What A Day for a Daydream: Defending Childhood

“Kindergarten is the new first grade” has been our sad mantra for a while now, the outgrowth of education policy that has steadily encroached upon some of the most cherished precincts of childhood.  In this climate, “Play has become a four-letter word,” the opening salvo of  A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool,  a volume by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Laura Berk, and Dorothy Singer.  All of whom have amassed a mountain of evidence that young children need unstructured time for play, under “the gentle guidance of adults,” the better to enhance their learning and readiness for formal schooling.

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Their book, now the age of a preschooler, is, unfortunately, as relevant as ever.  I re-read it recently, not long after making my way through Beverly Falk’s Defending Childhood: Keeping the Promise of Early Education.  In our quest for outcomes for children, we often forget about the ways in which children learn.

There’s been a lot of conversation and hand-wringing about the loss of play in the ECE community. I’ve been an enthusiastic participant, returning to the subject again and again, in search of yet another piece of evidence, another angle, that would bolster the argument.  We’ve long been warned about the “the hurried child,” by everyone from David Elkind to the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose 2007 policy brief lamented the “increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play.”   Yet our frenetic society hurtles forward, at unfathomable  speed, desperately seeking outcomes, the holy grail of standards-based education reform. Their warnings seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

My musings, frankly, have gone beyond play.  What I mourn, perhaps even more, is the loss of time to do nothing.  Ah, boredom, and its endlessly rich products: now there’s a radical notion.  How envious I am of the Finns, who allow even their youngest children down time, alone, just to be.  So I was especially pleased to find more evidence along these lines courtesy of Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Report, which lands weekly in my inbox.  Apparently, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a USC professor who scans brains in rest and relaxation, has discovered that our minds are quite productive, indeed, during so-called down time.  When we tune inward—daydreaming, remembering, reflecting—rather than outward, to the world’s myriad distractions, our introspection allows us to make meaning of the external world, and to consider the more abstract, moral and emotional implications of our actions.  An experience that is becoming obsolete, as Paul notes:

All of us—but young people especially—may have fewer opportunities these days to exercise the vital capacity of introspection.  Immordino-Yang fingers two culprits: educational practices that demand constant attentiveness, even from young children, and a hyper-connected world that insistently draws attention away from the world inside.

Given the way things are going, all of the above is hardly reassuring, but I’m such a sucker for the phrase “the vital capacity of introspection.”  And don’t you love the echoes of Vygotsky’s theory of moral development? And how can we not celebrate  neuroscience?  Once again, the brain researchers are leading the way, defending childhood against the inexorable forces that are altering human development in profound, and scary, ways.

Caption: A still photograph from Spirit Ship, a short film by Kristin B. Eno

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1 comment to What a Day for a Daydream: Defending Childhood

  • Fabulous post, Susan! I, too, mourn the loss of downtime and devoted quite a bit of attention to it in my book for parents (A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child). Alas, it’s been read by few!

    Blessings to Annie Murphy Paul, and to neuroscience, for bringing us the “evidence” we need. Now if someone other than us would start paying attention, things might actually start changing for the better. As I’m fond of saying, Mother Nature gave us everything we need; we’re just doing a heck of a job of thumbing our noses at her…and the children are paying the price.

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