I am now in my second week of camping at the beach. I am surrounded by children. I take great delight in watching these kids as they exercise the parts of their brains and bodies so neglected by our test obsessed education system. They are so inventive with so little. Small beetles and bugs are fascinating, they spend hours deeply immersed in books, they invent new games and challenges, they turn cartwheels, they ride bikes, they cooperate and sometimes they fail to cooperate and then they learn about negotiation, about forgiveness, about sharing. They make things out of grass and bits of wood and bark. They play tricks on the adults. They laugh, they squabble, they share secrets. With the minimum of adult direction they fill their days with play – the work of childhood.
I often read about the loss of school learning during the summer vacation. I never read about the loss of vacation learning during the school year. How much independence, inventiveness, imagination, team work, self motivation and cooperative work and play, learned during the holiday period, simply withers on the vine due to neglect during the school term?
I found it became untenable that I was required to limit the free play recess period of my elementary aged children to 15 minutes a day when I was a school principal in the USA. It felt like a form of child abuse. In the interests of maximizing instructional time we removed the opportunity for play and wondered why it was so hard to keep these children focused on school work as the day dragged on. We wondered why they were so unable to negotiate their way out of quarrels, so clumsy at working in teams. But these are skills learned by doing, not by being told. These are skills forged in the free for all of the playground, the same place where imagination, fairness and resilience begin to grow, are tested and thrive.
This poem by D J Enright comes to mind.
‘The thing that makes a blue umbrella with its tail –
how do you call it?’ you ask. Poorly and pale
Comes my answer. For all I can call it is peacock.
Now that you go to school, you will learn how we call all sorts of things;
How we mar great works by our mean recital.
You will learn, for instance, that Head Monster is not the gentleman’s accepted title;
The blue-tailed eccentrics will be merely peacocks; the dead bird will no longer doze
Off till tomorrow’s lark, for the letter has killed him.
The dictionary is opening, the gay umbrellas close.
Oh our mistaken teachers! –
It was not a proper respect for words that we need,
But a decent regard for things, those older creatures and more real.
Later you may even resort to writing verse
To prove the dishonesty of names and their black greed –
To confess your ignorance, to expiate your crime, seeking one spell to
life another curse.
Or you may, more commodiously, spy on your children, busy discoverers,
Without the dubious benefit of rhyme.