Have you seen photos of the Google offices on the Internet? Did you feel a pang of envy? Beanbags, scooters, pool tables, putting greens, bright bold colors, sometimes even a slide. If you didn’t know any better, you probably thought you were looking at pictures of an upscale preschool.
I tell you what I thought.
Honestly, my first reaction was one of slight anger and annoyance. Why? Because, as a former preschool teacher, elementary teacher and childcare director, I have always believed in the power of play. As a mother of three I make sure my children have enough time to play in their busy 21st century schedule. I require them to play without screens or any form of digital technology and, if possible, outside.
Seeing the photos of the colorful offices made me annoyed in the sense that we seem do it all wrong: we are taking away play from our children and once they suffered through about seventeen years of schooling, we have to teach them how to play again in order to come up with creative ideas needed in offices like Google and Facebook, Dreamhost and Redbull.
I am all for Early Childhood Education, but not as a tool to start pumping children full of academic facts, subject them to a whole arsenal of tests and making them ‘mind’ starting at three years old.
I am convinced that children need to learn social concepts, like sharing and empathy, and they will learn this better when in a group. They will need to discover the world around them, feel, smell, taste, hear different things and learn about materials through their different senses. They will need to develop sense of space and belonging, and that generally works better in a group.
If this ‘group’ (also called Preschool or Childcare center) can accommodate all these things, the children will greatly benefit from attending.
However, and herein lays the danger, more and more parents are expecting that their children ‘learn’ things in the facility where they pay good money for. And it is hard to convince the parents that their children indeed learn a lot on a daily basis if they don’t bring home a worksheet, a picture, a piece of artwork they created.
How sad it is that we, as the educators, have to mass produce artwork in order to satisfy the parents? We have to decorate our classrooms with letters and words, so we can prove that we are taking literacy serious, we have to have numbers on the wall so we can show off math skills.
It starts so early: we don’t have time to sit with baby, so we invent ‘entertainers’: brightly colored toy stations with all kinds of features:
Plant baby in the corner in his entertainer and the rest will go on its own. This toy is meant for babies from 4 months to a year. Think about how much we can ‘teach’ baby without us even interfering: animal sounds, ‘learning activities’ in no doubt an annoying mechanical sounds that will have a cheery undertone: ‘let’s count: 1 2 3!’
Can you blame children for having a short attention span? They don’t know any better: ever since they were born they have become used to being entertained with noises, voices, instant reply actions (press the button and light come on, ‘accidentally’ kick the play thing and cows start mooing, or a monkey start giggling and a colorful ball goes up in the palm tree; the more baby bounces, the harder the plastic kangaroo jumps up and down making funny noises or lighting up everything along the way.)
And when they get to go to Kindergarten and can’t sit still, we will just supply the child with a ‘wobble chair’ or a bicycle desk so the child can move while learning.
If the child still won’t ‘behave’ (as in: sit still and do as been told), we will ‘teach’ him by keeping him inside for recess as a consequence.
More and more is expected of the teacher, who’s sole performance seems to be depended on the test scores of her students. Can you blame her for sacrificing ‘free play’ in order to prepare her students for the upcoming test?
Cut back on recess, so we can ensure (but do we?) that we use all the time for learning, scoring and testing, despite the fact that research has shown us that recess is very important for learning?
And despite the fact that we know teenagers need sleep and are unable to fall asleep before 10pm, we still decide to have this group of kids start school the earliest. A higschool student needs to get up at 6 am in order to catch the 6:40 bus to get to school. Try it: it’s not pretty. Meanwhile your 6-year-old is up and bouncing at 6 am, asking if he can play on the iPad now, ‘cause I have been awake forever and didn’t wake you up!’
Somehow I think we do it all upside down.
Maybe it is time to look at our education system from a different side and take some of the (extended) research more serious. Let’s start by playing.