Thursday, March 17, 2011

"One Big Playroom"

"Indeed, the school proved not to be a school at all, but just one big playroom." 

This is the money quote from a law suit filed by a parent against her child's $19,000 a year preschool, claiming that it damaged her 4-year-old's chances to get into an Ivy League university. This was brought to my attention by one of the parents at the $900 a year Woodland Park Cooperative preschool, where one of of our big "selling points" is our play-based curriculum.

These photos are of the grim little plastic grass and chain-link
fenced playground at a very expensive, for-profit preschool in
in downtown Seattle. Lots of "very well educated" parents send
their children here.

On the surface, it appears that the York Avenue Preschool is running a play-based school as well, complete with multi-aged classrooms, which makes the parent into the misguided jerk, until you read a little more deeply to learn that among the school's promises was the commitment to preparing its students for a standardized test used by New York's elite private schools for admission screening purposes. Serves them right. It serves all of them right, of course, except the poor little girl who is stuck in the middle, who loves her parents, and probably loved her school, and who is now likely going to be compelled into some high-priced test-prep program where someone will sit her down and pump her full of information in the hopes that they can undo the "damage" caused by all that playing with her friends.

Sheesh, what a mess. And I'm not just talking about this car accident of a news story.

We hardly know what education is any more. We hardly know what schools are for. It's gotten so bad that people are taking to the streets to "save childhood" by reclaiming play for their children.

I'm sure it's true that we could use some new research into the importance and primacy of play as the way humans learn. After all, much of the "science" of play still relies fairly heavily on the work of guys like Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, who were in business a century ago. But do most of us really need new research to persuade us that standardized tests, where rote memorization is king, is a poor measure of educational success? I, for one, don't need more evidence than that provided by my own eyes: children are more engaged, more creative, and more joyful when engaged in play. Speaking as a parent, it's the joyful part that convinces me. That's the highest wish I have for my child and I will never buy the Calvinist notion that she must first suffer before she can be saved. Play is joy. Play is where we lose ourselves. Play is why we are here.

Sadly, however, it seems that many of us have lost touch with our instincts as parents -- indeed, as human beings. Too many of us have bought into the idea that life is about putting our noses to the grindstone in the hopes that one day it will lead to joy, but all that gets us at the end of the day is a flat, bloody stump of a nose, with joy always sitting out there in the future like the proverbial carrot on a stick we chase but never taste (and without a nose it would ultimately be flavorless even if we did finally catch it).

More research will not get us out of this. For years, I've been challenging people to present me with research that demonstrates that standardized testing leads to better education, but no one can do it because it simply doesn't exist. There is no research that shows that longer school days, that longer school years, that more memorization, that more standardization, that more sitting in desks, that more of any of the stuff the self-proclaimed "education reformers" are after leads to anything other than less self-control, shorter attention spans, and poorer memory skills, not to mention joy. It has nothing to do with research and everything to do with marketing.

Like these parents in New York, the for-profit educational industry has made us afraid and insecure and that trumps "evidence" any day. They tell us to distrust our instincts. They tell us that they have the test or the flash cards or the video program that will "fix" our children. When guys like Barack Obama and Bill Gates declare that we are in danger, that we are failing, that the rest of the world has passed us by, it has nothing to do with research and everything to do with fear.

Ultimately, it comes down to money. You can't make money on joy. A $19,000 a year preschool simply could not exist if we understood this. And every preschool would be "one big playroom."

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Amy A @ Child Central Station said...

"O" "O" (A double standing Ovation!)

michellel said...

I am not sure why play=learning is such a hard concept for people.
I was so sad last weekend while waiting in line at the dollar store, overhearing the clerk complain that the Head Start her son goes to "just lets him play!"...and so she says she makes him...MAKES HIM- sit down for an hour each night with preschool workbooks. Sigh. Why must we rob a child of their chance at a childhood?

Plover said...

You're absolutely right that more research won't fix the situation. The ridiculous thing is that there's been a lot of recent research saying that play is vital to children's learning, and schools and legislators respond by cutting play hours and increasing sit-still-and-absorb-information hours until some schools don't have recess at all any more! Humans have an incredible ability to ignore the evidence that they don't agree with.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.
Psychologist Karl Groos

Lindsey said...

I think this news story must be heavily linked to the current insanity in the New York private nursery set up. I watched a documentary on it several months ago and coulddn't believe how derranged the whole process had become. The Indie documentary I watched was made in 2008 and was called "Nursery University". It'll shock you for sure. Seems the parents of this particular child had been swept up in the herd insanity that the NY nursery scene promotes :(

wondersofnature said...

I posted on my blog yesterday about the lack of loose materials in school playgrounds and how it is inhibiting creativity. Today I saw the photos on your post that show the most uninspiring space ever. Yes its bright and I'm sure most importantly it looks really tidy(!!!!) but what is any child supposed to experience in that space-maybe they can pace around like you used to see in really bad zoos-you know the kind, where they did'nt pay any attention at all to the animals needs, all that mattered was that the animals were contained and did as they were told....

Anonymous said...

I love your blog, and read everyday. This is a problem that I also find very close to my heart, especially when I see people all around me forcing their 3 year olds to sit and learn their letters through workbooks, educational video's and the like. My daughters school recently made us take apart the play garden that we (parents) had built for them with logs, stumps, a compost pile etc, saying that it was a fire hazard (have you ever tried to light a stump on fire?) and a health hazard (compost = bacteria, according to them).

So, we're now homeschooling - where I can let my daughter play, and get much more that the 60 minutes per week of active play that her school mandates.

There are two books that I recommend to all new parent friends of mine - Simplicity Parenting and Last Child in the Woods.

I would love to hear a selected reading list of yours!

emma said...

I just showed pics to my 5 year old - all I said was "I'm going to show you some pictures" [of "their" playground vs Teacher Tom's school]. To theirs, she said "no, no, no, no" & to yours was a chorus of "cool, cool, cool, cool!". Enough said? :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant...and a bit demoralizing that more educators and parents don't resonate with this.

It has struck me lately as a parent of a child in a school that really pushes standardized tests, that it's the educators we need to push harder to see this. It's exasperating to watch them be driven by funding at the expense of learning.

Great, great stuff for me to think over as a parent and former teacher.

Juliet Robertson said...

Keep speaking out. Keep talking and keep the profile of play high. Each and every one of us can do this. Not through taking the moral high ground but by letting our children play and thanking those schools and staff who do the same. Play on. Play hard. Play proud! :)

balmieday said...

Awesome post!! That story was off the hook crazy, I feel so bad for the kids over in that school that are in the pressure cooker already at 3 years old. It's a blessing that we have Woodland Park! How's this for a tagline: "Woodland Park: We Work Hard at Play" ;-).

Fairyjenn said...

Not all of us in NY are crazy!!! It is expensive here, preschool/playschool/anything!!!! can be expensive, but there are plenty of us who believe fully in play as the appropriate way to learn for children. There are a huge number of people taking early education into their own hands by starting "co op schools". There are a few different models that work. Some travel house to house every week or two, and some have dedicated space, but I have yet to hear of one interested in "academics". We did one that traveled for 2 years with our oldest, and are about to embark on one in april with our 2 year old that will have a dedicated space. When I posted to our family list serve, I had 65 responses within 2 days for basically 8-10 spots! Where there is a will there is a way, and women like this one give New Yorkers a bad name! Expensive or not, we all need to chill out, and get back to reality. Play people, play!!!

Unknown said...

This story reminds me of the parents who come to our local school and complain about once-monthly field trips for our children who are extremely isolated from the outside world. (Our town is literally on an island.) And our play-based preschool was derided as "babysitting" by one mother.

These are not "Tiger Mother" Manhattan parents driving their kids to hit achievement test scores; these are moms in poverty who are barely involved in their kids' education. It illustrates how pervasive the problem is, of parents assuming that anything other than drilling a child with facts is a waste of time.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom - As always, thanks for your stand on Joy and Play. Your posts are gifts to read by all who support children as capable and curious, explorers and inventors. An article was just posted on Slate on this very topic "Why Preschool Shouldn't be Like School" (March 16, 2011). A great childrens book on this idea is "A Fine, Fine School" by Sharon Creech. Thanks again Tom!

A Magical Childhood said...

Yes, yes, yes, as always.

Those stories are discouraging, but I am encouraged by reading your blog every day and following the MANY parents, teachers and others who fully get what children need and are working to wake up society. There are also more and more wonderful play-based and nature-based preschools giving children the lives they need and deserve.

About 8 years ago, I wrote an article on my web site about what a four year-old should know. It was against the checklists and in favor of play and other good things. After all of those years, not a week goes by that I don't get a personal email from a parent, grandparent, teacher, principal, librarian or other concerned grown-up who says he or she feels the same. Many come to the article because they're worried their preschoolers are "behind" but they all echo the same sentiment (even though parents can get buried in bad advice on the subject and start to forget). We just all have to keep speaking out on behalf of children and childhood, to balance out the insanity out there.

Thanks for another great post. Tell 'em, Tom. :)

Anonymous said...

I am mortified to think (please note this is dripping with sarcasm) that my children have spent the better part of 2 days outside in the tree house, using snow (which we still have quite a bit of in North eastern Canada, tree branches, water and mud, creating soups, stews, fires which need tending, not to mention roller blading, bike riding, playing tag, and using sidewalk chalk,with their friends. They have come in periodically to change clothes because more than once the Balancing of the pot over the fire did not work quite the way they hoped, they have rosy cheeks, and are exhausted from PLAYING!!!! I can only hope that I am not damaging them by not making them stay in the house, isolated from their friends, studying for hours.... It is scary to think the limitations my children will have in their future because Play was what I valued!! As an Early Childhood Educator I have experienced a parent removing their child from a program because the program wasn't "Teaching her anything" or getting her "ready for school" because the program was play based and child-centred. I will continue to fight the good fight and never stop talking about the value of play and how my role as an ECE is to support children. I only hope this little girl can live up to the pressures her parents are imposing on her- that is the really sad part of this story! Thanks Tom, for another great post!!!

Nikoli said...

Tom, I can only imagine the Joy and Play that you could and would spread throughout the community with $19,000 (PER STUDENT)!!

Kids are so amazing. I love watching my son "learn something" when he's playing. When he's thinking and the smoke pours from his ears as the gears turn, and then, the light bulb flickers and suddenly shines so brightly through his eyes.

Thanks for the constant inspiration! Play on!