Play’s the thing

Just the other day I posted about how sitting still is overrated. Yesterday, the New York Times published an opinion piece on the downside of early academics, which is linked to sitting at desks.

Let the Kids Learn Through Play, the headline urges. To which I respond, what do you think we’ve been doing? By we, I mean a certain subset of homeschoolers. You might say we’re unschoolers, or unstructured, or that we practice child-led learning. I could care less about the label, but I do care about the process, and kids learning through play is at its heart.

This isn’t something we made up. It’s what kids do naturally. It’s how they learn, grow, process, and experiment. We also know that barring special situations, basics like reading and arithmetic don’t have to be taught. Supplying a rich and supportive environment including ample time for play takes care of that. It also nurtures the innate curiosity kids bring into the world with them.

Although I didn’t need any studies to embrace these ideas, I’m glad science is proving that a play-centered approach is preferable to the didacticism being pushed in schools. I feel for teachers of young children who are forced to implement programs that are at best ineffective, and at worse harmful. As Lesley University Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige says in the New York Times piece, “I’ve seen it many, many times in many, many classrooms — kids being told to sit at a table and just copy letters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking.” Heartbreaking is exactly the right word.

Meanwhile, we’re out here living, learning, thriving, and playing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Play on.

Fidgeting and learning

Today I came across an article titled Vindication for Fidgeters: Movement May Help Students With ADHD Concentrate.

I realize that labels and diagnoses are helpful to some people, but when I was homeschooling my young children, I didn’t think much about them. Schools can be especially difficult environments for active kids, but mine weren’t in school.

Besides homeschooling my own kids, for years I’ve facilitated book groups and writing groups for homeschoolers. Because I’m not a school teacher and never had to implement a curriculum or issue grades, I could be flexible and try different approaches. No matter what the angle, there were always some kids who just couldn’t sit still.

At first when I noticed kids fidgeting, scribbling, twirling pencils, or engaging in other kinetic behaviors, I assumed they weren’t paying attention. Ah, I thought. I haven’t caught their interest. I tried harder, but still, the behaviors persisted. Then I noticed that the kids I thought weren’t paying attention would make cogent comments that clearly demonstrated I was dead wrong. Ah, I realized. These kids, they’re all processing information in their own unique ways. I learned to relax about the fidgeting.

My hypothesis that fidgeting doesn’t mean a child (or an adult, for that matter) isn’t paying attention comes from my life experience, but I’m not surprised that a scientific study has reached the same conclusion. If it allows those who fidget to feel vindicated, that’s marvelous. I’m glad I didn’t need a study to figure out that sitting still isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Thoughts on National Teacher Day

Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn – Stephen Sondheim

Today is National Teacher Day. It’s been a long time since I went to public school, but I remember all of my teachers. If I had to pick one to honor, it would be Miss Woodruff.

I couldn’t tell you what practical skills I learned from her, although I’m sure there were some. What I remember most is her kindness. I was a painfully shy 8-year-old with no friends. Every day during recess I held Miss Woodruff’s hand and walked the playground while the rest of the kids played around us. She never asked why I didn’t prefer swinging or jumping rope or finding some kids to play with. She just smiled at me with the kindest eyes I had ever seen and let me choose to spend recess with her.

What did I learn from her? Looking back, I’d say I learned the value of patience and unconditional kindness.

This week I participated in a discussion with some other parents about the definition of teaching, and whether abstractions such as kindness, respect, and living a purposeful life can be taught. I think they can, primarily by modeling.

Do I think Miss Woodruff’s actions were motivated by a desire to teach me the value of kindness? No, she was just being her kind, compassionate self to a kid who really needed it. The impression she made on me is indelible, something I feel more than remember.

Teaching intangibles may not be part of the official job description for school teachers and others who work or live with children, but the fact is that kids look to the adults around them for cues about how to conduct themselves in the world.

Modeling is teaching, but it shouldn’t be didactic, and it often happens without the teacher even knowing it. I have a daughter who loves singing. The summer she was eight, she spent several weeks participating in a production of The Sound of Music. The wonderful Sarah Pfisterer played Maria.

When my daughter asked Sarah about her musical education, Sarah said that long before taking voice lessons, she studied piano, which gave her a strong musical foundation. Guess who started studying piano shortly thereafter? Sarah never gave my daughter a single formal vocal lesson, but my daughter’s vocal abilities improved by leaps and bounds just from watching and listening to Sarah, and absorbing what she was doing. Sarah taught her a boatload about practical matters such as good vocal technique, and intangibles like the importance of musicianship, and the value of being kind to others (come to think of it, Sarah’s a lot like Miss Woodruff).

Which brings me to another point about teachers. They’re most effective when they’re identified by the learner. My music-hungry, crazy-for-singing daughter identified Sarah as someone she wanted to learn from and emulate. Perhaps that’s what I felt, too, when I chose Miss Woodruff as the teacher I’d always remember. That person, I thought. That’s the person I want to be like.

So kudos to Miss Woodruff and Sarah for being, whether they knew it or not, such wonderful teachers. When young people seeking to identify teachers look to us, may we all be so worthy.