I understand and sympathize with those who desperately try to make schools produce better-educated students. You only have to spend time with an average millenial to realize how little they know about anything except recycling and whatever specialty they studied in college. They have no conversation, very little imagination, and less initiative.
Case in point. This past Monday we were in studio filming various folks for a number of video projects we have. My kids, being homeschooled, follow along. The younger two (ages 5 and 7) take over the boardroom with their books, paper and pencils and proceed to keep themselves occupied while my almost-9-year-old comes into the studio with us to help with the production and work as third videographer (she’s getting good at it, too).
It’s a busy day, so the kids have some homeschooling tasks to complete but not too many. A couple of exercise pages, followed by their assigned reading, then pretty much free reading and colouring for the rest of the morning. (They got to watch a classic movie, Snow White, in the afternoon; yay Mom.)
My little one, who’s the artist in the family, spent most of her morning making her own money. She took sheets of paper and designed money bills. She made a huge wad of them, and felt very rich indeed. Of course, being five, she then wanted to go spend some of that money for real. I told her I wasn’t sure this would work but we could try it once (I’m still hesitating between telling her what the “real” reality really is and letting her play imaginary games, and usually settle for something in-between).
Lunch had to be bought so off we went to the local strip mall’s Subway counter. We order our stuff and as we get to the cash I tell the young pleasant fellow that my daughter wanted to use her own money to pay for the sandwiches and that I would put the balance on my credit card.
He looked at me like I’d just suggested having a picnic naked with space aliens. My little one is on her tippy-toes stretching her arm as far as it’ll go, desperately trying to get her money into his hand.
He’s not looking at her. He’s looking at me with a look that made me understand just what a dark void the space reserved for imagination in his brain was.
I repeated. “She wants to pay for the sandwiches with her own money. She doesn’t have enough to cover the whole bill so I’ll put the balance (here I nodded and winked as helpfully as I could) on my Visa.”
He’s still looking at me, not a sweet clue what to do.
“Please take her money, and use my card to pay.” [Please take the $#^$ money!]
Still no reaction.
A desperate mother sometimes has to resort to desperate measures. I took the piece of paper from my daughter’s hand, put it in the hands of this fine specimen of the public education system, and said “there, how much do I owe you now?”
He gestured silently towards the card terminal, and I did the rest like a Big Girl. Once the sandwiches were properly paid for, the (evidently thoroughly traumatized) cashier handed me the bag containing our precious subs.
My little one jumped and squealed with joy. “IT WORKED, MOM!!! IT WORKED!!!”
Yeah, I thought… but he’s completely broken.
Now this was a fine, pleasant, polite young man. I’m sure he gets along great with everyone. But he obviously had no idea what to do with a healthy five-year-old who insisted on playing a pretty short and innocent make-believe game, even after the rules had been explained, twice, to him.
For all I know, he’s still traumatized. Because, gosh, he got caught in an instance of Spontaneous and Unauthorized Play. And we don’t do that anymore.
What prompted me to tell you about this episode is this story about where kindergarten is going in America (and, I’m sure, Canada).
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Couldn’t be wronger.
Kids need to play. A lot. They need to play games they make up themselves, not organized games supervised by adults with dead space where their imagination used to be. Being homeschooled, my kids play every day. They play all kinds of games – many of which make me roll my eyes if I don’t watch out. I mean, they’re silly make-believe stuff. Yes, my kids know the difference between real world and fantasy imaginary world. I indulge the little one a bit on that point at times, but she’s still just five. The other two grew out of it just fine; I have no reason to suspect the youngest won’t. But even though they know their games aren’t real, they enjoy playing them immensely.
I don’t get involved in their games. I don’t direct them. There are rules about what not to do (no hitting, no running inside, no loud screaming, no dismantling the curtains to make togas out of them without asking permission first), but otherwise, whatever, just play.
They also get quiet study time and of course lessons during which they are expected to sit quietly and pay attention. But because they know that if they get their work done speedily and well they get to be free and play as they like, they tend to get their stuff done pretty quickly indeed. As a result I’ve got kids who are ahead of their peers academically but who, unlike their peers, get a ton of unstructured play time. Sometimes they use that play time to write stories. Sometimes they use it to teach themselves piano. Or watch nature documentaries. Whatever they’re doing, I figure, they’re learning something. Including how to share and get along with your sisters instead of bickering. And how to deal with adults when you go buy sandwiches or work in a studio with your parents and other grownups.
Play. Let your kids do it. Don’t schedule play dates. Just give them time to be whoever they want to be. And watch them blossom into interesting, well-balanced, people.