Friday, May 01, 2020

This Is Where Happy, Healthy Adults Come From

I wrote this post several years ago. On the calendar it's still springtime, of course, but since for most of our kids, summer really started a month ago, the "fun stealers" have emerged from the woodwork extra early to warn parents that their children, even their preschool aged children, are "falling behind" or backsliding academically. It's cruel, even if well-intended. I thought I would share this again today to remind us all that we owe children an actual childhood, especially now.


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, although we must have gone inside sometimes. My memories are all 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 fun stealers 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.


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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