Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Where Happy, Healthy Adults Come From

One of my earliest memories is of meeting my friend Phoebe each morning during the summer to play. She was a year older than me and lived a few houses down the street from us. I don't know how we timed this, but sometime between breakfast and lunch, we came together in the Saine's front yard. She would say, "You're Tarzan," because, invariably, I would be wearing a pair of cut-off shorts and nothing else. One morning, I was wearing shorts that were cut off just above the knee. She didn't call me Tarzan. When I asked why, she said it was because my shorts were too long, so I never wore those shorts again.

There was always something to do. Maybe one of the neighbors had recently pruned some trees and piled the branches in the gutter along the side of the road: that made a great fort or hideout or just a place to explore the details of branches that had previously been too high for us really see. There were still a few undeveloped lots in our suburban neighborhood, lightly wooded. We called those "the forest" and got lost in them. And there were always things like garden hoses, insects, pine cone fights, climbing trees, sneaking into the crawl spaces under houses, or knocking on doors to see who else could come out to play.

I have very few memories of playing with Phoebe indoors from those early years, although we must have gone inside sometimes. Most of the memories are from outdoors. I recall her, as the oldest, playing sergeant in our military games (there was a large army base nearby), marching me and our respective younger brothers, single-file, around and around our house, stick rifles on our shoulders. She wasn't one of those tough drill sergeant types, however, rewarding us for a job well done by allowing us to pick a wildflower of our choice to take home to our moms.

One of the most important things about barefoot summers, was building up the callouses on the bottoms of our feet, a process that involved, in our games, intentionally subjecting your soles to gravel and "stickers" (blackberry starts that infested the neighborhood lawns). One time we decided, inspired by the talk of some older boys, to make a booby trap. Not entirely certain what that was, our idea was to get some straight pins from our mother's sewing baskets and install them, points up, in the dirt where we imagined people (meaning us) commonly walked. Needless to say, I, the perpetually barefoot boy, managed to impale my heels on all three of the pins over the course of the afternoon, none of which hurt, however, due to the thickness of my callouses. 

A few of the kids on the street had swing sets and jungle gyms in their yards, places we felt free to play without asking permission. Families without children would sometimes shoo us from their yards, earning them an immediate reputation as "mean."

None of us were riding bikes yet, but we had trikes and wagons. On garbage day, after following the truck up one side of our cul-de-sac and down the other, commenting on our neighbor's trash, we would take advantage of all those empty galvanized steel cans, putting them on their sides in our wagons, then sitting with our feet in them and calling our creations "race cars." It's probably lucky we didn't have hills in our neighborhood or we would have let ourselves roll down them, but as it was, we pushed one another up and down the street, fast, taking turns, figuring out how to steer, but trusting our friends to supply the brakes.

When we took a break, it was to share lemonade and comic books on the back patio.

We did not think about school at all, a habit that no teachers, parents, or any other adults tried to change all the way through . . . Well, all the way through forever. Summer was when you didn't think about school. Summer is when you played. As an advocate for play-based education, of course, today I'm fully aware that we were learning the whole time, at full capacity, learning what we wanted to learn, when we wanted to learn it, in the company of our neighbors. The reason our memories of school room "learning" are not so vivid is because we weren't really learning a whole lot other than to do what we were told for the reward of recess where the real learning took place.

This summer, "experts" and teachers and even other parents will try to guilt you into drilling your kids with "fun summer time math games" and "reading lists" and "enrichment activities." They will warn you that your child will fall behind. Teachers will complain that the "summertime slide" will require them to re-teach material from last year. Screw that: if it has to be re-taught, it was just stored into short term memory anyway, the place you stash trivial crap until you've managed to spew it out on a test or worksheet or wherever the grown-ups tell you it belongs. That the adults are on some damn schedule isn't your kid's problem and it's not your problem, either.

Do not let these "Tiger Mom" jerks rob your child of summer. Children need to play, they need to play freely, they need to play outside, they need to play with friends, and they need to do it for days and weeks and months on end. The education drill sergeants are wrong, they are cruel, and they are stealing childhood.

Education is not a race. There is no such thing as falling behind, but there is such thing as missing out. You can't be a happy, productive adult without a childhood. Pick some wildflowers, get lost in a pile of comic books, race a wagon down a hill, catch a bug in a jar for a couple hours, study it, try to feed it different things, and let it go . . . Then do it all again, and again, and again. This is where happy, healthy adults come from.

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Stephanie said...

I actually have a lump in my throat, remembering the non-involvement of adults in my childhood summers! Racing around the neighbourhood after a storm to find the deepest muddies puddles, having a cookie from a neighbour, playing flashlight tag in the backyard in the dark, building a fort in the bush (I don't even know who owned that property and no adult ever said no to what we were doing!). I intentionally booked nothing for my four kids this summer. No library program, no swimming lessons, no enrichment activities. They're going to play and get bored then come up with something to do. They're going to be dirty! And summer will last forever.
Thanks! I'm going to repost this on my classroom blog as well as my FB page!

JB said...

100% yes!
My mom was a SAHM, so my childhood summers were much like yours. Unfortunately, with 2 parents working, the best we can do for our son is summer camp, which is hopefully close enough!

Anonymous said...

Luckily in the UK we've never had USA style "summer schools" - or any summer schools - although I dare say as those powers that be insist on ever higher targets for ever younger kids, it will come. Surely this target led; qualification led; 'control and contain' culture of education has to implode. Or we are truly lost.

MissKate'sBazaar said...

Thank you so much for that! I got served a hefty guilt trip from my son's teachers about what he needed to do this summer to 'keep up', which totally explains why the decided to have him repeat kindergarten. It's refreshing to know that there are others out there that know kids need to have some fun! :D

Anonymous said...

I'm smiling with tears in my eyes as I remember the delicious feeling of summer! Thank you for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

I grew up a few miles from Seattle, my mom was older than all my friend's parents and from rural towns so she was perfectly content to let us kids do what we wanted all summer. We could walk to the lake and swim all day with nothing more to eat than a peanut butter sandwich, or build forts in the woods. We could ride our bikes as far and wide as we liked. I remember in the 80's that there were already hover parents who wouldn't let their kids leave the yard. We all felt so sorry for those kids. I'm trying to give my kids many of the same experiences I had growing up but within the context of this new style of parenting (and subsequent laws) and let them experience as much of that magic that I had. It's a harder job than my mom had but just as important.

Unknown said...

Well said, Teacher Tom.
Summers when I was a child consisted of hanging out with the other children in the area and just playing - making up our own games, going for walks, playing in the woods and most importantly just being kids!

claudia said...

This is perfect, and very similar to my childhood. I'm doing my best to create one just like that for my children, who were digging in mud, playing with worms, and riding bikes down our backyard hill last night.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. As a preschool teacher and educator I know this. I struggle with the lack of time during the school year for my 1st grader to "just play." And have almost been "guilted" in to having my soon to be Kinder and 2nd grader do 30 minutes a day of traditional "school" work. I know better and needed a reminder!