromised our children's academic and vocational futures.

But there are ways in which schools can help a great deal. Preschools and kindergartens should toss out the minikitchens and costumes, replacing them with more plain wooden blocks and nonspecific dressups. They should also increase the time allotted for unstructured activities, and, along with all of the rest of the elementary school grades, increase recess by 300% (and stop, stop, stop using recess deprivation as a punishment). And--I've said this before--our K8 classes should almost as drastically decrease the homework assignments, eliminating all those high-ratio-of-effort-to-learning projects and Reform Math problems, and assigning no homework at all to children in grades K-3, and no summer vacation homework to anyone. Finally, they should eliminate the computers (and all other video playing devices, and all the movies and "educational videos" that go with them) entirely from our classrooms--except as tools for teaching kids how to program computers. But that's a whole nother story.


FedUpMom said...

"time unsupervised in basements and attics?" You don't let your kids play in the living room or their bedrooms?

I completely agree with your recommendations for early elementary school. More unstructured time, more recess, less (or no!) homework. Yup.

Katharine Beals said...

"You don't let your kids play in the living room or their bedrooms?"


My fondest memories of childhood creativity involve basements and attics, not living rooms and bedrooms! Assuming enough open space there, the possibilities are limitless, and it's great to be away from eavesdropping adults.

FedUpMom said...

OK, to each her own. Your post just sounded odd to me in its choice of attics and basements as play spaces.

When I was a kid, the big unsupervised space was outdoors. I'm no spring chicken ...

Katharine Beals said...

Agreed! Yards, streets and parks(see above) are also great (and far superior to living rooms and bedrooms!).

However, if your childhood (as mine did) occured in Chicago, you might find fewer yard, street, and park days than you find in warmer parts of the country.

momof4 said...

I'm not in favor of banning computers and videos but of using them, in small doses, as adjuncts to material already taught through texts. After studying plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanos and tidal waves, I can see benefit in viewing computer simulations and real-life videos. An ancient Egypt unit could be followed with simulations of how the Pyramids were built and a video tour of them. There are great videos of metamorphosis - frogs, butterfies etc. The possibilities are wide, but such material should never substitute for texts and live teaching (some kids can learn from online courses), just provide additional information.