Today’s Associated Press article “Give kids more free playtime, docs urge” supports ideas I’ve blogged about before in my posts “Curing Nature Deficit Disorder,” “Increase retention and creativity with recess,” and “Let’s fight for recess.” (Thanks for the link, Devin.) According to the article:

The American Academy of Pediatrics says what children really need for healthy development is more good, old-fashioned playtime…Numerous studies have shown that unstructured play has many benefits. It can help children become creative, discover their own passions, develop problem-solving skills, relate to others and adjust to school settings, the academy report says.

I completely agree. Many of us lead lives that are overscheduled and overstressed, and we force the young people in our care to run on the same treadmill. We all need regular “recess” times– even more than one per day. One of the things our third and first grade children have noted and LOVED about elementary school in Oklahoma is the greater priority teachers and administrators seem to put on recess and play. It is amazing that in some elementary schools today, recess has been judged as a frivolous activity that takes away from valuable time needed to prepare students for success on high-stakes tests. I wish I was making this up, but sadly I am not.

High stakes testing in schools is not the only problem, however. For some reason, many parents (and we can fall into this trap at times too) seem to believe that they must fill every waking moment of childrens’ lives with structured activities. We know lots of people who are constantly running from sports practices, to gymnastics, to piano lessons, and other activities. With schedules like this, there are few opportunities for family meals (which my wife has blogged about previously) and rarely any time for unstructured play. The abiding need children have for unstructured play opportunities in natural environments is a key theme of Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Today’s AP article reflects similar benefits Louv details for unstructured play:

Children overscheduled with structured activities “are missing the chance they have to dream, to fantasize, to make their own world work the way they want it. That to me is a very important part of childhood,” [Dr. T. Berry] Brazelton said.

This discussion reminds me of Alfie Kohn’s thesis in his book “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.” Kohn published excerpts from his book in the article “No Proven Benefits” on EduTopia recently. He wrote:

It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn that no study has ever demonstrated any academic benefit to assigning homework before children are in high school. In fact, even in high school, the association between homework and achievement is weak — and the data don’t show that homework is responsible for higher achievement. (Correlation doesn’t imply causation.) Finally, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the folk wisdom that homework provides nonacademic benefits at any age — for example, that it builds character, promotes self-discipline, or teaches good work habits.

If these are the “research findings” and we continue to hear such a loud chorus from the NCLB crowd for instructional methods that are supported by scientific research,” why do we see so much homework in elementary and middle schools? I think the reasons come down to traditional education experiences: That’s what we did in school, so we assume that’s what our kids should do. Alfie identifies several other possible reasons:

  1. a lack of respect for research
  2. a lack of respect for children
  3. a lack of understanding about the nature of learning
  4. the top-down pressures to teach more stuff faster

I agree with his observation that unfortunately, in schools and elsewhere in our society, “we don’t ask challenging questions about most things.” I think it is high time we asked challenging questions about the value of many things we do in classrooms, from high stakes tests to busiwork homework assignments. Lisa Morehouse wrote “In Defense of Homework” (also in Edutopia) about the benefits of metacognative after-school assignments she gave her own students as a classroom teacher, and the oral history projects she assigned them. I agree these sorts of tasks for students ARE worthwhile, whether they happen during school or afterwards. Unfortunately, a great deal of homework assigned to children seems to be done more out of habit rather than necessity or educational need. I definitely support students reading at home independently each night, but I really question the strong emphasis many elementary teachers continue to put on studying spelling words in decontextualized isolation. (I wish more teachers were reading and heeding the message in Stephen Krashen’s “The Reading-Spelling Connection.”)

When we combine the tendency for many parents to over-schedule and over-structure the lives of their children, the high-stakes and high-pressure environments in many schools, and the persistence of busywork homework assignments– it seems amazing so many of our kids emerge from their adolescent/teen years as functional and capable people.

For more on this thread, check out Dr. Richard Swenson’s excellent book “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives” and Etta Kralovec and John Buell’s book “The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning.” I am definitely a strong advocate for high expectations in the classroom. I am experienced enough on my own journey of life, however, to know that creativity and good problem solving skills are more likely to thrive in an educational environment replete with opportunities for unstructured play– rather than a rigorous and stressful one lorded over by whip-wielding administrators and teachers.

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One Response to More recess, fewer tests, structured activities, and homework please!

  1. Brian Crosby says:

    Wes – I think you might enjoy the conversation (if you haven’t seen it already) – at Doug’s blog:
    Just FYI

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