Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Every Generation Weeps

File:The Lorax.jpg

Last month, Chicago Now blogger Christine Whitley published a first grade readiness list based on the work of the Gesell Institute of Human Development from 1979:

1. Will you child be six years, six months older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?

2. Does you child have two to five permanent or second teeth?

3. Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman where he lives?

4. Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?

5. Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?

6. Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?

7. Can he tell left hand from right?

8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?

9. Can he be away from you all day without being upset?

10. Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as "The boy ran all the way home from the store?"

11. Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?

12. Does you child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

A couple of the items jump out at me. 

It appears that it wasn't really all that long ago that we understood that formal literacy instruction should wait until first grade. The research indicates that the earliest we should start is seven-years-old, and that the natural window for learning to read is somewhere between seven and ten. Today, preschoolers as young as three are being subjected to enforced reading instruction, a practice destined to make many of them worse readers (in terms of comprehension and reading for pleasure) in the long run.

Perhaps the biggest change since I was a teenager, however, is number eight: "Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?"

Many will argue, of course, that the world was a safer, saner place back then, but they are objectively wrong. Crime rates today in the US are significantly lower than they were in in 70's and 80's. But we all know that if you today permitted your six-year-old to travel alone in your neighborhood, sometimes even just into your backyard, child protective services will be knocking on your door. Not that many of us, even the most "free range" of parents, would even consider sending a preschooler on neighborhood errands in 2015.

I walked to Meadowfield Elementary School in 1969. I remember it as about six blocks in a suburban neighborhood without sidewalks, most of it along Macon Road where the cars drove quite fast, although the distance may have become muddled in my mind over time. What I do recall clearly, however, was that it was no big deal to me to walk, alone, along the side of street. I'd been doing it for as long as I remembered, usually without even informing mom first, going to friend's houses, playing in vacant lots, and generally navigating my world without a parent hovering over me every moment.

Today, I know parents of 12-year-olds who have never left their child alone in the house, even to just run to the neighborhood grocery store. I thought I was the renegade when I was letting my daughter ride mass transit on her own at that age.

Some of the parents of the children I teach were born in the 80's and most grew up then, never knowing what it was like to have the sort of freedom we had during what many call the "Golden Age of Childhood." They've never known that sort of childhood freedom. Even Lenore Skenazy, author and founder of the Free Range Kids movement, the leading voice for a return of childhood freedom, would have sounded like a bit of a fuddy-duddy in the 70's. 

The saddest part for me is that even as I rarely come across anyone who thinks childhood is better today, few, including me see much chance of making it better. There are just too many laws, too many lawsuits, too much ingrained fear to ever go back, at least in our lifetime.

I would argue that it falls to our schools to become those places of freedom, places where kids can explore and "roam" and play and learn, but as things stand now we are having to fight just to prevent them from becoming lock down, drill-and-kill asylums. 

Every generation weeps for the children that comes behind it. In fact, I hope that's what I'm doing, just being an old-timer telling stories from "my day." But when I look beyond the walls of our play-based preschool, a place where we attempt every day to evoke the ethos and practices of the "Golden Age," and still falling far short, I see that the only way to make the world better for children would be a full on rebellion, one designed to change a quarter of a century of well-intended, but very bad laws. And I just don't see it happening.

In some ways, I feel like the Lorax living in a world that has forgotten that the Truffula trees ever existed. I know we're not down to the last seed, but there are fewer and fewer of us with a handful left in our pockets. I've planted mine at Woodland Park, I'm tending them, and I'm hoping that some day, when archeologist dig us up, they will say, "What a fuddy-duddy this guy was." 

If you've got seeds from the "Golden Age" plant them today. You'll likely never eat their fruit, but maybe your children's children will.

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Anonymous said...

Beautiful, beautiful, this gives me chills. Planting little seeds and volunteering at my son's school and secretly planting seeds (literally and figuratively).

Unknown said...

Often seems like an uphill battle, but I will keep planting.

Anonymous said...

Have you looked into Waldorf schools or Waldorf-inspired charters? Reading isn't taught until 1st/2nd and there is an emphasis on play and curiosity over drill and test strategies. You might find these schools are some of the last ones that still nourish seeds with a whole body and child developmental approach.

Francine said...

I really love this. Things are a bit more free range over here in France - kids are allowed to leave school alone with their parents' consent from age 7m and I see kids from that age out and about running errands in town, or just playing with friends. However the schools themselves are not as play based as I would like. So the seeds I plant for my son include lots and lots of free independent play, and he did no structured activities until he was 5&1/2.

Anonymous said...

My centre manager here in Auckland, New Zealand reported back to us a conversation about an Education Review Office (ERO) review of a another centre here in Auckland. Apparently one of ERO's concerns was that in addition to the regular earthquake and fire drills expected was whether the centre concerned was practicing regular "lockdown" drills. Sad really to yet see more US paranoia and bullshit arrive in our country, but it comes with along the selfish short-sighted neo-liberal colonisation of the mind that is poisoning us along with most of the rest of the world (the English-speaking world in particular).