Friday, October 13, 2017

Sacred Time

Ninety percent of our days at Woodland Park are spent in "unstructured" play, which is to say that the children are responsible for choosing what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They make their own decisions, set their own goals, negotiate and collaborate with the other people, and learn how their own behaviors and emotions, and those of others, impact upon their results. When children are engaged in "structured" activities, adults are responsible for choosing what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. Adults make the decisions, set the goals, dictate rules and determine acceptable behaviors and even emotions.

Most schools are not like Woodland Park. Most children spend their school days engaged in structured activities, moving from this pre-determined thing to the next. I attended a "play-based kindergarten" as a boy (or what we used to just call "kindergarten"). When I hit first grade, however, the structure set in. I was good at school, even enjoying most of it, but we all lived for recess, the one time of the day where no one was telling us what to do. Indeed, we did what we could to avoid inviting adult intervention, settling our own disputes, managing our own behaviors and emotions because we all intuitively knew that once an adult was involved, our fun was at stake. The boys would organize themselves into huge kickball games, complete with negotiated rules which were self-enforced. There were adults around, in the distance, supervising, but even if one was injured, our ethic was to avoid involving them unless there was a lot of blood.

At the end of the day, we went home without homework to our lives of unstructured play. Today, that isn't the case for far too many children, who are instead shuttled off to music lessons, sports teams, and other "enrichment" programs after school and on weekends, structured activities intended to make them smarter or more well-rounded or perhaps just to occupy them while parents finish their work days. But at what cost?

According to a study conducted by psychologists at the universities of Colorado and Denver, "Structured time could slow the development of self-control":

When children spend more time in structured activities, they get worse at working toward goals, making decisions, and regulating their behavior . . . Instead, kids might learn more when they have the responsibility to decide for themselves what they're going to do with their time . . . they found that the kids who spent more time in less-structured activities had more highly-developed self-directed executive function.

Traditional schools have always been places that are largely dominated by structured activities. What has changed since I was a boy is that so many of our children spend their non-school hours bent over homework or participating in adult-directed environments, following instructions rather than thinking for themselves. Executive function, that part of our mental process that allows us to work productively toward achieving goals and manage our behaviors and emotions, is largely developed in childhood and the surest way to develop that is through practice, yet too many kids get precious little of it. If we want our children to grow into self-directed and competent adults, then we must set them free to play.

As children, we considered Saturdays and that time between the end of school and bed time as sacred, our time, resenting every imposition on it. We played in our garages and backyards, in the street and in our bedrooms, with others and alone, practicing being self-directed humans, which is ultimately every parent's goal. The only way we'll get there is to help our children take back that sacred time.

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