Free the children

While attending fourth and fifth grade at  Catholic School’ Holy Family, I found school lessons to be much different than they are today. After walking to school, almost two miles, (uphill both ways of course) I found the sisters to be disciplinarians and, without hesitation, to hand out a whack across the knuckles for not doing your work or staying quiet in class.

As a 10 year old, you are at the most impressionable time of your life, and lessons and memories of those times remain for a lifetime. Your education in fourth and fifth grades can determine your interest in education for the rest of your school days.

But while class time was quiet and organized for me at Holy Family, we had three recesses; 15 minutes in the morning, time left after lunch, and an afternoon break as well. I believe that these breaks were an important time to blow off a little steam. And, from what I remember, public schools had similar breaks during the day.   

Christine Gross-Loh, in her book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us wrote,“…frazzled American families in isolated suburbs could use immediately, short of enrolling their children in a Swedish forest school. Nonetheless, this is a strong survey of such well-chosen topics as where babies sleep, materialism, eating habits, self-esteem, unstructured time, kindness, chores, education and independence.”

Gross-Loh’s recurring theme is that American parents, who experience more angst and judgment than those abroad, instill their children with plenty of individualism and tolerance but not enough empathy or individualism.

Gross-Loh’s surveyed such things as where babies sleep, materialism, eating habits, self-esteem, unstructured time, kindness, chores, education and independence. The recurring theme is that “American parents can unintentually, because of media propagated fear, be overprotective and overly concerned with their children’s educational achievment, instilling stress in their child. And, SOLs don’t help either.

Cosby High School ranks 23 out of 131 school districts in Virginia; Midlothian High makes the U.S. News best schools in the state at 28. The rest of Chesterfield’s high schools didn’t make the 2013 list.

A 2009 study found that U.S. students ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science, behind nations like China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Finland.

Rankings like these have groups like StudentsFirst, headed by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, concerned and calling for reforms to “our education system [that] can’t compete with the rest of the world.”

“Much of the reason is that children are over protected in educational institutions in the U.S. and this stems from our hyper-litigious society,” Gross-Loh said. “The reason a small child can not pick up a stick, or be left unsupervised to sort out conflicts with his or her peers is that if it doesn’t go well, or some minor injury occurs, the school may get sued. We hem children not to control them, so much as to control institutional liability.”

But only a change in litigation practices and a different approach to playtime at school and at home can possibly make a difference, make a more relaxed student and increase their self esteem and independence.  

Ellen Hansen Sandseter, a Norwegian researcher at Queen Maud University in Norway, has found in her research, “that the relaxed approach to risk-taking and safety actually keeps our children safer by honing their judgment about what they’re capable of. Children are drawn to the things we parents fear: high places, water, wandering far away, dangerous sharp tools,” she says. “Our instinct is to keep them safe by childproofing their lives. But the most important safety protection you can give a child is to let them take [some] risks.”

Consider the facts to back up her claims: In Sweden, children are given ample freedom to explore, while at the same time benefitting from comprehensive laws that protect their rights and safety, and Sweden has the lowest rate of child injury in the world.

“Children in Finland go outside to play frequently all day long,” Sandseter says. “How can you teach when the children are going outside every 45 minutes? A recent American Fulbright grant recipient in Finland, who was astonished by how little time the Finns were spending in school, inquired curiously of a teacher at one of the schools she visited.

The teacher in turn was astonished by the question, Sandseter says, “I could not teach unless the children went outside every 45 minutes!”

The Finnish model of education includes a late start to academics (children do not begin any formal academics until they are 7 years old), frequent breaks for outdoor time, shorter school hours and more variety of classes than in the US. Equity, not high achievement, is the guiding principle of the Finnish educational system, according to Sandseter.

Sandseter says, “While we in America preach the mantra of early intervention, shave time off recess to teach more formal academics and cut funding to non-academic subjects like art and music; Finnish educators emphasize that learning art, music, home economics and life skills is essential.”

American school children score in the middle of the pile internationally in achievement, especially in science and mathematics. Finnish children, with their broken-up time in school, frequently rank among the best in the world.  

I believe a little more freedom might help. Media is the scariest thing out there. Kidnapping, according to the I Care Foundatiom is typically perpetrated by a parent. And in another statistic, pedophilia is usually perpetrated by someone the child knows. Carefully freeing our children may be the best thing for bringing their grades up and providing them with a less stressful future.


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