Saturday, March 27, 2010

My best subject used to be recess

David Elkind has a good op-ed piece out today on the loss of unstructured playtime in many schools.
One consequence of these changes is the disappearance of what child-development experts call “the culture of childhood.” This culture, which is to be found all over the world, was best documented in its English-language form by the British folklorists Peter and Iona Opie in the 1950s. They cataloged the songs, riddles, jibes and incantations (“step on a crack, break your mother’s back”) that were passed on by oral tradition. Games like marbles, hopscotch and hide and seek date back hundreds of years. The children of each generation adapted these games to their own circumstances.

Yet this culture has disappeared almost overnight, and not just in America. For example, in the 1970s a Japanese photographer, Keiki Haginoya, undertook what was to be a lifelong project to compile a photo documentary of children’s play on the streets of Tokyo. He gave up the project in 1996, noting that the spontaneous play and laughter that once filled the city’s streets, alleys and vacant lots had utterly vanished.

For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process. They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair.

I have some quibbles with the essay and strong objections to a couple of points but most of what Elkind has to say here is valid and important.

The fundamental assumption of all educational debates needs to be that children are naturally curious and creative, that evolution has programmed them to learn and explore. Strategies that do a good job capitalizing on that curiosity and creativity will be successful and sometimes the best way to do that is to simply get out of the kids' way.

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