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Why Elementary School Children Need Stress Relievers

Posted by on in School Culture
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My husband, who was a math major in college, received this text from our daughter, who is a veterinarian with strong math skills: "If dad is bored, he can think of a word with uppercase letters that has 5 acute angles, 2 obtuse angles and 5 right angles." This is her third grade daughter's homework. It took my husband twenty minutes to come up with LANE. My daughter also thought of VALVE. But here's the point. It was a child's homework assignment and there was no way she could ever have done it herself.

My fourth-grade granddaughter recently asked me what I was thinking to write for my next blog post. She has strong opinions and great suggestions, so I turned the question back to her, and she told me that even with an excellent and innovative teacher that she loves, it is hard to stay focused on the work all day. She shared that sometimes her orchestra music plays in her head when she is supposed to be listening. Many of her friends need balloons filled with material that makes them squishy or balls of play dough to keep them from feeling bored and frustrated. I think we grownups would call those objects stress relievers. This is for nine-year-olds.

But if we really want to see the state of education and what we have done to our young children in school, let's go back to the beginning. I recently led a discussion for parents whose children will start public school kindergarten this fall. I tried to walk a fine line between reassuring them and making them aware of inappropriate practices so they could advocate for all children, including their own.

I cautioned parents that the latest research supports that kindergarten is definitely the new first grade and its goal was to produce readers, regardless of whether children were developmentally ready or not. In the end, however, I encouraged the parents to attend the kindergarten orientation meeting at their local school to form their own opinions.

A parent who dutifully attended the orientation, even though it was for his second child, declared, "I can say that kindergarten is now the new second grade. Not at all OK. Not at all right. Depressed." Others confirmed his observation. There were no toys or blocks or "make believe" stations. Instead, he saw only words and numbers, despite research that reveals this approach is inappropriate for five-year-olds.

Parents joined him in their dismay not just about kindergarten but over the way our schools treat our young learners all the way through elementary school. They described beautiful playgrounds barely used because children were kept indoors during the 20-minute recess allotted to them. Not too cold, but too icy. And they do get a daily dose of structured P.E., so they get some exercise, right?

The facts that children need to be outside and free to play, develop their own games, learn important social skills, and figure out how to relate to their peers seem beside the point. Research tells us recess is important. Children actually attend better and learn more when given the opportunity to run and socialize. Recess is beneficial to children's physical and mental health. And one 20-minute recess is not nearly enough.

Even when the weather permits the one brief recess the kids in my community get, there are children who are denied this important break in the daily grind that is school these days because they are being punished for a variety of offenses. When a school board member in my community, supported by many parents, suggested a policy that banned withholding recess as a punishment, the blowback was huge. Teachers and administrators and even many school board members hated the idea. What other threat would schools have in their arsenal to punish kids who act out or don't do their homework? Never mind that many of these students are the very ones who need recess the most.

I had hoped this proposal was so innocuous that everyone would agree recess is the right of every child. The only exception that makes sense is to deny recess on a given day to children who endanger themselves or others at recess. That's a logical consequence for inappropriate behavior. Otherwise, there must be a better logical consequence for children who don't complete homework or school work or who act out in class.

Yes, I naively thought this recess-as-a-right policy was so obvious it would be simple to implement it. Then we could move on to draconian lunchroom policies (no talking, wearing winter coats while eating, being told to hurry, etc.) and to homework policies that make sense and are supported by actual research. My bad. We never even got to first base.

Someone involved in the Great Recess Debate jokingly suggested starting a parent group called "Let's Keep Grade School Sane." It's not a bad idea. Maybe our children could stop squeezing their stress balls.

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A version of this appeared in Huffington Post on February 1, 2016

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Laurie has been an early childhood administrator, advocate for children and families, teacher, and community leader for over 30 years. Her passions, aside from her 8 grandchildren, are education (with a focus on including children with special needs), empowering parents and teachers, and creating caring and just school communities. She also blogs for ChicagoNow, Huffington Post and AlterNet. Her work has also been featured in The Washington Post and The Forward. In her pre-blogging life, she was founding director of Warren W. Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois, an innovative developmental early childhood program that includes and celebrates all children.

Laurie's personal experiences as a parent, grandparent, and family member of children with special needs, as well as her years as an educator, school administrator, and community volunteer, have made her an advocate for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves. She writes to empower parents and educators to make their voices heard. She writes to restore developmentally appropriate practices to education. She writes to seek justice for parents and children crushed under the heel of the educational-industrial complex. Laurie's dream is to create caring and inclusive school communities in which all children can learn and thrive outside the box.

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