I may be beating a long dead horse here but last week the National Endowment for the Arts linked to a NY Times article from their Twitter account asking what people thought. The article in question was about how public schools in NYC were having arts classes during recess. I tweeted in response that I thought it was great, but that when I was a kid, I had art, music AND recess. The title of the article touts the school as being highly rated.
While I am happy these kids are getting some arts exposure, I wonder how it can really be seen as an improvement and a credit to their high rating that they had to do it during recess. It’s a shame that that the only time students can have the experience. It is with some chagrin that I tell the story of my first day in high school where I was trying to figure out when we would be allowed outside for recess. The memory of realizing I wouldn’t be having recess any more still causes a little ache.
I have to wonder, is there really so much more to learn these days that they have to squeeze arts classes and recess out? I know arts get cut for financial reasons, but if a school has the resources to offer it during recess, then they could offer classes as well, right? It has been 30 years since I was in elementary school, but I don’t think there have been that many developments in history, reading, mathematics and science in that time that can’t be covered in the course of all the elementary years of school.
If they have to spend so much additional time teaching and testing material for kids, that must mean those of us in the previous generations fell short of learning all that was required of us, correct? I quake in fear for what it will mean for me when these kids grow up and bring their superior knowledge capacity to bear, pushing me out of my job.
Okay, while it may indeed happen one day that my knowledge will be obsolete compared to younger people, I am fairly certain it won’t all hinge on the differences between what we learned in elementary school. In fact, I may retain my superiority over them simply because of the freedom of recess I enjoyed in elementary school.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan recently had a piece on the Creativity Post about this very topic. (my emphasis)
If you want children to do well in school, give them dedicated time to play, sing, dance, build something out of wood, or whatever their fancy. There is a myth that time spent in these activities is time better spent cramming in more information for all important high stakes tests. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work that way. We each have a finite amount of willpower and when this willpower is exhausted, carrots and sticks are not going to change this fact. Our brains need time for restoration and replenishment. Discover what kids are passionate about and set them free to pursue it. Let me repeat that, set them free. Do not overly structure their recess. Do not overly structure their play time. This is a time for them to recharge their batteries. In return, you will get a greater frequency of creative, curious, critically thinking youngsters. You will get attentive, engaged students.
There is a great NY Times magazine article on the science behind the finite nature of willpower. There is a shorter version of the information on NPR if you don’t have the willpower to read the article. (Though as you will learn, you might be able to get some will power by eating a cookie!)
The more I read about the importance of allowing kids free time, the more I appreciate that my elementary school emphasized self-directed learning. (Albeit under the withering gaze of nuns which I am sure counteracted some of the benefits the freedom afforded.)
It occurs to me that arts people shouldn’t just be advocating for arts in the schools, but the free time to explore and express it. I am sure artistic and creative people are well aware of examples from their own disciplines in which a strict teaching environment has had a stultifying effect on the development and joy of young students. The advocacy can’t simply be about providing arts education if it is bereft of an opportunity to play. If students choose to spend their free time peering down at a cell phone texting their friends, it may be in part because they were never provided the opportunity and encouragement to spend it any way else.