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Set them free?

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"We are deeply concerned that current trends in early education, fueled by political pressure, are leading to an emphasis on unproven methods of academic instruction and unreliable standardized testing that can undermine learning and damage young children's healthy development."

That is the opening line of a Call to Action on the Education of Young Children, which the Alliance for Childhood is promoting in the wake of a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggesting that too little time for free play is leading to increased stress for children and missed opportunities for them to learn how to take initiative and be creative. The Call to Action was actually first released almost a year ago, but the alliance is promoting it again in light of this recent report.

In a nutshell, the alliance argues that children have too little time for so called "unstructured play" -- which in my days as a schoolboy was simply called playtime. The signers of the call to action include Harvard professors Howard Gardner and Kathleen McCartney, pediatricians T. Berry Brazelton and Mel Levine, as well as child psychiatrists Kyle Pruett, Alvin Poussaint, and Stanley Greenspan.

As a journalist, I am always a bit skeptical of these "call to actions," because more often than not they exaggerate the problem, and engage in what I call "crisis-speak." There is little balance in what they have to say.

Still, I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately, because this debate is undeniably connected to student motivation. If children do not have enough free time to play with their friends and investigate their environments, they are likely to be less happy and creative. And if that is the state of their minds, they are also less likely to be motivated in school.

Don't misread me. I do not envision schools where children have unlimited free play time, and study only whatever they happened to be interested in. That seems like a recipe for classroom chaos and questionable academic standards. But I do envision a little more leeway, because I think it can pay off.

I plan to test this theory in my life as a youth sports coach.

Over the years, as a youth sports coach in soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse, I have noticed some troubling traits among today's young athletes. While they tend to be more technically skilled than we were at their age, they are less creative and seem to have trouble with the concept of initiative. They rarely play pickup games with their friends, as we did on ice-covered ponds and basketball courts all the time. As a consequence, they don't react as instinctively and creatively as we did even if their skills are better. Too often, in games, my players look confused when something happens that wasn't covered in a drill in practice. If something isn't scripted, they almost seem lost. So my plan is to set them free ... by giving them more "free time" in practices to simply play. We'll see how it goes ...

More important, though, is this question: If I am seeing these traits among young athletes, are educators also seeing them in their classrooms? Please comment on what you've seen in your classrooms and how that might be connected to the issue of free time.

What do you think? Do we need to set these kids free? Or is the allilance exaggerating the problem?

1 Comment

I am in complete agreement with Mr. Bushweller. In the state of Utah, where I live and work, there is a great push to extend the kindergarten program to a full-day experience, rather than the current half-day. The argument is that we must increase the time we have on "core curriculum" instruction, in order to meet the ever-increasing demands for certain levels of proficiency for ALL students by certain times.

Of course teaching each child to read, particularly, is VERY important. But why do we seem to throw out the window the knowledge which has been gathered over decades of time that conclusively demonstrates that children, especially in early childhood, have an incredibly diverse set of developmental skills in any given classroom, and no matter how much they may be pushed and "taught," some things simply CANNOT be taught—they are “learned” and they develop as the child experiences more and follows his own developmental course.

An example is the fine motor coordination necessary for neat handwriting. While a child can be pushed and assigned assignments requiring a certain level of proficiency, if she has yet to enter that stage of development, the only accomplishment of more assignments and more focus on the skill is to increase her frustration at not being able to do what which is asked of her.

Another excellent example of this problem is Piaget's observations about the Law of Conservation. When a young person is presented with a tall thin glass of juice and a short squat glass and then asked which container has the greater amount of liquid, until a child has reached a certain level of development, he will always choose the taller glass. The examiner then pours each glass in to a new container, and both of these containers are equal in size, resulting in the level of the juice in the glass being the same. When the child sees this, he will often ask "How did you do that? It's magic!” In the child's view, the liquids can be returned to their original tall and short containers; the child will again identify the taller container as the one with the greater quantity, and again will ask how that "trick" was accomplished.

The age at which a child can recognize that the volume of the liquid is not in reality related to the shape of the container ranges from early in her 4th year, up until she may be 6 years old plus. The level of cognitive development which each child experiences may be able to be influenced slightly, but for the most part, the progression of this cognitive growth CANNOT be rushed.

Why oh why do we keep pushing for more and more sooner and sooner when we know it is not successful?

As further study reveals the existence of multiple intelligences, sensory differences, and emotional intelligence (that oft cited "EQ”), it is a step backwards to attempt to limit and eliminate the time and the settings that lend themselves to the growth of the individual and the group in different yet crucial areas. Why should we cram down their throats more tasks of advanced development that will only guarantee frustration—too much strain for those who have not reached that level of cognitive development, and too much boredom for those who grasped the concept easily and need new challenges? It is during free play that a child can experience life, experience the world around his at his level, and learn those interpersonal and "EQ" types of skills.

The book and later poster "All I needed to know I learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum contains much truth. We all need a strong education, especially in the basic core subjects. But for day-to-day living, and the just getting along types of experiences we all have in life, does it not often affect an individual more and make or break one's success if he has learned those "All I needed to know" skills: taking turns, cleaning up after one's self, having a sense of adventure, holding hands will crossing the street and so many more?

Education ideally helps prepare us for many facets of life. Let us not forget those skills which are learned more by "being" than "doing," and let us always provide a safe environment and the necessary commitment to find the times and places when these life skills can be learned and practiced.

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