We live in a townhouse. We are lucky that we have a decent sized back yard that the kids can run around in, but because of association regulations, we can’t put a swing set or a giant trampoline out there. Any toys that go out have to easily be able to come back in.
Sometimes when we decide to go out and play, I’ll briefly wonder what my kids will do out there. It’s just a big open, grassy yard surrounded by our neighbor’s property and two farms. There’s simply not much there.
But trust me; they find plenty to do. Sometimes they’ll spend half an hour playing hide and seek behind the same tree. Sometimes they’ll roll down the hill. Sometimes they’ll work on their collections, collecting rocks sometimes, sometimes acorns. They squeal and they run and they jump and they laugh uncontrollably. They chase rabbits and they gaze up at patterns in the clouds. In many ways, I think kids are just made for the outdoors.
And then we go inside, and inevitably I’ll read a news article or listen to a news report, and I’ll hear about how American schools are failing our children, how we are falling behind the rest of the world. How we need longer school days, year round classrooms, earlier childhood education, more homework, more extracurricular activities, more standardization. Less time with art and music and recess and theater. The end goal of all of these seems to be more rigor and more time on task as if more of the same will produce different results.
And that’s all just in the public sphere. You then spend even five minutes with advertising directed towards parents, and you’ll see that most toys are touted for their educational ability. We have reading programs for kids who can’t even speak yet. We have games that are touted not for their entertainment value but for what they can teach. There are whole lines of products for kids of all ages that are classified by the skills they were designed to teach a child as if our problems resided in a lack of appropriate toys when the truth is that our children are so over-scheduled they rarely have any time to even play with them.
We live in a culture that is absolutely saturated with messages and products directed towards educating our children and yet our children, as a group, are falling behind more and more countries all the time.
What has changed? Are children becoming less intelligent? Less focused? Less competent and less eager?
What if the problem doesn’t rest in a lack of rigor but instead rests in a lack of the types of activities that teach children not what to think but rather how to think and why to think? What if the problem is that when we spend all of our time teaching our children what we want them to learn, we aren’t spending nearly enough time letting them discover the inherent pleasure in learning or the intrinsic rewards of learning?
When my kids were outside collecting acorns, I could have had them inside working on flashcards or making their way through workbooks. I could have put them in front of the television to learn Spanish from Dora, or I could have set them up with educational apps on my iPad. We could have been doing science experiments or working on addition or subtraction.
But when they were out there, while I wasn’t actually teaching them anything, they were learning so much.
They were learning about conservation and sorting. They were learning about categories and similarities and differences. They were wondering why the trees made the acorns and what happens to them during the winter. They were learning what the tree leaves felt like and what the trunk of the tree looks like where it is sticking out of the Earth.
They were learning that doing things is fun. They were learning that they don’t need technology to entertain themselves, and they were learning that they don’t need me to direct their entertainment or their education. They were learning to do things for the pleasure inherent in accomplishing them.
They were learning how to think for themselves.
And while all of those things are important, I think it’s the last one that is most important and it’s the area we are most failing our children in when we over structure every aspect of their lives.
My children love dance class. My two oldest started when they were both under two years old. It’s a structured activity that they take part in one hour a week even though my oldest will now be in formal school three hours a day five days a week. And they learn a lot from it. They learn listening skills and vocabulary. They learn about commitment and team work and perseverance. They learn self discipline and self confidence. These things are wonderful and necessary and so very good.
And then we come home and we put on music while I make dinner. And then the fun starts. They run around the house, skipping and jumping and “swaying to the beat.” They choreograph moves. They dance alone and in unison. They sing and they laugh and they move for the sole pleasure of movement.
And again they are learning to think. They are learning to express themselves through nonverbal means. They are creating and then solving problems. They are differentiating sounds in the music and reacting to those sounds with how they move. And I guess maybe because of some quirky genetic tendency they inherited from me, they are making up their own music and their own silly words.
Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe in the absolute necessity of teaching our children through formal education whether at home or in a more traditional classroom. I think they need to learn math and physics and biology just as much as they need to learn about art, and music, and literature. They need to learn the structure and the discipline that are taught well in formal educational settings.
What I don’t think is good, however, is when we prioritize memorizing information over learning how to think.
Knowing facts can help us make a living and will help us live productive lives. But learning how to think... that can help us make a life. It can help us live with passion and intensity. It can help us connect with the deeper parts of ourselves and the deeper parts of humanity. It connects us to all those who came before us and all who will come after.
Learning how to think and how to be and how to create... those are the skills we need to survive as deeper and more meaningful beings in this world. And we have a very serious responsibility to our children to help them develop these capabilities.
We need to let our children breathe. We need to let them run and jump and explore and ask questions and discover answers all on their own. We need to give them the space and the time to let their natural curiosity take them in new directions. We need to give them the opportunity to do what kids do best -- be kids. It’s the only way they will ever find the freedom to really make a difference in their lives and their world.
More of the same will get us more of the same. What we need is a radical new direction.
Amanda Knapp is a writer and a stay at home mom. She chronicles her journey through motherhood on her blog, Indisposable Mama.