Tag Archives: play

Advocating for Play Instead of Homework

I know, I know. Why am I bringing up school? Many of your kids are already in summer break and homework is the last thing on your mind. You are slathering on sunscreen, visiting pools, taking hikes and occasionally begging your children for some quiet. In Seattle, it is gray and raining. I still have two weeks before Thing 1 and Thing 2 turn our house into a Lego tornado. Summer feels eerily distant.

Since we are wrapping up a school year that has taken a bit of the sparkle out of my oldest son’s eyes, despite our great efforts to protect his passion for learning, I have been contemplating the effects of different educational models on children. Today, I’m tackling the homework conundrum. If that’s not on your mind, file this away for fall.

A friend of mine recently linked to this post, The Homework I Wish I My Child Brought Home From School. I read it in complete agreement with desired after school activities like going outside, reading, making things, etc.., but was saddened that the author seemed to think homework for a six year old was non-negotiable.

It’s should all be negotiable. If it’s not, a gigantic red flag is waving.

Since we entered public school as a trial, I did not feel captive by the system. This certainly helped me feel more empowered to question certain practices, like homework. We enrolled our oldest in public school for first grade after homeschooling him for Kindergarten to avoid full-day K (which was required by our neighborhood school). We sent him there knowing that if his needs weren’t being met or the environment wasn’t nurturing, that we would advocate for change and pull him out if that was unsuccessful. Knowing whether those things were true would require observation, an active presence in the school, and a careful tuning in to my son’s spirit.

We did not enroll our child in school to watch him become imprisoned by it. To watch passions fade. To watch him rush to complete meaningless homework as quickly as possible so that he could finally play. To watch self-esteem become dependent on external rewards, like a special treat for being fastest or having the fewest mistakes. To watch him pay attention to the number of pages read or the minutes spent in a book, instead of the story and content.

We were not going to passively observe as school requested that hours of my child’s life be spent completing rote, meaningless tasks. Fortunately, his first grade teachers maintained developmental perspectives, engaging activities and reasonable expectations, so little advocating was required. “We don’t send home reading logs because we trust you to read with your child on a regular basis.” What a breath of fresh air.

Second grade was different. The teachers wanted weekly reading logs, lengthy homework assignments that were nothing but worksheets, with little problem solving or creativity required. After a day filled with over-the-top rules, structure and rote learning, I refused to force him to do more of the same. It was play time! So, I wrote emails. (I would’ve preferred to talk with his teachers in person, but sadly, that is a rare opportunity that often takes too long to schedule.)

My email to the English teacher went something like this:

“BookWorm is a fantastic reader and currently spends hours reading a wide range of books from different genres. I fear that focusing on filling in a reading log could change his passion into an obligation. He currently gets lost in books and does not think about time nor pages read. I don’t want to take the risk that this would change by making reading “homework.”

Thank you for your understanding as to why we won’t be completing reading logs this year. Please feel free to contact me with questions or concerns. Also, of course, if there’s an alternate motivation or purpose beyond encouraging time with books, please let me know.”

She replied that she would love to know his books of interest, so if we could fill one out on occasion for that purpose, she’d be thrilled. Understood and done. Easy as that.

For spelling homework, I wrote a similar email. My boy was happy to just take the spelling tests, miss a few words here and there, and learn those as needed. For the rare word or two he’d actually learn every few months through homework, it wasn’t worth his time.

Another email was written after a few weeks of noticing how ridiculous his Spanish/math/science homework packet was.

“You have probably noticed that Minecraft Man is not completing his homework often anymore. We are completely on board with this and frequently encouraging it. I understand that many children may be learning from their homework, or need the repetition, but since Minecraft Man doesn’t benefit much from it, we’re spending time at home in other ways.”

I continued to explain that we would be happy to do projects or more creative work if that was assigned. (In my opinion, Minecraft is better than the homework that was sent this year. At least he needs to use higher-level thinking skills, like planning and organizing prior to building something.)

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After school umbrella shenanigans. They were singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and trying to fly when I took this shot.

Now, my boy is very strong academically. He isn’t struggling in any subjects. The teachers might have pushed back more otherwise. But, even then, I would’ve countered that I don’t think homework is the answer unless it is the RIGHT work. The homework that came home with my son this year would not have been the most effective way to help him.

If he experienced difficulties in math, I would’ve worked with him conceptually through games or other interactive instruction, not forced more worksheets his way. If he struggled with reading, we would’ve broken down reading into it’s basic parts, worked on the areas of struggle and then pieced it back together. If he struggled with handwriting, I would’ve fostered his love of story-telling by letting him dictate stories while I typed or wrote. We would tackle handwriting separately, as a motor act, not a language one.

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Board games are a great way to build various cognitive skills. Building early addition skills? Roll and count dice a lot while playing a game! (Those words were not planted! Hilariously perfect, though.)

Anyone can be an advocate for their child. It all starts with one question: What is best for my child? Advocacy work takes courage, but that courage is easy to muster when we think about our children’s long term health. It takes active communication, dedication and a willingness to stick our necks out. I rarely enjoy being an oddball parent, but I’m accepting of that role. Changing the system to eventually honor all kids is going to take masses of parents opt-outing out of what’s not beneficial, so that instead we can step into healthy, holistic child development.

My background and training takes me to places of questioning practices, while also lending me more confidence with sharing my opinions. But, I think most parents know deep in their gut if something’s wrong. Pay attention to those feelings. If you need a support staff to know what questions to ask or how to speak up, ask friends with similar educational philosophies. Seek out educational resources that honor child development, healthy families and passionate learning. Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools is my latest love.

I have never heard of a single study that concludes homework is beneficial for children in elementary school. (If you find one, please send it to me.) Many private schools honor this research. I think they feel secure implementing no homework policies because they are not operating out of the fear that they will lose their funding. Kids in those schools, especially the younger elementary crew, rarely get homework. When they do, it’s usually creative, interactive and something students can take pride in making. We’re not talking about worksheets that only require regurgitation of memorized facts.

If you need an academic-related reason to give homework the boot, there are plenty. Executive functioning skills, including planning, organizing and problem solving, depend on solid development of early play skills. Their foundation is built through the back and forth decisions that get made in imaginary play and loosely structured games. Planning new scenarios, dealing with the problems that arise and flexible shifting gears to accommodate requests are critical for development. Just as important as math and reading, maybe even moreso. Imaginary play isn’t just magical for the kids. It is magic, people. It is what little brains need.

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This happens plenty at our house. Probably an hour a day. We’re ok with that.

 

 

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Demands and Capacities

C. Woodruff Starkweather was a professor at Temple University, well known by speech-language pathologists for his contributions to the field of Fluency. His Demands and Capacities Model (DCM) is studied by graduate students during their first Fluency course. It states that “Stuttering results when demands for fluency from the child’s social environment exceed the child’s cognitive, linguistic, motor, or emotional capacities for fluent speech.” Basically, a child is more likely to have stuttering moments (be dysfluent) as the demands on the rest of their system increase. While more complicated than I will share here, this model has served an important guide for various treatment models.

I would argue that the foundational theory behind the DCM can apply to just about every aspect of development. I worked at a clinic with kids with language-based learning disorders and attention regulation problems (ADD/ADHD). If a child had difficulty with handwriting but we were working on spelling skills, I eliminated the handwriting demands by writing the words myself or allowing them to use block letters, so they could purely focus on spelling. If a child needed to work on their narrative structure but writing or spelling was difficult, I’d encourage verbal dictation first. Little, focused steps to build a skill allowed for a taste of success and solid long-term mastery of the core skills.

What I had never thought of until this fall was that the model was a way to think about mental health, too. Unless you’re my mom, who probably checks my blog almost weekly because she’ll always be my biggest fan and, maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t know about RSS feeds, you may or may not have noticed that I haven’t written in a while. My last post was in early September and it took more out of me to get that written than anyone would’ve expected from the length or quality of the writing. I’m not sure I even edited it more than once or twice before I posted. Ahem. There was more going on than just troubles with my previous web host. It was a rough couple of months for our family.

My husband has worked contract jobs for two years and having some time between contracts is now a normal part of our life. We plan for it. We save to make sure we can handle longer breaks than we anticipate. We have chosen this somewhat unpredictable, risky lifestyle because it gives us an amazing family life and we are much happier with flexibility. Our family sits down and eats breakfast together around 8 and shares dinner by 5:30 or 6 almost every day. Our boys are usually in bed by 7:30 and sleep through most nights for 11-12 hours. We are well rested and have a pretty low stress schedule and environment. My husband can see our boys during little breaks throughout the day or help out immediately when something more serious happens. My youngest gets a post-nap hug from his papa. I bring lunch and treats to his “office” (a tight corner of our bedroom with a standing desk) on a regular basis. He loves it. We love it. We learned that we really can’t put a price on how precious these extra moments are for all of us.

But, we spent several months wondering, followed by several weeks seriously believing that this was going to go away. Various jobs fell through, things were not moving as fast as we’d hoped, and we had to consider several jobs that involved a commute over Lake Washington, complete with its lovely bridge traffic that sometimes makes the journey 2 hours long. Before these jobs were on the table, our considerations included even harder scenarios for us.

I chose to homeschool our oldest for kindergarten when a contract was steady, income was fine, and it looked promising that I could set up a regular babysitter or go to a gym on occasion so that I’d also get a break to catch up with friends, write or exercise. I figured I could handle the extra demands on me because I’d also have these moments. When it looked like all of these things could be stripped away, on top of unexpected difficulties with several relationships and the absence of a stable spiritual community (which we’ve had in the past), I hit a wall. The few weeks of unexpected anger and depression were the toughest mental health period I’ve faced, apart from when I had massive sleep deprivation for months during Miles’ first year.

I am very aware that for many (most of the world, probably) these problems would be very minor and happily traded. We were fine financially; we weren’t worrying about food, shelter, health, or safety. I spent part of today fighting streams of tears while listening to a woman share stories of her life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A place where the LRA steals children to make them fight gruesome wars and where malaria kills babies and young children. A place where having a mosquito net could make the difference in my children living or not.

We all have a different capacity to handle different problems. Some of us are better at handling physical stress, others emotional. I’d surmise that our capacity is made from a mixed bag of neurology, genes, life experiences and beliefs, health, sleep, nutrition, education, family and community support. I am trying my best to really listen to people’s struggles with open-minded sympathy, no matter what they are. This includes my children, whose biggest problem might be that their sibling wants the exact marble that they’re holding, even though there are ten others to choose from. They might even hit each other over this problem. They don’t have perspective, but me telling them how ridiculous they are isn’t going to help them gain it, either. I have to listen and let them know that their problems matter to me, no matter how silly I might feel they are. What’s hard is hard.

This is one of those delicate balances in life. There are always people with harder problems. There are always people whose problems make us green with envy. What is it that allows two people on opposite ends of any spectrum to be able to relate? I think it’s part sympathy. It’s also understanding. The understanding that money doesn’t buy happiness. That a big house can be very lonely. That the stress of seeing a sick child unable to get the medicine they need is unlike anything I have experienced, but I can imagine the trauma and desperation. I can shed tears with those parents.

Yet, it’s still totally acceptable to go home to a healthy child and feel upset with them, once again, for failing to take their muddy shoes off before walking on the white carpet. There is no hierarchy of struggles that makes one person’s challenges less worthy of sympathy than another’s. We all have a different capacity to handle challenges.

Now that I see how the DCM applies to mental health and most aspects of development, it’s just so simple and obvious to me. I love that. This means I easily reference my mental health version of the model as I try to practice better self-care while also caring for my family. When the demands on my system are too high, I can no longer handle situations with logic or reason. I might also experience anger or depression. I see this in my kids, too. If they’re tired or hungry, it’s ridiculous to demand much of them. We’ve got to take care of the basics first. Maslow wasn’t kidding around with his hierarchy. But the one need I think is easy to forget, and so incredibly important? Play.

In the craziest two weeks of job interviews and offers my husband has ever had, the one we’d hoped for all along came through at the very last minute. He got his previous contract back, allowing us to settle back into our beautiful routine. There was some screaming and dancing going on in our household. We did even more serious celebrating by taking our first ever family vacation. (Our first for just the four of us; we’re lucky enough to also have had a few with family and a weekend away with friends.) We snagged three nights away in Washington’s gorgeous San Juan Islands. It was amazing–orca pods swam by us one morning, we flew kites, explored tidepools, and wandered trails. Peaceful play for two whole days.

I have got to make sure, especially when demands increase, to allow myself greater capacity. For me, this means making sure I laugh and play with my family, spend time with close friends, exercise regularly, eat well, sleep solid and get some quiet time to myself. Breathing space. If the demands can be limited, by all means, I must do so! I need to be careful about time with people who drain me. We can eat simpler meals, hire a babysitter if it’s in the budget, and have an awesome hour or two of pretending to be superheroes or animals instead of working on academics, because, my goodness, the kid is five.

So, we’re getting into a groove with our kindergarten homeschooling, working in our official academics here and there. Reading books while Miles is awake, doing the heavier concentration tasks and messy art projects while he’s asleep, learning new ideas all day long, and playing a lot. And it feels really good. We even have a babysitter coming once a week so that I can get a few hours to myself. I might even write on a regular basis! I think we’ve hit our rhythm for a bit and my whole system is benefitting from a deep breath of gratitude.

P.S. I think you know this, but I don’t at all intend to communicate that all bouts of mental illness can be curbed by simply changing our environmental demands. I believe in the genetic / biological / chemical component of many mental illnesses. I know that treatment, both therapeutic and pharmaceutical, are often necessary. This was my only little bout with depression, thankfully just a taste of what some people experience, and I was able to get through it with the help of my husband, a few very special friends, extra rest and care, and a couple answered prayers that surprised the heck out of me and brought me great hope.