Thursday, September 03, 2015

Seize The Day!

We start back to school a week or so later than most. It's by design. As a cooperative, we run on parent power and these first couple weeks of September can be distracting and stressful for families, especially those with older children attending public schools. The idea is to give those families a chance to ease into the year without preschool obligations adding anxiety to what has already become an anxiety-ridden time of year for families of school-aged children. We've found that parents appreciate the time and space to get one child settled before turning their attentions our direction. It's also nice for families to extend their summer into September a little, providing a window for a final vacation or so-called "stay-cation" during which to take uncrowded advantage of all our area's family offerings. 

Of course, the downside of this approach is that most of our preschoolers are chomping at the bit, at least those starting their second, third, or fourth year with Woodland Park and who already know what to expect from our democratic, play-based school. Whereas the stereotype is of children mournfully counting down the final dreadful days to the first day of class, our families report the opposite phenomenon, with preschoolers awaking each morning eagerly asking if today is the day. Indeed, it happens all year long with kids complaining when they awake on the weekend or during holidays to discover there is no school.

This is how it ought to be. There is no greater gift we can give to our children than a day-to-day life with which they are eager to engage. Isn't that what we all want: this feeling, this enthusiastic embrace of life, one that doesn't require "happy talk" or motivation or an extra cup of coffee to get us out the door, where "Seize the day!" is not a command, but a natural reaction to our lifestyle? 

Sadly, when it comes to traditional school, we have instead created a stress-fest. As Peter Gray writes over on Psychology Today:

Imagine a job in which your work every day is micromanaged by your boss. You are told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. You are required to stay in your seat until your boss says you can move. Each piece of your work is evaluated and compared, every day, with the work done by your fellow employees. You are rarely trusted to make your own decisions. Research on employment shows that this is not only the most tedious employment situation, but also the most stressful. Micromanagement drives people crazy . . . School, too often, is exactly like the kind of nightmare job that I just described; and, worse, it is a job the kids are not allowed to quit.

No wonder children mourn the end of summer, and don't get me started on the nasty jokes about parents "celebrating" as if off-loading their kids to the workhouse is a glorious emancipation, especially in light of the psychological toll it takes on children. This is serious business. As Gray points out, emergency psychiatric visits for school-aged children rise dramatically during the school year and fall during the summer. In Japan, a nation with a school system toward which our political leaders seem to want to push our schools, the first day of school is, horrifyingly, also the day in which teen suicides spike.

We really can't go on this way. For many children, even summer has become a highly scheduled, pre-programmed regimen of camps, classes and lessons. The opportunity to play, freely, has been on the decline for decades now. Psychologists know that the freedom to chose, the opportunity to exert  control over our own fate, is the greatest way to inoculate humans against anxiety and depression. We know that a lack of free play in the name of "education" is doing great harm to children and, in fact, ultimately threatening their academic and psychological prospects. 

As I sit here this morning, not preparing myself for class, I'm aware there are Woodland Park preschoolers complaining that they have to wait another week and a half for the first day of school, wishing for the big day to arrive. And I know there are parents wishing the same thing, not because they want to off-load their kids, but because it will be the first day of school for them as well, and they can't wait to play, to seize the day. And you know what? I feel the same way.

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