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Archive for the ‘Children and Play’ Category

One of the most intellectually stimulating books of the fall season is Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s The Coddling of the American Mind. It is a formidable and persuasive critique of recent changes in American university campus culture. The new orthodoxy of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” was ripe for serious analysis and the authors have diagnosed the sources of what is termed “safetyism.”  Young people are being taught to “trust their feelings” and to call out the “goodies” and “baddies” in contemporary society. In a strange twist, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.”

The two academics demonstrate a sound grasp of the “culture war” enveloping campus culture and correctly point out that “safetyism” poses a real threat to academic freedom on North American campuses.  As a child of the radical sixties, I was there when students fought to make the universities more open to new ideas, controversial speakers, and more democratic practices. Racism, bigotry and intolerance should be resisted and rejected. Having said that, it’s disconcerting to see today’s university students so quick to take offense and so inclined to silence those espousing different viewpoints.

While Lukianoff and Haidt correctly dissect the problem, they miss the mark in diagnosing the state of early childhood learning. The “decline of play” is plainly observable in today’s schoolyards and playgrounds. Overly protective parents, known as “helicopter parents,” are easy to spot in affluent and upper middle class school communities — and gravitate to independent schools.  It is simply wrong, in my estimation, to assume that “play learning” is endangered in pre-school, kindergarten, or early years education.

“Play-based learning” is ascendant in Canadian Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 education and is in no danger of disappearing. It is no exaggeration to say that “play learning” is the current catechism espoused by faculties of education and accepted, without question, by provincial education ministries. Since 2010-11, early leading has emerged as an education priority and provincial education departments, one after another, have changed their names to become the “Department of Early Childhood Development and Education.”

Where did Lukianoff and Haidt get the idea that “child’s play” was threatened in the primary grades?  Their primary source appears to be Erika Christakis, a Yale University child study professor and author of the 2017 book, The Importance of Being Little. Judging from her writings, she is an unabashed constructivist who sees great potential in “little children” and idealizes them “watching bulldozers on a construction site” or “chasing butterfies in flight.”  Surveying today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, most likely in New England, she claims that “learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and subject metrics that too often undervalue the child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain.” 

She is, in all likelihood, well acquainted with Ivy League prep schools. High and mismatched expectations, she contends, “wreak havoc on the family.” “Parents fear that if they choose the ‘wrong’ program, their child won’t get into the ‘right’ college.”  Such fears are “wildly misplaced,” according to Christakis, because young children are not only natural learners, but “exceptionally strong thinkers.”

Unstructured free play is good for little children and it does help to prepare them for the real, ‘rough-and-tumble’ world.  Where Christakis, Lukianoff and Haidt all go wrong is in setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to any form of early learning incorporating explicit teaching of core knowledge and skills. Claiming that it is harmful flies in the face of a great deal of recent education research informed by cognitive science.

Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman has effectively demolished the two essential claims about early learning made in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Free play may well be essential in learning social skills, but that does not mean it suffices for academic learning. Renowned Canadian education critic, Andrew Nikiforuk, once put it this way:  “If learning is so natural, why do we go to school?'”  The implicit answer: to learn something.

Pyschologist David C. Geary makes the helpful distinction between two types of learning, biological primary and biological secondary forms. Play is probably the best way to learn social skills, such as learning to work together, but not for learning academic abilities and skills.  The weight of research evidence, drawn from cognitive science, suggests that most children require more explicit instruction because learning requires some prodding, practice, and persistence.  Some students, particularly those with learning difficulties or socio-economic disadvantages, simply do not grasp the key ideas or master the fundamental skills without a measure of teacher-guidance.

Lukianoff and Haidt, citing Christakis, are critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the “Common Core Curriculum” and very much opposed to student testing in elementary grades. That may be why they are so inclined to see “testitis” creeping into the early grades.  While there is some evidence of it in American elementary schools, the same cannot be said for Canadian schools.  No homework is given in Kindergarten and only modest amounts in Grades 1 to 3. Provincial testing is administered starting in Grade 3 but it cannot be described as “high stakes” testing of the kind found at higher grades in the United States. 

Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind  offers a telling critique of what’s gone wrong on many university colleges.  Children from advantaged backgrounds may, from an early age, be subjected to academic pressures and discouraged from engaging in free play.  Parents with two degrees and homes full of books give privileged kids an early immersion in learning and, in many cases, have the added benefit of parents providing explicit instruction to fill gaps in understanding.  Over-parenting can and does produce coddled children , but it’s a stretch to claim that this is the real life experience of children from less favoured circumstances, raised in disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

Early learning programs in Canada, with few exceptions, are “play-based” and place considerable emphasis on nurturing social skills and supporting ‘student well-being.” Few Canadian early learning researchers would recognize the pre-schools and kindergartens as depicted in Lukianoff and Haidt’s otherwise impressive book.  In fact, it’s tempting to hypothesize that Canadian primary years programs are actually the nurseries for a younger generation who are so bubble-wrapped that “skinned knees” are treated as calamities.

Where’s the evidence that “play-learning” is imperiled in today’s pre-schools and kindergartens?  How prevalent is “helicopter parenting” and is it directed toward raising standards or to ‘school-proofing’ kids?  Is it fair to suggest that play learning and academic learning are mutually incompatible? Is “safetyism” what is actually being taught in kindergarten? 

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Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

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Four years ago a British teacher, Ms. R. Clifford, ventured outside her specialty of religious education to tackle the subject of Racism and Sexism in the imaginary children’s world created by Walt Disney. While teaching a class of older children and teens, she produced a lesson plan seeking to alert students to the “darker side of Disney,” the depiction of young women as princesses and potential victims of domestic abuse. With the best of intentions as a Millennial Generation teacher, Ms Clifford then uploaded it to a popular resource-sharing  website, along with the 122 other lessons.

snowflakebeautybeastsnowflakerealprincessesWith 2016 winding down and the raging “Generation Snowflake” controversy very much alive in the U.K.,  Ms Clifford’s Lesson Plan generated a mainstream news and social media firestorm. “Bonkers school lesson plan claims Beauty & the Beast promotes domestic violence,”  The Sun proclaimed on November 16, 2016, warning scandalized readers that the “loony lesson plan” was now available in “thousands of classrooms” and a graphic example of ‘political correctness’ desecrating beloved Disney children’s tales. One British Tory MP, Phil Davies, went so far as to describe Clifford’s lessons as brainwashing and urged his own government to “stop this idiocy and ensure schools teach things that parents expect.”

Vocal critics of Ms. Clifford’s Racism and Sexism in Disney lesson attributed her perspective to being a member of the Snowflake Generation, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, who are regularly lampooned as protected, coddled and easily offended, or worse, labeled as ‘censorious cry babies.’  For a teacher whose lessons and resources have been downloaded over 300,000 times, it was a huge shock to be drawn-and-quartered in the national media. It also illustrated just how much resistance was building in opposition to the prevailing beliefs of a younger generation with a growing influence as teachers in the classroom.

snowflakeGenerational fragility is, of course, a real phenomenon, especially in schools and on college campuses. Many teachers and students today are made nervous and uneasy by advocates espousing strong opinions contrary to their own or by vigorous debate pushing at the boundaries of acceptable discourse. The anti-bullying industry in and around schools has mushroomed over the past two decades. Whereas once “bullying” meant having your’head kicked-in,’ your money stolen in the schoolyard, or subjection to horrible cruelties, today’s students are protected from most, if not all, ‘slings-and-arrows,’ including  relatively innocuous “teasing and name-calling,” “insensitive jokes,” and “bullying gestures.”

Outspoken British writer and founder of the Institute of Ideas  Claire Fox worries that today’s kids and teens have been socialized to be “too soft” and “aggrieved” by even the smallest of “micro-aggressions.” Banning outdoor games like tree climbing, leapfrog, marbles, or Red Rover are commonplace, and one school head changed the colour of her school’s red uniform because of obscure research connecting it with ‘increased heart and breathing rates.’ Teachers and students talk about “safe spaces” where classrooms are protected against the rough edges of the real outside world.

A healthy public debate is underway in the United Kingdom, but has yet to really surface inside most North American school systems. Back in February 2016, London teacher Tom Bennett, Student Behaviour Advisor to the U.K. Government, waded into the public debate.  The prevalence of “mollycoddled students,” he told The Daily Mail, began in school when too many children were protected from the “harsher realities of the world” and then had trouble confronting challenging and unsettling ideas in college and university.

The ‘No Platforming’ movement barring controversial speakers from uttering “offensive views,” according to Bennett and other defenders of free speech within limits, may well be a reflection of “Snowflake” sensitivities. While it’s mainly a college campus issue, there are clear signs that today’s classroom teachers are more careful than ever about steering clear of controversial social issues. It was “irresponsible” for adults, including teachers, Bennett added, to pretend that offensive views do not exist and it would be better to “create a kind of healthy space — not a safe space –for debate to appear” in our high schools and colleges.

Does “Generation Snowflake” exist or is it merely an artificial construct? To what extent has a kind of “Snowflake Generation” outlook and approach emerged in teaching and the education world? Have schools and colleges gone too far in insulating older children and teens against unpleasant encounters with life’s harsher realities?  If Walt Disney’s imaginary fantasy world is now deemed harmful to kids, what comes next? 

 

 

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“Tear yourself away from the Saturday cartoons, boys, it’s time to go outside and play.” That oft-repeated mother’s admonition still rings in my ears. Today, sixty years later, with millions of children seemingly hypnotized by computer and video games, that parental lesson has now been appropriated by the big brands and is being repeated with much greater urgency.

MinecraftFatherSonA ‘Brand War’ is now underway for the minds of children.  Global technology colossus Microsoft essentially conquered home play rooms and has just launched Minecraft Education for schools.  A “Dirt is Good” Movement, funded by Unilever’s laundry products division, Persil, has even enlisted TED Talk superstar Sir Ken Robinson in its latest campaign to win parents and kids back from the virtual world with an appeal for the forgotten pleasures of outdoor play.

One of Britain’s most astute education observers, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c (2013), was among the first to spot the emerging societal trend. In his recent online commentary, “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt” ( April 4, 2016), he identified the fault lives in the contemporary war for the hearts and minds of children.

“The story starting to unfold,” Robinson pointed out, was one of “global brands tapping into progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell a product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning.” The ultimate objective, he added, was to woo us into “letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with (Lego) bricks…”

After reviewing the “Dirt is Good” media campaign and the recent Microsoft Minecraft Education launch promotion, Robinson’s critique appears to be deadly accurate. A report, Play in Balance, commissioned by Unilever’s Persil division, polled 12,000 parents of 5-12 year olds worldwide and provides the fodder for the “Dirt is Good” campaign.

ChildUtopiaThe Persil-funded survey (February and March 2016) results were startling: In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of parents reported that their children preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside. Almost one-third of children in the UK play outside for 30 minutes or less a day and one in five do not play outside at all on an average day. Children spend twice as much time on screens as they do playing outside.

Sir Ken Robinson’s interpretation of the survey’s lessons is far more problematic. “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning — there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

That sounds a lot like the competing narrative advanced by global technology advocates like Sky Academy, the British high-tech learning firm espousing ‘human potential’ and ” the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock the potential in young people.” In announcing the impending launch of the Minecraft Education edition, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP of Worldwide Education, championed it as the next stage in the “immersive learning experience” which would “open the door to a classroom and a world of possibilities and learning infused with curiosity.”

MinecraftJuneauClassMicrosoft Education does not seem to be deterred in the least by Sir Ken Robinson and the “Dirt is Good” defenders of outdoor play. After spreading to millions of homes worldwide and 7,000 schools in 40 different countries, Minecraft Education edition will be rolled out in June 2016 in 11 languages and 41 different countries, and will allow teachers to download the program for free, in exchange for product marketing feedback. Corporate promotion touts the product as one that will “help to educate children on social skills, problem-solving skills, empathy and even help to improve literacy.”

The latest phase in what is generally termed “21st Century Learning” is starting to look a lot like an attempt to revive the now faded ‘romance’ of educational progressivism. Instead of learning from the past and its lessons, the ‘Brand War’ for children’s minds seems to be devolving into a tug of war between contending versions of play-based theory.  In pursuit of play learning, it amounts to a familiar contest between those who want our kids to play inside and those who want them to play outside. Whether it’s outside or inside, one can only hope that they will be learning something of enduring value, deeper meaning, and measurable substance. 

Who –and what — is winning the ongoing war for children’s minds?  Is “play theory” making a comeback in today’s “Brand Wars” being waged in and around children and schools?  What are the risks inherent in turning children’s education over to the big brands? How can the concept of “wholesome outdoor play” compete with “digital Lego” and virtual sports?  Most importantly, what — if anything– have we learned from our educational past? 

 

 

 

 

 

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School recess remains one of the favourite times of the day for most elementary school students. Until recently, it was also a largely forgotten part of school life. With the advent of the overprotected kid” and the spread of campaigns against bullying, obesity, and boredom, recess has become a hot topic for public discussion.  Many school administrators and psychologists now see ‘free play’ at recess to be dangerous and threatening, especially for marginalized or bullied kids.  A new breed of North American parents, armed with Lenore Skenazy’s 2010 best seller, Free-Range Kids, have risen in defense of  unstructured ‘free play’ as a critical component in the education of healthy, happy and creative children.

RecessBoyRecessSceneThree years ago, in November 2011, a St. Catharines, Ontario, elementary school hit the news by banning balls from recess after a child bystander was hit on the head on the playground. After an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Mathew Taylor, voiced his objections, started a petition, and secured a meeting with the principal, Lockview Public School rescinded the ball ban.  Mathew’s parents, Scott and Angela Taylor, only learned about the protest after the children had booked the meeting with the school principal. Banning balls at recess, in their view, was not only “a bit of an overreaction” but also a symptom of school boards “over-regulating the playground out of fear of lawsuits.”

Today’s school psychologists view the world through a child protection lens and tend to be hyper sensitive to the dangers lurking in and around schools, particularly on the playgrounds.  A recent CBC News report, aired in September 2013, only stoked those fears. “More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, ” CBC reported, “and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up eight per cent between 2007 and 2012.”

Student injuries and accidents are upsetting — and their impact should not be minimized.  Since the 1970s, however, the Safe Playground movement has all but eliminated “Adventure  Playgrounds” and any equipment deemed dangerous, yet the incidence of accidents has remained essentially unchanged. One of Canada’s leading experts on playgrounds, Alex Smith, Founder of PlayGroundology, corroborates this, noting that he cannot recall one serious accident on Halifax’s 400 playgrounds over the past five years.

Public concern about children’s health and safety, according to British child health researcher Tim Gill, does not reflect the real level of risk. In his 2007 book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, Gill points out that children are no more likely to be abducted or murdered than they were 30 years ago.  In 1971, some four out of five British kids aged 7 or 8 years walked or biked to school on their own; today fewer than one in ten do so.  Fear of being sued, he concedes, is a much bigger factor affecting the policies of school districts and providers of facilities for children.

School recess has been significantly eroded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s and particularly so in the past two decades, school districts in the U.S. and Britain have reduced or eliminated recess time in order to allow for more instructional time.  Children have lost about 12 hours a week of free time, including a 25% reduction in play time and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. In 2011, a U.S. study reported that only 57% of  school districts required regularly scheduled recess and some 40% of districts were either eliminating recess or considering such action.

Crusaders for “Free-Range Kids” such as American journalist Hanna Rosin do tend to wear ‘rose-coloured-glasses’ when it comes to minimizing the risks to children in completely unstructured free play environments.  More sensible child’s play advocates, like Megan Rosker, who campaigned to restore recess at her local Redington Shores, Florida school, see the need for some limits on “unstructured play” at elementary schools. “We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach, ” she wrote  in November 2014, where “kids are receiving … free play, devoid of screen time,” and also “a lot of form and structure in their day” to enable them to go on to inventive, satisfying and  productive lives.

New research initiated by Brock University’s Dr. Lauren McNamara and generated by her “Recess Project” holds promise for breaking the impasse.  Her three year study from 2011 to 2014 demonstrated that most of today’s children have “forgotten how to play,” particularly outdoors.  While McNamara and her research team see the need for “free time” in a world where kids are highly programmed, they claim that there is a critical need to “re-teach kids” how to play, particularly during regular recess times.  Based upon local Niagara Region case studies, they show how activity levels soar and fighting subsides when new playground equipment is added and yard supervisors or junior leaders provide guidance to promote physical exercise, active engagement, and fair play among the kids.

Achieving the right balance is not as easy as outside experts might expect.  The Peel Region recess program, Playground Activity Leaders in Schools Program (PALS), initiated by a Toronto region health authority and touted by McNamara, is an attempt to move in that direction.  With a deft and diplomatic approach, it shows promise for reducing the incidence of bullying and inappropriate behaviour and increasing levels of physical activity, particularly among kids from grades 5 to 8.  Under certain types of administrative direction, it will quickly devolve into adults or their young surrogates “micromanaging recess.”

School recess is now under closer scrutiny and social psychologists are at work to either revamp “free play” or to eliminate the “free break time” altogether.  What is threatening recess in Canadian, British, and American schools?  Is unstructured free play for children endangered in today’s risk-averse society?  Is it possible to reform school recess to strike a balance between freedom and purposeful form?

 

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