Playtime's Not Over Yet

Over the weekend, David Elkind wrote an editorial for the New York Times offering his perspective on the recent trend for schools to hire “play coaches” as a way to encourage children to play at recess.

At the end of his editorial, though, Elkind ended with this declaration:

We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be. The question isn’t whether recess coaches are good or bad — they seem to be with us to stay — but whether they help students form the age-old bonds of childhood. To the extent that the coaches focus on play, give children freedom of choice about what they want to do, and stay out of the way as much as possible, they are likely a good influence.

One must wonder, is this somehow a signal of defeat? From a man who’s spent his life arguing for free, child-led play?

Mike Lanza counters Elkind, arguing that “adaptation” simply isn’t the right answer:

It seems to me that Elkind is giving up, appeasing the adults who have been fighting for decades to dominate children’s lives under all sorts of banners like “safety,” “children’s fitness,” “education,” and “moral development.” I don’t think Elkind sympathizes with these folks, but he’s joining with them because he’s given up on trying to beat them.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a similar gesture to Adolph Hitler when he appeased Nazi Germany, acquiescing to their takeover of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in return for Hitler’s worthless promise to stay out of Poland.

Now, of course, no one, including me, would put recess coaches or anyone else who wants to exert more control over children’s lives on a moral plane anywhere near the Nazis. These people have a sincere and valid concern for the welfare of children, and they are doing what they believe is best for them. However, they believe that children need to be under more adult control to develop best. Advocates of “free play” or “unstructured play”* like myself believe that children need to be under less adult control. This is a fundamental disagreement. The stakes are extremely high. The quality of lives of our children today, the course of their future lives, and ultimately, the future of our civilization rests on this issue.

I’ll leave you to read the rest of Lanza's piece for yourself, but don’t miss it. It’s an eloquent manifesto-of-sorts to free play, and a great encouragement and reminder for the free play advocates in the trenches to stay the course. There’s too much at stake; too much to lose to give up now. As Mike argues, “This is no time for appeasement.”

Really Bad Advice: 'Have School on Saturdays So We Can Compete With China'

Former assistant education secretary Chester E. Finn Jr. offers some really bad advice in the Wall Street Journal about how we could improve the American education system:

In the face of budget shortfalls, school districts in many parts of the United States today are moving toward four-day weeks. This is despite evidence that longer school weeks and years can improve academic performance. Schoolchildren in China attend school 41 days a year more than most young Americans —and receive 30% more hours of instruction. Schools in Singapore operate 40 weeks a year. Saturday classes are the norm in Korea and other Asian countries—and Japanese authorities are having second thoughts about their 1998 decision to cease Saturday-morning instruction. This additional time spent learning is one big reason that youngsters from many Asian nations routinely out-score their American counterparts on international tests of science and math. [...]

[N]early every young American needs to learn more than most are learning today, both for the sake of their own prospects and on behalf of the nation’s competitiveness in a shrinking, dog- eat-dog world. Yes, it will disrupt everything from school-bus schedules to family vacations. Yes, it will carry some costs, at least until we eke offsetting savings from the technology-in- education revolution. But even Aristotle might conclude that this is a price worth paying.

Sadly, Finn Jr. has fallen prey to so many misplaced and inherently flawed assumptions in his eloquently-assembled article, and I only wish I had the time to go through them all. A few key points: More of the same kind of education doesn’t get you better results. Our education system is flawed, but not for lack of time our kids spend in school – rather, that our schools are wasting our kids’ natural talent. Another thing: Schooling has never necessarily equaled learning, and a child’s future success isn’t necessarily dependent on their learning classical literature or many of the other things that we still use to compile our definition of “academic performance.” In truth, that phrase – that concept of academic performance – has arguably never been a good indicator of a child’s future success, either personally or economically (which is more often the concern in these Compare-U.S.- Education-to-Other-Countries games).

The simple paradox here, as educator Sir Ken Robinson has written about before and as even business people like Seth Godin and Dan Pink understand, is this: in order to improve our education system and help America “compete”[1] in a global market, the emphasis must be on individual children and how they learn. We have to to stop fretting about the big and instead focus on the small. We have to help our schools be the best they can be for each individual student, enabling them to find out what they’re good at – what their “element” is, as Robinson writes – and then helping them develop that talent. Cookie cutter education doesn’t work anymore. We have to make small change first, with an individual child-centered education, and only then the changes ripple outward and we’ll begin to see a meaningful and real difference at the macro level.

Oddly, the only good point that I see Finn making is one that he interprets completely wrong:

With continuing advances in hardware and software, the boundaries among “learning in school,” “learning in other settings” and “learning on your own” will gradually disappear, with potent implications for time spent learning, which need no longer be confined to the classroom hours stipulated in the teachers’ union (or custodians’ union) contract or the 180-day year prescribed in state law (and, in some jurisdictions, not allowed to start before Labor Day).

It’s absolutely true: there is no meaningful boundary between where learning occurs. If anything, though, that’s a reason to advocate for shortening the school days and years, not to increase them. Hopefully there will be a day when schools, as we know them, are gone forever – replaced with active learning that occurs out in the world, mediated and encouraged by mentors and a child’s community, and facilitated by local learning centers, libraries, personal technology and more.

[1] Whatever that means.

‘Games Have Crept Out and They’re Going Everywhere’

In a presentation about the role of play in business and marketing, Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell notes the increasing popularity of gaming and 'gamification' – and the benefit it may yield for businesses. (An excellent example of this 'gamification' process – the process of turning ordinarily non-play based activities into playful games – is geocaching: "Because it’s cooler to go for a walk in the woods when there’s a treasure chest at the end.")

Watch the full presentation here.