After a weekend of rain and frigid temperatures closing out a rather chilly May, June opened with glorious sunshine and overall ideal weather for biggest on field day. Post-call and free of work obligation, my initial plan was to get some errands done and a training session completed before joining him for lunch and the end-of-day class cheer competition. In the midst of tidying, however, I received a picture text from a parent who was volunteering at the event.
Upon seeing biggest smiling with delight, playing amongst his friends in the beautiful sunshine, I abandoned my to-do list and headed for the school. My choice was affirmed as I was greeted enthusiastically with happy hugs and was ushered along with excitement to witness the next challenge. Through tug of war, noodle war, limbo, three-legged race, relays and obstacles, there were many terrific moments but best of all was simply witnessing biggest and his classmates, along with the entire student body and staff, outside together. The entirety of the school was moving, laughing, competing, collaborating, participating, encouraging – so many good “-ings.” I was at once exceedingly grateful – for the event and for having the opportunity to attend – and bewildered, wondering:
Why is this reserved for a single day at the end of the year? Why aren’t more learning experiences extended through the great outdoors rather than at desks? Why aren’t movement, competition and collaboration incorporated routinely into learning?
As middlest approaches kindergarten, he has already voiced concern that he is not going to do well sitting at a desk to do work all day in school. Having spent the majority of the past five years in the unique setting of private, bilingual, Montessori-based education, I can appreciate and echo many of his concerns. As I review pictures of the projects he has completed, the trips he has taken, the physical skills he has acquired and life tasks he has learned through his early schooling, I marvel at the teaching opportunities in the everyday and in the opportunity he has had to learn according to his interests in a manner that honors his innate style. While his early learning opportunity has been rare, the associated needs and gains are certainly not exclusive to middlest and have potential, through widespread implementation, to enhance the experience and outcomes with all our young learners.
While coaching biggest and five of his classmates in Destination Imagination (DI) this year, the amazing talents, diversity of expression and varied capabilities of children astonished me. For those unfamiliar, the DI mission is outlined here (taken from their website):
The Destination Imagination program encourages teams of learners to have fun, take risks, focus and frame challenges while incorporating STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the arts and service learning. Our participants learn patience, flexibility, persistence, ethics, respect for others and their ideas, and the collaborative problem solving process.
These mainstays of DI encompass many of the elements I consider to be key measures of school success, most of which are not captured on a worksheet or multiple-choice test. By encouraging cooperative efforts in problem-solving and promoting creativity through collaboration, students are able to draw on their innate abilities, strengthen their weaknesses as they learn from one another and the potential for growth and success is boundless.
I must pause here to note that I do not disrespect or disregard the work of educators in today’s typical classroom environment. Quite the opposite as, having felt the challenges of only one hour each week with a small fraction of a classroom populous during DI, I truly admire their energy, enthusiasm, and endurance. I have also heard their frustration in teaching to the test and inability to meet the needs of all learners secondary to the curricular limitations. Observing in the classroom, I marvel at their ability to command attention, skills in gentle redirection and creative means of engagement. I can only imagine that these proficiencies, if freed from the restrictive boundaries of standard classroom curriculum, would reveal the limitless capacity in all our children.
Underlying these concerns is the rising frequency at which kids are being medicated for ADHD because they have not been successful at staying focused in school. As a physician and parent, I am frustrated and saddened to learn of so many bright, capable, curious individuals who are full of energy and simply not designed to sit quietly at a desk for as many hours as a school day requires. Middlest certainly seems to fit these criteria and I cannot imagine medically modifying his spirit. I do not deny that there are cases in which medication may be necessary and would certainly first evaluate habits including diet and sleep, but am concerned that we are forcing young school children into an environment that is not conducive to their developmental needs, ignoring and often blunting their natural capabilities as we conform them to a rigid set of expectations.
Joining biggest for the in-class wrap-up events on field day, I witnessed the random drawing of a student name for a daily reward. Potential candidates remained in the mix if they had not received a behavior warning for the day and the teacher noted that everyone was eligible on this day and commented that all had done very well while outside. I asked biggest (who happened to win the daily drawing!) if it was more often the case that names were removed and he confirmed that on an average day, multiple names were removed from the drawing. Now, I understand the specialness of the day and, with three at home, appreciate that there are going to be moments when kids need a warning, but also think it far from a coincidence that the students had exemplary behavior with ample energy outlet on the day.
I recognize the extreme challenge of education reform, but if we start small, encouraging our teachers to honor their own innate capabilities to draw out the best in their students and extend them freedom beyond the restrictions of modern curriculum, I bet they’d have a field day with the limitless potential of our children. May we encourage the diverse interests and skills of our children by providing them physical and creative outlets for their energy and embrace imagination as a fundamental component of the entire educational journey, not just an extra-curricular destination.