Thank You, Captain Obvious

I just saw yet another article on my social media feed by yet another expert proposing that a decline in free, unstructured play can lead to depression and anxiety. I have also seen many articles purporting that a lack of play can lead to hyperactivity and loss of attention. Do we really need professors to spend time and money to “prove” what seems to me to be self-evident? How could we adults think that scheduling every minute of a young child’s day and never allowing them to play without an adult hovering over them would NOT have consequences?

I am not a parent, so I have no qualification to give parenting advice. But I have taught thousands of children in my career, so I do feel qualified to speak to what I see in the classroom. In the last several years, I have seen a dramatic increase in students with severe anxiety and depression as well as increasingly short attention spans. What’s equally as worrisome is that they seem to have lost some of their ability to persevere at problem solving, negotiate social situations, and entertain themselves. Schools have even gone so far as to have to “teach” grit and resiliency because they have seen it so sorely lacking.

I don’t understand how well meaning adults cannot see the obvious benefits of free play that I see.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s playing outside with all of the neighborhood kids participating in invented games and loosely organized sports. Yes, we argued sometimes over who was safe in kickball or tag, but we worked it out—generally without any violence or tears. It taught us how to get along with other human beings and negotiate our place in the world. We saw natural leaders rise to the top and creative geniuses invent the most fun games. Personally, I learned that I could be bossy (still can be) and that I needed to temper that instinct if I wanted to have friends. Unstructured group play also taught me that I was not good at everything and I would not always win—and that it was okay. None of these are things I could have learned in a book or class.

As Dr. Peter Gray states in his TED talk on the subject, “It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.” While organized sports are valuable, in my mind, this is an incredibly sad turn of events. By having all of their physical activity monitored, protected, and governed by rules, children are loath to take risks and learn valuable life lessons. Adults bemoan the lack of children to go outside their comfort zone, but when do they allow them to do so? In fact, adults seem to take great pains to make sure everything in a child’s life is within their comfort zone. While I understand the desire to remove all strife from their child’s life, never allowing a child to struggle does them a great disservice.

I also spent childhood time alone, away from a screen, occupying my time with my favorite activities such as reading, drawing, cooking, or singing. I learned how to determine what I liked to do away from my peers and where my talents and interests lie. I was rarely bored because I learned to rely on myself for entertainment. Children gain confidence by doing that at which they are successful. The odds of this increase dramatically if they choose the activities which to pursue. Schools have realized this, but instead of increasing the amount of play, we have added “revolutionary” learning opportunities such as inquiry learning, gamification, makerspace, and educational video games to replace what kids will do naturally if left to their own devices.

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!

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Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)