Friday, February 13, 2009

No Child Left Indoors - seriously

When my friend Karen sent me to this writer's site I thought this one was a joke. Sadly no. As if the upper establishment hasn't made it nearly impossible on school teachers already, now this? When will we realize that the school is NOT the answer to all societies problems?

“No Child Left Inside”: An Example of The Wrong Way to Solve a National Problem
By Peter Gray on October 08, 2008 in Freedom to Learn

On Sept. 18, the US House of Representatives passed, by a landslide vote of 293 to 109, its version of the "No Child Left Inside" act. The Senate version has yet to been voted on. This legislation has been pushed by a coalition of environmentalists, educators, public health specialists, and business groups called the No Child Left Inside Coalition.

I share all of the concerns of the Coalition, at least as they are expressed on the Coalition's website. I am an ardent environmentalist, much concerned about the rape of our planet and its potential future inhabitability. I am concerned about the great ignorance on the part of so many of our citizens about the outdoors. I am concerned that we see very few children playing outdoors today. I am concerned that what passes for outdoor "play," all too often today, is highly structured, adult-supervised sports, which have little or nothing to do with discoveries about the outdoors. I am concerned about the epidemic rates, today, of childhood obesity and depression, and I agree with the Coalition that these rates are at least partly the results of the absence of outdoor adventure in children's lives.

Since I agree with the Coalition on all of this, you might think that I would support the No Child Left Inside legislation, which the Coalition has been working so hard to pass. But I do not.

Schools suck the fun out of everything they teach. Do we want schools now to suck the fun out of outdoor adventure?

This legislation, in my mind, is a perfect example of the kind of thinking that has caused many of the problems that the Coalition is concerned about, not the kind of thinking that can solve them. Every time we see a national problem, and especially if that problem has anything to do with children, a hue and cry goes out to solve that problem through the school system. The attitude seems to be that every problem can be solved by piliing yet another set of required courses and examinations onto the backs of schoolchildren. Don't you see, you members of the Coalition, that the school system and our reliance on it to babysit our children and to force onto them an ever growing list of "educational" demands is the problem? And don't you see that the more we attempt to regulate school activities through government mandates, the more restrictive and antithetical to the spirit of discovery school becomes?

If this new act becomes law, then each state will be asked to submit, to the US Department of Education, a plan for "environmental literacy." Here is what the House act says about that plan (quoted from the Coalition's website):

"State plans must include: relevant content standards, content areas, and courses or subjects where instruction will take place; a description of the relationship of the plan to state graduation requirements; a description of programs for professional development of teachers to improve their environmental content knowledge, skill in teaching about environmental issues, and field-based pedagogical skills; a description of how the state educational agency will measure the environmental literacy of students; and a description of how the state educational agency will implement the plan, including securing funding and other necessary support."

Passage of this legislation would, no doubt, be a coup for the educational industry (see my August 27 post). It would result in a new set of courses, tests, textbooks, educational specialists, program administrators, grant writers, and so on and so on. What would it do for children? It would give them yet another set of school requirements, yet another set of tests to pass. Is this the way to get children to love and explore the outdoors? Has the school system been so successful in getting children to love all the other things it teaches--like math, history, and physics--that we now want to entrust it with teaching our kids to love the outdoors?

Take a look, for example, at what our school system already does in the realm of "physical education." Because people think that the body as well as the mind needs training, most schools require students to take a physical education class each year. What this class does is to take something that should be joyful play and turn it into something that, for many if not most kids, is tedious, sometimes odious, and often embarrassing. By forcing everyone to do the same activities, at the same time, in accordance with the school's schedule, and by testing and grading kids on everything and publicly comparing their performances, the school system effectively turns everything that should be play into work.

If you care about children's love for the outdoors, write to your US senators and ask them to vote against "No Child Left Inside."

How Can We Increase Children's Outdoor Play and Adventure?

To solve a problem, it is often valuable to start by thinking about what caused the problem in the first place. When I was a child (longer ago than I'll say), most kids spent enormous amounts of time outdoors. We went everywhere on our own, by foot and on bikes. We played games in vacant lots, and in rural areas outside of town, as well as in parks. We discovered things like butterflies, frogs, and snakes. We went fishing and swimming on our own. We took ice skating adventures across frozen lakes and hiking adventures in the woods, on our own, with no adults. What has happened to change all that?

One thing that has happened is that school and adults outside of school have taken over children's lives. When I was a child, school performance was much less emphasized than it is today. There was very little if any homework. On school days we had all day after 3:00 to play, plus an hour at lunchtime (during which we were not confined to school). The school year was shorter then than now, and we had three months of summer to play. Most communities did not have adult-organized sports leagues, and if they did have them we were never made to feel that we must participate for the sake of our résumés. Our parents did not feel that it was their responsibility to drive us places, or to watch us do everything we did so they could cheer us on or protect us from dangers. They trusted us. They trusted that, given freedom, we would enjoy ourselves and would for the most part do things that were good for us.

Many parents will argue that it is not their kids that they distrust, but the neighborhood. I'm to a considerable degree sympathetic with that fear. Partly because fewer kids are outdoors playing, many neighborhoods may in fact be less safe now than then. It used to be that if anyone harassed someone outdoors, there would be many kids around, of all ages, as witnesses and deterrents. It is also the case that today, with both parents in most families away at work, there are fewer adults at home in any given neighborhood, fewer adults who could spot potential problems. People (adults as well as children) are also less likely to know their neighbors today than in the past, and that too makes neighborhoods less safe. And, of course, there are more cars on the streets than there used to be, and communities no longer feel that it is their duty to construct and maintain sidewalks, parks, and playgrounds.

So, if these are the causes of the decline in outdoor play and adventure, then these are the issues we should work on. Lets stop trying to solve problems through increased schooling, which only makes the problems worse, and start trying to solve them through steps that will give our children more real freedom, including freedom to play outdoors. Here are some things you might do:

Speak out against increased school hours, homework, and testing. Let your school board, your school superintendent, and others in your community know that you, as a parent, resent the amount of busywork that is being forced on your children and resent the ever-increasing intrusion of school into your child's time and your family's time. Initiate local legislation to decrease the school day and school year. Fight against state-mandated testing.

Work outside of the school system to develop safe places for children to play. Let the legislators in your community know that they should start spending less money on schools and more money on sidewalks, parks, and police protection in areas where children can play. Urge your community to develop and maintain parks that are safe yet provide opportunities for adventure--parks that have woods to explore, trees to climb, ponds and streams to fish in. Develop and support programs that allow children to engage with the outdoors in their own playful ways, on their own time, with others of their own choosing, without adult supervision and certainly without testing.

Meet with other parents in your neighborhood to talk about the problem of providing safe places and opportunities to play. Maybe you can set up a neighborhood watch, which will help assure people that the neighborhood is safe for children's play. Maybe you can find ways to take weekend trips with other families, to campgrounds or other places where the kids can play safely, with one another in new and exciting settings, while the adults ignore them and socialize among themselves in their own chosen ways.

I know that these steps may not be easy. They require initiative. They run counter to the spoken agenda in most communities, which is always for more school and more direct adult supervision of children. Yet, if you scratch the surface of thinking of the adults in your community, you will find that many of them, in their hearts, recognize that children are more constrained, more imprisoned, today than they themselves were when they were children. If you ask them to say why, they are likely to come up, on their own, with lists not unlike what I have suggested here. What we need to do now is to transfer that heartfelt understanding into the head, to organize our efforts, and to take rational action to give our children real freedom to play outdoors.

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