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In Search of Wanderlust

In response to Air Traffic Controller II, one parent wrote:

During holiday breaks such as Christmas or summer, many children will be home for a month or longer. Some parents will insist they stay i doors—not wander to parks or through the neighborhood—without adults. This can lead to a lot of computer time or time with babysitters—even for the thirteen and up crowd while parents work, as most don’t get the whole month off. Some parents will pile on structured activities—such as day sports camps for a week or other “structured” activities to keep them busy as no parent that I know of feels it’s acceptable for kids to wander at all anymore.

Yes, the world has changed. It does seem that there has been a serious reduction in safe wandering space, although it may be that this restriction has always been the challenge of raising children in a city. So many adults I speak with, even those born in the 1980s, all look back nostalgically on their childhoods as times of freedom. It seems the closing of the frontier (if that indeed is what it is) occurred very recently. One thirty-year-old parent said yesterday: “Whatever happened to sitting in the basement, playing cards, and drinking Kool-Aid?” It makes me wonder if the literal loss of wandering space is the real issue.

In the thirty-four years I have been a principal, I have seen the continuous increase in the amount of organized, supervised activities imprinted with ADULT. Most disturbingly, this occurs in school as well as out. Teachers think it is more important for the class to stay in their seats and practice sums than to play together on the playground.

To be sure, training children to multiply two numbers and to dribble a soccer ball is equally important. To grow up successfully in this culture (in any culture for the last 40,000 years), children need the adults to show them how to do things. They need to be taught the disciplines of everything from grammar, to dancing, to brushing their teeth, to washing dishes. Freedom from adults is not a value.

At the same time, freedom to play, to imagine, to roam through their minds as well as the world, to make decisions and mistakes on their own, this is of enormous value. It is essential, not only for success in most pursuits, but also for a sense of well-being, wholeness, and confidence. Children’s minds need to wander at least as much as their bodies. Emily Dickenson’s body may not have wandered much, but her mind sure did.

Kids need it all: alone time, involvement with adults, and involvement with other children. The important thing is the quality of that involvement. We need to choose vacation camps carefully with a balance of supervised and free play in a rich environment. We should discuss boundaries and values with parents with whom we plan playdates—the same with friendly neighbors. We need to instruct baby sitters in the importance of letting kids self-direct their way through the day within clear and strongly defended boundaries. For instance, if you have a no TV rule until homework is finished, or if you have a computer time limit, of course your sitter needs to uphold these rules. Those who care for our children need to be instructed not to abdicate the role of adult authority.

So safety aside, one mom asked: “What if your child goes over to a friend’s house or you leave them with a baby sitter and they spend all their time playing computer games or watching TV? How bad is that?” The answer is, not too bad. Many of us have watched plenty of TV and gone on to be successful, happy people. Electronic games have been around long enough for them to be studied, and there is some evidence that they might even be better for brain development in some ways than reading.

In a recent New Yorker review of Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Malcolm Gladwell identifies a number of educational objectives. All of these need to be kept in mind when parents and teachers are considering the activities of our children with an eye to their optimal development: delayed gratification, second-guessing, social dexterity, and monitoring the emotional lives of the people around us—tracking subtle shifts in intonation and gesture and facial expression, exploring and sorting through hypotheses in order to make sense of the environment, having to figure out what to do in ambiguous situations, having a set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed. He points out that all of these needs can be met in part by electronic games, reality shows, and recess. And I would add playing cards and just plain hanging out.

Gladwell’s thoughts do not necessarily mean a very young child should spend hours online playing games instead of going outside and playing with friends. It does mean that playing an age-appropriate video game for thirty minutes is not necessarily a bad thing. It also is a reminder to try to look at the activities of our children from a child’s point of view, to take a long-term perspective, and to drop the feeling that we have to stamp the imprimatur ADULT on every activity.

The biggest job our brains have is to find order and meaning in the world, and to make decisions that help create that order and meaning. This is a lifelong complex process. Over-simplifying a child’s world is the real danger. In my experience, American schools and homes are increasingly at risk for trying to engineer children’s success. With this goal the adults naturally have to oversimplify the world for their children, and this is where the damage is done. Let them wrestle with the whole complexity of real life: everything from over-stimulation to boredom, and be with them when possible to help them sort things out and talk things out.

I have learned to trust a child’s interest to a large degree (though not entirely). Interest is nature’s way of guiding the child to the activities, friends, and situations that the child needs. Sometimes adults don’t like it and sometimes they don’t understand it, but that is okay. Children have thrived under a vast array of substandard conditions, perhaps because of those conditions.

Last Month’s column: Air Traffic Controller Part II

From the Principal’s Office: Lessons on Learning, Life, and Parenting is published bi-monthly. Each column is written by Rick Ackerly, a distinguished educator with thirty years experience in middle and elementary school education, who is currently the Head of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco.

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