Children need to have time on their own to play, explore, and grow. Don’t let schools and structured activities steal that time away.
I saw it happen right before my eyes. During the last year of my pre-mom life I spent one last year in an administrative role in a public school system dealing with the math curriculum for the entire district. Prior to that I was a high school math teacher for some years.
Our district, like every other one around it, ushered in full-day kindergarten like a sweeping torrent of rain. And so I sat, plump with baby number one, surrounded by teachers and administrators in several meetings to determine how this extra school time for the 5-year-olds would be spent. Mind you, there weren’t any children in the meeting.
Now, the kindergarten teachers, they were unanimous and unwavering. Play time and rest. Play time and rest. They echoed each other and they never strayed from this message. With both physical and anecdotal reasoning, the teachers held fast to what they believed the extra time should be used for because that is what children that age need. They need station time and recess… and they need a little rest. But if you had to hedge your bets as to what the extra time eventually was allotted to, what would be your guess? It was neither play time nor rest, but academics.
“Life holds one great but quite commonplace mystery. Though shared by each of us and known to all, seldom rates a second thought. That mystery, which most of us take for granted and never think twice about, is time.” —Michael Ende, Momo
After spending years in the public schools, I quickly learned that although there are many great things that happen within the schools’ walls, the people who are ultimately the decision makers aren’t the ones who are actually with the children. It sometimes seemed as though decisions got passed down from the heavens. No one really knew where they come from. So many of the high schoolers had the same questions: “Why do we have to learn this?” I didn’t really have a good reason, so I just got to saying, “Because the President says you can’t be left behind.” For high schoolers, that was a sufficient answer, because they already deeply understood that much of childhood was about jumping through hoops.
The thing is, compulsory education is relatively new. Just over a hundred years ago the only compulsory education law was that all children had to complete elementary school. Things have changed dramatically in just 10 decades. We’ve gone from five years of compulsory education to 13, and we now mandate such subjects as Algebra 2 and Trigonometry in order to graduate. Do we really know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these are the things all children need to succeed in life—especially given the incredible trade-off in time? The things we call “best practices” are, at best, a guess. I know that for certain, because best practices, as they pertain to childhood development, change all the time. The curriculums and sequences change often with the winds of political change.
Surprisingly, sometimes people buck the system and they still turn out well—which tests the premise that 13 years in a classroom is necessary for lifelong success. Kids have not always needed to pass trigonometry to successfully transition into adulthood…but they have always needed time. Time to learn who they are. Time to explore their surroundings. Time to figure out how to enjoy their own company and how to structure their free time. Time to think, to dream, to dawdle, and to wonder. Kids needs time. And as the school day, homework, and adult-directed activities take over much of childhood, we are left with lost children.
John Taylor Gatto was a public-school teacher in New York for nearly 30 years, and a world-renowned speaker for the 20 years afterward, giving more than 1,500 speeches in nine countries. He was named the New York State Teacher of the Year twice, and was a prolific writer. Gatto was a huge advocate that at the right age and stage, and in the right environment, children could learn phenomenal amounts in short periods of time. After spending thousands of hours with children over the course of three decades, and after untold amounts of research, Gatto concluded that “It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on.” Fifty hours. Let that sink in. That’s just over one week of school. Today, children spend between 12 and 15 thousand hours within the walls of a classroom.
There are many other brilliant men and women who advocate for less formal learning and more hands-on experience. There are also those who advise that later is better when it comes to the type of academic work that has crept its way into the kindergarten classrooms. Children need time to develop their sense of self, and their own self-knowledge.
How can we stop stealing time from children? Here are five ways:
Schedule fewer extracurricular activities. When kids go straight from the classroom to extracurriculars—even extracurriculars they enjoy—they miss out on the expanses of time they need to learn who they are. Ensure that your children have time to play and direct their own learning in the afternoon and evening, several days of the week.
Advocate for more recess and less homework. Be a voice at your school. Bring in the research. Talk to the administrators. Take a group of parents with you. Movement is the precursor to all learning, and it is vital children get a chance to move and play throughout the day.
Skip all homework, at least through elementary school. Or forge it. Or give the answers. Seven hours a day is enough. Remember that at the right developmental stage, 50 hours will get a child to enough functional literacy to become a self-teacher. Thirty-five hours a week in a classroom is more than enough time for seat-work. Leave afternoons, evenings, and weekends for play time and family time.
Wait on formal education, or choose from play-based options like Forest schools, Waldorf, or Montessori. See what is in your area. You might consider skipping preschool altogether. In some states formal education isn’t required until age 6. Read books like Better Late than Early by Raymond and Dorothy Moore, and make sure your decisions about school are well-informed and well-researched.
Buck the system in whatever ways you deem necessary. Trust that your children will learn anyway. Find ways where your child can learn through play. Be confident that kids are innately driven to learn. If we allow them the time and space to explore their world, they will learn the most extraordinary things.
Do you want to know what kids want to do? They want to dawdle. They want to explore. They want to sniff the dandelions and squish mud between their toes. They want to laugh, and they want to run. They want to read exciting books in your lap and then move on to reading exciting books in the space between two strong branches of a tree. They want expanses of time to satisfy their curiosities and to learn how to relate to themselves and to others. And do you know why they want to do these things? Because each of these things will contribute to their development in deep and untold ways. Children desperately need their childhood hours. Let’s give them some back.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #62.
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