All schoolwork and no play makes Jack more likely to be depressed
September 19, 2013 9:50 PM   Subscribe

Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, writes about why play is an important part of learning, and also key to good mental health. He believes that American kids are over-structured at home and school, with too much focus on adult-directed activities. He also explores the value of play from an evolutionary perspective, in different cultures around the world.
posted by Joh (57 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Fear for your kids' future begets kids fearful of their future.

Great article. Thanks for posting.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 10:00 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

This parallel with the homework article below it is heartbreaking.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:36 PM on September 19, 2013 [13 favorites]

We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom...

I absolutely love it when i read things I'd already figured out. This is wisdom. I only started reading, and there that is. It's the Big Reason why I oppose year-round schooling. Kids need the huge expanse of time that is summer vacation. It's even a benefit that, when September rolls around, school is a welcome change!

I had also figured out on my own that the mixed-age play we had in our small, tight neighborhood was a HUGE benefit. Our imaginations inspired and fed off each other.

You think "play dates" are going to accomplish as much? You'll raise kids that can't wipe their own noses without an appointment!
posted by Goofyy at 10:37 PM on September 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Terrific stuff.
posted by Coaticass at 10:39 PM on September 19, 2013

That was a really good article. So many good points in it, but I particularly liked the bit about play being part of how children test their own boundaries and figure out their limits: how scared can they get, how do they deal with anger, etc. Combined with the multi-age social group, it's a powerful learning environment with really useful things to learn.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:50 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

He believes that American kids are over-structured at home and school

AMERICAN kids? Holy shit, he oughtta come to Japan, his head would explode!

Article looks good, thanks for posting.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:41 PM on September 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

The long days of summer freedom were the best parts of my childhood. I think I learned more then than during the school year. I would leave in the morning, explore the neighborhood with my friends, go on adventures, go to the video arcade, plumb the depths of the woods, then back home for lunch. Then out to do the same thing until dinner, with a stop at the library for a stack of books to read into the night. It was exactly as the author describes in the article, and it strikes me as incredibly sad that those sorts of experiences aren't being replicated anymore.

Ooh, not to mention flashlight tag and midnight roaming.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 11:49 PM on September 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

The other day I walked past a playground and saw two kids and a parent playing on a see-saw. It was one of the ones with springs underneath it that means the actual movement of the see-saw platforms is restricted. They were kind of bobbing up and down a bit. Then I remembered the see-saws I grew up with (as a child of the 80s) and how they were just a long plank atop a pivot point. Sometimes they would have handles, and sometimes they'd have an old tyre underneath each end as a cushion.

There were SO many options for how you could play with those old see-saws! Let me count the ways...

One person could:
1) Walk from one end to another to find the tipping point.
2) Stand in the middle and direct the movement of the seesaw.
3) Walk out from the middle whilst trying to keep one end from falling to the ground (ie finding a tipping point).

Two people could:
1) If you were the same size you could sit at the ends and see-saw quickly or slowly, gently or roughly, depending on the age and size of the folks involved.
2) If you were different sizes you could find where along the plank each person needed to sit to get a balance.
3) You could jump off and let your friend fall to the ground on the other end of the plank, laughing when they inevitably hurt themselves and then run away. A game of tag might ensue here...

Three or more people could:

Well here we get to the realms of endless options. How can you balance the see-saw with two people on one end and one on the other? How do you arrange those people and where do they sit? How many people can you fit on a see-saw? What if you get a perfect balance on the seesaw and then just one person stands in the middle and moves from the fulcrum side of things?

Seriously, once I remember having at least 12 kids from several families hanging off the see-saw. None of us knew each other. We were just united in play and the demonstration of the laws of physics.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 12:10 AM on September 20, 2013 [35 favorites]

I have read this article 100 times by different authors in different places, and it’s beginning to bore me more than somewhat. From personal observation, I really don’t think that the situation is nearly as dire as these authors make out. We don’t have any massive structure or formal pedagogy to my childrens upbringing, my wife and I are just doing what comes naturally to us, we’re not rebelling or being radical. But our kids, along with all their classmates, have heaps of time for unstructured play. Before school, in recess, after school, when they get home, every weekend, all summer long. When friends visit, when they have sleepovers, at parties.

I would say that the classroom methods this decade are far more free than the rote learning I suffered in the 70s and 80s. There’s a lot more space for creative expression and intuition. And this is just at bog standard state school in Victoria, Australia: no it's not a Steiner school. Yeah so they have structured piano and swimming lessons, but I don’t think a lot of kids do learn the piano when it’s just sitting there in the living room, and even then, creative composition is encouraged by their teacher.

So maybe our crazy little town is just a natural outlier. Or maybe we need to feed the beast of PARENTS ARE DOIN IT RONG.
posted by wilful at 12:14 AM on September 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

Very thought provoking.

As I was reading, I paused to take inventory of some of my own skills, and realized that many of them developed as a direct result of playing, both by myself and with mixed groups of peers. Things like spatial judgement, problem solving, negotiation and leadership skills - these could be described by an adult, but never would have developed without countless hours of self directed play.

I also found the point about there being little to no bullying in hunter-gatherer societies very interesting. It led me to recall how dramatically social dynamics would change when we were playing in our free time.

The politics of the snow fort, for instance, were very democratic - your age or social standing mattered less that your ability to come up with fun ideas or to build kick-ass snow turrets. Leadership roles emerged organically and changed according to the desires of the group. It was important to include people, and not to get too physically or emotionally rough, since physical injury or anything that might induce serious crying or legitimate tattling would result in adult incursion, everyone would have to go home, and the day would be ruined. The older kids looked out for the younger kids,and made sure they had roles to play. There were different teams (after all, you had to have the opposing fort to throw snowballs at) but they were fluid and self determined as well (what with prisoner exchanges and defections and all.)

So from that we learned to work with people who were different than we were, we learned to listen to others and respect their ideas, we learned to compromise, we learned to be empathetic, we developed spatial and motor skills, and we learned that a snow fort just really isn't complete without some kick-ass snow turrets.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:32 AM on September 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

3) You could jump off and let your friend fall to the ground on the other end of the plank, laughing when they inevitably hurt themselves and then run away. A game of tag might ensue here...

OOOH! My butt hurt just reading that.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:34 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I certainly agree with the main premise that children should spend a lot of their time playing and a lot of their time exploring.

But I also think we should keep in mind that our society and civilization is radically different from that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Completely undirected learning (except in very rare cases) is unlikely to produce an engineer or a scientist. It is unlikely to produce people who change the status quo.

One of the major problems I had when we toured a Sudbury school was getting an answer to what I thought was a pretty basic question, 'What do you when kids need to learn something to be productive, active members of society, but don't choose to learn it?'

The example I always use is statistics. A basic, rudimentary knowledge of statistics is important to be an informed voter, to understanding consequences of your actions at more than a gut level, to gain a sound financial future.
Yet, I think you would find a minority of people who study statistics just for interest's sake.

My notion, and this is the method practiced by the preschool we use, is that you give the children options or pathways to take and they themselves get to choose what interests them.
It's key that the choices are varied, you can't have two choices that are essentially the same (' Look, kids, you can practice reading or handwriting!') and younger kids should definitely have the option of just 'doing nothing'.

But overall, yes, children do need to spend a lot of time in cooperative (and single) play wihin mixed groups. Boys and girls, young and old.
Another factor in our choice of preschool: Playtime is staggered so young kids play by themselves, then the older kids come out, they play mixed for a while, then the young kids go in and the older children get time by themselves.
posted by madajb at 1:14 AM on September 20, 2013

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood." - Fred Rogers
posted by ShawnStruck at 2:32 AM on September 20, 2013 [12 favorites]

We had see-saws like Alice's at our elementary school too. Also a massive steel slide that could hold a dozen kids at a time, two sets of monkey bars tall enough that even tall adults hung from them (must have been about 10 feet, seriously, they were enormous, and that's a 5'11" adult memory from when I last visited the playground), three staggered gymnast-type bars, and equally-massive swings with chains and thick rubber seats.

Our favorite game on the see-saws was "bumping". Larger kids graciously offered to send littler ones flying through the wonders of physics: larger kids let the little ones get on, then the big one got on, went down, pushed off hard to offset the little kid's lower weight, and then fell as hard as possible (sometimes with the help of yet another kid pushing down their end), "bumping" when they hit, which sent the little kid flying and giggling ecstatically when they hit the top of the see-saw. Usually they'd hold on, but some of the daredevils wouldn't, on purpose. There were never any injuries, because... we practiced wild gymnastics skills on all the other playground equipment! You learn how to fall.

Then there were the swings. Naturally, we weren't allowed to jump off them. Obviously we did. We figured out on our own that it was dangerous to land on the nearby asphalt patch-slash-basketball court, and preferable to hit the softer sawdust patch in front of it. Physics problem: how to jump from the highest spot possible of an upwards swing, while narrowing your arc enough that you didn't hit the hard asphalt when you came down?

Obviously, you cut your arc by shortening the chain distance! Two ways: roll up the rubber seat so that the chain shortened, or, get a good powerful swing going, and when you wanted to jump, you put your arms up as high as possible and jerked on the chain to shorten it in-flight. This had a similar effect to a see-saw bump, essentially. It also had the dual advantage of being unpredictable by our playground monitors, who had caught on to our chain-rolling ways, and of offering greater velocity. A longer chain means a faster swing, which means a higher jump.

Back to the original problem: it wasn't allowed. How do you get around a wily playground monitor? Again, teamwork! Bonus for management that didn't have any fall guys, and allowed everyone who wanted to jump from the swings to have an equal chance at it. Not all of us wanted to jump, but we all loved seeing people who did. Those who did would agree on how many jumps each of us would do that day yeah I was a jumper, then negotiate with the other kids for playground monitor distractions. Jumpers promised not to make any noise: no "WHEEEEE", no "AAAAH", and if a fall went sideways, "oops, I... rolled... off the swing wrong, ha ha."

I still remember a day my best friend dared me to jump from as high as he could, which was nearly parallel to the top bar (this was a BIG swing). He offered to get the monitor's attention by jumping off low, which was riskier than our usual plan of non-swinging kids performing the distraction. That way, though, he could coach me before he did his coverup jump, by encouraging me up to the heights and giving reassurance on form. We got up swinging to the skies, exhilarating in and of itself, he asked if I were okay, yup, he double-checked I remembered how to choke the chain and jump, yup, we checked on the monitor, who sure enough had come up to us to chastise our careening about, he slowed down and jumped at the bottom, which caused the monitor to turn her back on me, I swung hard up, jerked the chain, shot myself into the air, remember seeing the top swing bar a foot or two below me, very nearly let out a "WWHAAAA", saw the ground approaching fast, POOF and the monitor whirled around to see a wide-eyed 9-year-old girl crouching in the sawdust, breathing hard.

Monitor: "FRAULA!"
Me: "...yes.... ma'am..."
Me, quickly standing up, but wobbling: "...just....a little...!"
Friend: "She was slowing down too, you just didn't see it."
Me: "Yeah!" finally catching my breath.
Friend & I: "We knooow!"
Monitor to others looking: "DID SHE JUMP FROM THE SWINGS?"
Classmate chorus of shrugs, followed by quiet back pats and grins when the coast was clear.

This and the bull story... we also jumped from cliffs into icy rivers, bridges into lakes, rope swings from the top storey of an open barn... never any broken bones, on any kids. No injuries from playground antics. It was walking a fine line, fooling our monitors like we did, but the key was that we understood why the rules were there, and knew we had to be careful contravening them. We knew we could get hurt badly, and that the adults were watching out for us. School sports under the watchful eyes of coaches, on the other hand, accounted for quite a few injuries. Also normal! I had the breath knocked out of me by more than one baseball pitch to the ribs: that's what coaches are for, too, to help you understand that no, you're not dying, keep trying to breathe, it gets better, the pain will subside; and for other injuries, get you to care ASAP. Still, though, thinking about it, the only injury I ever got in a pickup game was playing street football when I was 17. Massive scar down my elbow when I took a dive. And y'know who took care of it? The guy who pushed rather than tagged me. He and another friend cleaned the wound, plucked out all the asphalt bits, then drove me to the nearest hospital just to be sure. (I was fine, and still cherish the 4x1" scar it left.)

Play is life, man. I've done so many things in life with that same honed sense of "this is a risk, have I thought of everything? What help do I need? What happens if it goes sideways? Why exactly am I doing this? Will others potentially be hurt? What unexpected benefits could it have? For me, for others? Do I still want to do this, with all that taken into account? Yes? GO FOR IT. No? Not worth it." I've said "no" to things people thought I was crazy to refuse (job offer at a massive int'l corp with great pay and stability... but they have one of the highest suicide rates of any company). Said "yes" to the same (living in France, freelancing, getting a job with a French company as opposed to an English-speaking one). Fulfillment is accepting your choices in life, being able to deal with curveballs as best you can, and knowing how to make choices and handle the unpredictable can only improve that. Play is essential.
posted by fraula at 2:54 AM on September 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

"But I also think we should keep in mind that our society and civilization is radically different from that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Completely undirected learning (except in very rare cases) is unlikely to produce an engineer or a scientist."

But what is the point of having scientists and engineers in society if not to make the actual daily existence of life and well being better?

If we are living miserable lives for the sake of making our lives better, what have we gained? How many drugs do the scientists need to invent to cure the diseases of the unhealthy and miserable living and working environments we force people into in order to have more scientists?
posted by xarnop at 3:07 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fantastic article, thanks.

"education is children’s responsibility, not something that adults do to them..."

is the sentence that really caught my attention...lots of wisdom in every word there.. the two largest factors in my "education" were running wild during those precious hours when I WASN'T in school, and the local library.

I was lucky, I grew up on the edge of town.. North of our little neighborhood was a HUGE park, then town, south of us was woods, fields, streams, swamps, lakes, all the way to the Ohio border, 40 miles away. As kids we lived outside, fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, mucking through wetlands, learning to identify birds, snakes, insects. We had the ruins of a 1920's era Country Club to our east, building foundations, an abandoned, half full swimming pool. In the park was the remains of an old zoo, including the monkey house.... That structure was an inspiration for us...

The neighborhood was built in the early '50s on the first section of undeveloped land just south of Jackson, Michigan. To the northeast was the southern boundary of "Ella Sharp Park", Ella Sharp had given the land, several hundred acres, to the city to utilize as a park, and much of it had been developed over the years. Rose gardens, baseball fields, picnic areas, all well used by families on a year-round basis. But the best part of "Sharp Park" was along the edge that bordered our neighborhood. That section of the park was little used, overgrown and somewhat forgotten. And in that part, sometime during it's evolution, someone had thought it would be interesting to have a "Monkey Island" within the park.

You've all seen a "Monkey Island", it was one of those massive concrete structures, surrounded by a moat, that they keep the monkeys in at every zoo in the country. And this one was a classic, with entrances, and caves, and cliffs, and ledges, and peaks, and cages, inside there were cages. I can't remember the first time we discovered it, but I'm sure that none of our mothers said "Here, boys, I've got a great place for you to play." Not about "Monkey Island" they didn't, it would have placed about second on their lists of places forbidden to young boys (First place would have gone to the old swimming pool at the abandoned country club, if they had only known about it.)

It sort of seemed like we were the only ones that knew it was there. It was stuck back in a grove of trees in an unused, unmowed section of the park, the amazing thing was that no-one ever told us to "Get out of there, you kids!", or "Don't you kids go near that old 'Monkey Island'.", or "And what were you doing there in the first place?". No-one saw us there, no-one knew we went there, and no-one told us not to go back. So we did. The first visits consisted of standing in the weeds around the outside of the moat, speculating about what this pile of cement was for. Eventually someone found the door, or, where the door should have been but wasn't anymore. Now, the moat was an imposing barrier up to that point, we knew we could get down in, all that involved was sliding down the side, but we weren't sure that our "Keds" had enough traction to get us back up to the top. The door was like an portal into a million fantasies.

Up to our discovery of "Monkey Island" our fantasies had been limited by our environment, up to then when we needed a "cave" we used an old appliance box, and when we needed a "jail" we used the nearest closet. Now we had real caves, and jails, and mountains, and moats, we were no longer limited by reality. As you entered the interior of "Monkey Island" you entered a room about fifteen feet by thirty feet, on the left was a row of three cages with doors opening into the interior, and each had an entrance out to the island. But the best part was not in the original design, someone had discovered the island before we had, and left us a legacy, a hole in the concrete.

Those imposing looking structures at the zoo had always looked like solid concrete, we didn't know until then that those walls were hollow. Even the wall of the moat was hollow, and, once someone had broken through the concrete, we could get "inside" the inside. In mid-Michigan, this was the closest you could get to spelunking, the only other caves we had ever seen we had dug ourselves in the cliff at the gravel pit. Once you entered the hole you encountered a boy sized tunnel leading in both directions. The walls of the tunnel were constructed of one inch thick concrete supported by steel retaining rods. Through the years various "windows" had been broken through the concrete. Except where the entrance hole was the retaining rods were too close together to allow entrance or exit from the tunnels, so once you were in, you were in.

Our first explorations were the most exciting, wherever there was a peak or a ledge there was another branch in the tunnel. Would we get lost? Would we ever find our way out? Those are the questions that drove us deeper and deeper, exploring all the branches, creating monsters and enemies and alternative realities as we went. Over the years "Monkey Island" provided the backdrop for landings at Inchon, the rescuing of stranded maidens, and the defeat of attacking aliens. We found snakes and spiders and bats. We lit fires to watch the smoke rise from the holes, we shot BB guns to see how the pellet would ricochet. And we survived it all, and our imaginations were ignited every time we entered that world. Some of us became educators, some writers, some engineers, but every one of us took that experience into adulthood and it continues to be part of who we are.

As for our mothers, We kept our mouths shut, firmly believing in that old cliche: "What they don't know, won't hurt them."
posted by HuronBob at 3:28 AM on September 20, 2013 [15 favorites]

(BTW learning science is AWESOME and fits completely into a healthy diet of play. Who doesn't want to play with a chemistry kit or with a microscope? Magnets? Create a potato powered light? Of course not everyone but most kids find some of these things at least worth giving a bit of exploring at some point. Structure can be part of play too. A large quantity of kids games and activities do have structure and are still fun and leave room for independent exploration, direction, and enjoyment.)

I absolutely believe in structured learning, but the point is how much time of the day should it take up?

"His father once showed him a pocket compass; Einstein realized that there must be something causing the needle to move, despite the apparent "empty space".[15] As he grew, Einstein built models and mechanical devices for fun and began to show a talent for mathematics"

I'm not saying unstructured play with exposure to science will create genius, but if the entire day is taken up with miserable homework there's isn't time to have enjoyment, which of itself is unfortunate, but there also isn't time to put together learned concepts in new ways, play with them, and create new ideas and understandings based on actual exploration of the concepts because of interest itself. You have to give kids a little bit of space to find out what they are really interested in.

Also I'm not sure how they did it in Einsteins day but apparently they must not be able to produce many scientists or engineers in germany at all. Look at these school hours?!

"School usually starts between 7.30 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. and can finish as early as 12; instruction in lower classes almost always ends before lunch. In higher grades, however, afternoon lessons are very common and periods may have longer gaps without teacher supervision between them."
posted by xarnop at 3:32 AM on September 20, 2013

wilful: I would say that the classroom methods this decade are far more free than the rote learning I suffered in the 70s and 80s. There’s a lot more space for creative expression and intuition.

Yeah, I came in to say this same thing.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:10 AM on September 20, 2013

Very good article.

What I notice is that it doesn't offer anything in the way of solutions. What's the answer for all of us parents who agree with the premise of the article wholeheartedly (and it's not as if we haven't all read some version of it before) but don't really have a mechanism to get around it? For example, I live in a large apartment building with my 5 year old. There are 70 units and only one other kid that she can play with, a 4 year old (the rest are babies). Both sets of parents work full time, so it's not like my childhood where we just rocked over to each other's houses after school to play in the yard. We live on a busy street in the middle of a large city. No yards.

And on and on. Maybe we should focus on some ways to facilitate the play rather than just pointing out that it doesn't happen.
posted by gaspode at 5:34 AM on September 20, 2013

Among the societal differences that reduce free-roaming packs of playing children are that in the 50s and 60s, 2/3 of American households had K-12 children in them, and a large proportion had a stay-at-home mom. Today, only around 1/3 of households have K-12 children, and a majority of children have all available parents working. Housing is also a lot more spread out in more recently-built neighborhoods and subdivisions. (I can't remember exactly the numbers, but it's like 20 units an acre for pre-war single-family houses, 12 units an acre for places built in the 50s and 60s, and 4-6 units an acre for stuff built in the 80s and later.) So for an average kid today, there are far fewer kids in their neighborhood, far fewer parents around to provide the loose supervision that keeps a neighborhood reasonably safe*, and the kids are much more spread out.

*My neighborhood actually has free-roaming packs of elementary-school-aged children, and last year we had a TERRIBLE problem with cars speeding down our quiet, narrow residential street and almost hitting children several times. Our neighborhood school is actually located IN the neighborhood, and some parents who don't live near the school go tearing through the neighborhood at high speed to pick their kids up in the back instead of the front so they miss the pick-up parking in front, in the meantime turning my street into child pinball. All of this escalated to several at-home parents standing on the corners so kids walking home could cross the streets safely, parents standing in the streets physically blocking cars and shouting, repeated calls to the police and city council to get some speed enforcement patrols when school let out, demanding the school smack down the parents, and even calling local pastors to ask them to give sermons on NOT FUCKING RUNNING OVER THEIR CHILDREN'S CLASSMATES. My facebook feed was going berserk with this stuff. My kids are too little to be in the free-roaming packs, but I wouldn't even take my kids on a walk within an hour of school letting out because the cars were SO dangerous. It was terrifying. I certainly took my turns at car-blocking and city-councilman-calling.

Anyway, you need some adults at home when the kids are roaming in packs to keep the neighborhood reasonably kid-friendly and to intervene if the kids' games start getting out of control. And provide popsicles.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:38 AM on September 20, 2013 [12 favorites]

I don't even have kids and this stuff makes me crazy. It seems that kids are basically supposed to have a nearly-adult-length work day, plus several hours more homework on top of it. Scarier still are the kind of suggestions mentioned in the sub-title: longer school days or years.

I'm a professor now, but I hated school. It was, in many ways, the least interesting part of my day. Left to my own devices and a stack of books (a small stack...we weren't a wealthy nor sophisticated family...), I'd learn more and enjoy it. School seemed dreadful and deadening. Perhaps I'm an exception, but I doubt it. School is necessary and good in may ways, of course, but it already isn't really don't its job efficiently. More of the same is not going to help, and may actually hurt by just grinding kids down. If they're not learning much in a 9 month school year, I just doubt that the pain-to-gain ratio of a 12-month school year is going to justify such a move. It's just heartbreaking to me to think of kids senselessly subjected to drudgery.

Surely there must be some compromise between this and free-for-all froofy schools, right? Maybe classes divided up into instruction time and "homework" time?

Speaking for myself, if you wanted me to learn certain material, this would have been the way to do it: tell me: pass these tests at these levels of accomplishment, and then you're done with school for the year. You can just sit outside and read, or walk in the woods or go hang out at the local community college or whatever. I'd have been done by Christmas every year, and probably way sooner.

But, or so I've been told, school as it exists now in America is partially for learning and partially for babysitting kids during the workday. An unhappy combination... And not one that lends itself to the kind of solution I'm envisioning...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:48 AM on September 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Kids aren't the only ones who need playtime. My week feels a little off if I haven't lead a platoon through the chasms of Esamir, dueled at Mt Skullfyre, and wound through the story telling one gets in each game of twilight imperium.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:55 AM on September 20, 2013

"(BTW learning science is AWESOME and fits completely into a healthy diet of play. Who doesn't want to play with a chemistry kit or with a microscope? Magnets? Create a potato powered light? Of course not everyone but most kids find some of these things at least worth giving a bit of exploring at some point. Structure can be part of play too. A large quantity of kids games and activities do have structure and are still fun and leave room for independent exploration, direction, and enjoyment.)"

My work in a laboratory far more closely resembles getting the most awesomeness possible out of a playground than any conceivable classroom workshop, much less memorizing the largest number of facts from a lecture.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:18 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Completely undirected learning (except in very rare cases) is unlikely to produce an engineer or a scientist. It is unlikely to produce people who change the status quo.

No one is talking about doing away with formal education.
posted by spaltavian at 6:34 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

To totally skip (momentarily) all the comments that have been written so far: when I read this article, it really illustrated for me that "enclosure" is the best way to understand capitalism.

What happens is that there is a realm uncontrolled by the market. This can be a physical space, such as indigenous land or a relatively unregulated public space in a city. It can be an intellectual space, like a discourse or a field of study where the barriers to entry are low and self-educated people can participate as equals. It can be a social practice, like play or dating. But basically, it's a realm where capitalist social relations may have an effect but are not paramount - it's a place where you can participate, enjoy and gain status without necessarily having to have money. And it's a place where the rules are not market rules - even if there are bad goals or cruel goals, profit is not the ultimate justification. It's not a utopia and terrible things may even happen there. But it's largely outside the sway of the market.

And then it's enclosed. By violence, threat, state power or physical control, it's wrenched from the control of the participants - who, I emphasize, are not a group of saints, we're not talking about a utopia - and forced to submit to profit logic.

And as the obvious things to enclose get enclosed (that is, now that indigenous lands have been stolen, the seas divided up, the peasant fields given over the the nobility) it becomes ever more important to find new fields to enclose.

Basically, it's about stealing other people's effort.

This is what they mean when they say that property is theft.

You build up something - maybe you're a member of an indigenous society with its own traditions and trade routes and villages and stories; maybe you're someone who is part of an arts community; maybe you're a kid who does regular kid things like playing down by the railroad tracks. And as soon as it comes to the notice of the market, it gets taken away and turned into something regulated from the outside which must turn a profit - maybe a dollar profit, maybe a social profit like "preparing kids for [work] success, maybe a real estate profit like the opportunity to move rich people into your ethnic neighborhood with its little cafes.

But whatever happens, something that was self-governing according to its own rules and needs - even if those were sometimes bad rules and needs - is subsumed in the market.

And that's what happens with play. It's not "oh, kids used to play with sticks and rocks and now they have computers" - that doesn't matter. It's that play gets more and more controlled and rationalized and judged according to its market utility rather than according to a non-market logic.

"Some people are always thinking about buying whatever they're looking at," as Margery Allingham wrote in the fifties.
posted by Frowner at 7:08 AM on September 20, 2013 [22 favorites]

Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you.
This reminds me of the similar distinction between work vs. leisure: one is necessary, unenjoyable and virtuous, while the other is indulgent, purely sensual, and only excusable by suffering an excess of the former. Which is silly as all get out, as his descriptions of "default" playing (as per the evospsych staple of hunter gatherers) indicate.

> Kids aren't the only ones who need playtime. My week feels a little off if I haven't lead a platoon through the chasms of Esamir, dueled at Mt Skullfyre, and wound through the story telling one gets in each game of twilight imperium.

That's not really what the OP's talking about, though.
posted by postcommunism at 7:18 AM on September 20, 2013

No one is talking about doing away with formal education.

Actually, Peter Gray most decidedly is. He has completely embraced radical unschooling, his son attended Sudbury Valley School and has been a staff member there for years.

I'm very conflicted about that place and its outcomes. On the one hand, for kids who have a single-minded passion from an early age, it's ideal because it allows them to immerse themselves in their interest completely and get a head start on their life's work. There are a disproportionate number of mathematicians and scientists among the graduates.

However, if you don't already have a mission, there is not a whole lot in the way of intellectual infrastructure there to broaden the students' awareness. The answer offered by Gray and the philosophical authors of the Sudbury model is that the Internet and a diverse student community will provide all the exposure kids will ever need, but I don't think that's sufficient.

Adults at the school are specifically forbidden from being didactic -- which is a limitation that goes entirely against the hunter-gatherer tradition. In foraging societies, elders do a lot of direct instruction. Sure, maybe there's an absence of coercion, which is extremely important, but there's still a lot of direct teaching: here's how you make this tool, here's how you hunt this thing, here's how you tell whether this plant is the edible one or the poisonous one. There is a huge amount of transmission of necessary, specific information from old to young. If that's not a curriculum, then what is?
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:29 AM on September 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

This year I'm teaching a first/second grade combo class, and I often have to take half the class to another classroom, at least at the beginning of the year. Yesterday I took my second graders to music and told the first graders to find something quiet to do. (They were watched by the teacher next door).

When I came back they had all gotten out their whiteboards and were creating number comparisons (23>12) and other expressions and challenging one another to solve them. They were laughing and being silly, obviously playing. I just watched them for the last half hour of the day and pointed out mistakes when I saw them.
posted by Huck500 at 7:41 AM on September 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

overeducated_alligator, have you seen data or stories from Sudbury that show some kids not doing well with that approach?

I have heard about Sudbury many times, but not seen much in terms of objective evaluation of the results, mostly because I don't know the best place to look.
posted by emjaybee at 7:41 AM on September 20, 2013

overeducated_alligator, have you seen data or stories from Sudbury that show some kids not doing well with that approach?

The problem is one of attribution. There are so many conflicting factors, and the school itself has a troubling tendency to wash their hands of any and all negative outcomes. When kids do well, they show it off as proof of the efficacy of the model, but when students don't do well, excuses abound, such as:

- that's the path the student chose, and we can't judge him/her for it just because it's not what we would have chosen for them
- they spent too much time in traditional school, so their independent desire to learn was permanently destroyed
- their parents put bad expectations on them, so their independent desire to learn was permanently destroyed
- they're pursuing life at their own pace, and perhaps one day they will find success on their own terms

When they say they put the responsibility for becoming educated completely on the student, they really, really mean it.

Another issue is the the surveys of graduates group all forms of post-primary education (community college, trade school, two-year and four-year college) as "higher education." This is technically true, but it's most likely not the information desired by the largely affluent, educated parent population who consider sending their children to a Sudbury school.

So, if an SVS student takes remedial courses at a community college to fill in gaps in their knowledge which were unmet by the Sudbury model, SVS counts that as one of the students who went on to "higher education." I find that misleading, because it's counted as a "success." Now, they will argue that the student was aware enough of his/her own educational needs to seek out that remediation for their own reasons, and that's definitely much better than just going to college because of parental pressure. But you have to appreciate that when you ask SVS about outcomes, their idea of a positive outcome has everything to do with students' self-directedness, and not much to do with students' immediate readiness for four-year college or professional careers.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:54 AM on September 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Frowner: You're on fire today1! Enclosure is absolutely the way to think of this. We're watching the process of primitive accumulation by which childhood is roped into networks of capital exchange.

One thing I'd like to add to the conversation is that, well, there's a lurking sense both in the original article and in most of the posts here that play is something that needs justification; that play is a process of training by which children learn how to navigate social relations, to control and channel their emotions and creativity, and so forth. That play is primarily a means of self-betterment or whatever that we're systematically denying our children.

And, well, yes, it's totally valid to read play as a form of self-betterment, if simply because people who can play a lot become objectively better at life than people who can't. But for myself, I can't stand to think of play in instrumentalized terms like this. Play isn't training for life; play is the point. Play for adults isn't a necessary recovery time between our Serious Activities; play is joy, and even though joy makes us better at what we do, joy nevertheless must be thought of as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. I know that joy will make me a better worker and citizen and person, and that allowing children joy will make them better people and future workers and future citizens — but nevertheless joy itself is the point of life, and not all that other stuff.

1: I've had time for maybe two metafilter threads this morning, but like THREE TIMES today I've found myself thinking "wow, this comment is incredible" while reading it and then "oh, duh, it's frowner" when I got to the name at the bottom.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:54 AM on September 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

> play gets more and more controlled and rationalized and judged according to its market utility rather than according to a non-market logic.

The author even steps into that a bit with:
Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood. Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play’.
Which is equal parts twee and "we will profit by x% more Einsteins."

I understand he's got an audience to convince, though; the bit after that about practicing other people's points of view seems much more to the heart of the matter, but it's harder to present an explicit profit incentive for it.
posted by postcommunism at 7:56 AM on September 20, 2013

Yeah somehow I think we need to rethink how we define profit for society. If "profit" does not include making daily life and human welfare better we've got the whole concept backward. The end goal is people getting to have rewarding enjoyable lives.

Not people being slaves to "profit" as an end goal. Products and services that lead to enrichment, health, fun, creative activities, empowering work, longevity, closer friendships.... these are good thing.

When the whole society is set to "achievement" and "profit" as the end goal, it really starts to make no sense. Achievement AT WHAT? Profits for who?
posted by xarnop at 8:00 AM on September 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

xarnop: stahlhartes Gehäuse.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:05 AM on September 20, 2013

The way he describes the golden age of children's play ~1900-1950 sounds very much like the Soviet Union in the 1980s: *very* unsupervised, unstructured, left to your own devices, free to daydream and try to create your own games, very hunter-gatherer style, often playing in dilapidated construction sites, other nominally off-limits areas, that nobody cares enough to guard (because nothing belongs to anyone)!

Most of play I remember involved: various versions of tag, using DIY blowguns (made from stalks of plants that had empty area inside, using hard berries as ammo), various styles of DIY rubberband, rubberstrip, slingshot, water pistols, building and playing on rafts in water-filled foundation pits -- again, on building sites, climbing shed roofs and jumping between them, jumping off roofs into huge mounds of snow, king-of-the hill on mounds of snow, snowball fights; games with pocketknives (the games were much safer than you'd think since pocketnives were completely dull); in the summer the kids always made fires - in some empty area inside city limits, it's surprising that nobody seemed to mind or care - again, I've always thought there was some connection to the hunter-gatherer days at play.

Unlike the other commenters I've always thought see-saws were completely boring -- but swings were interesting and dangerous because you could jump off them and do the complete overhead circle (which was called 'sunny' because it made the circle just like the sun).
posted by rainy at 8:38 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

> The kids in poor-performing schools are not being deprived of play time when they are in summer
> school or stayingate. I was one of those kids; time outside of school was spent watching tv
> unsupervised (because it wasn't safe to play outside). The summer academic regression is very
> real, and it most profoundly affects the kids who can afford it least.

Is there some plan for 12-month school that does not have the same problem as what you describe? It's hard to imagine TV-watching doing a thing to help summer academic regression.

But if 12-month school is actually going to remediate summer academic regression, how can that be done without keeping the kids' noses to the grindstone 12 months out of 12? Will that not deprive them of quite a lot of unregimented play time compared to the amount they now have in summer breaks?

I honestly don't see how this could work--mechanically, if you follow me. But if it can't, then some way has to be found to enable it for the kids who need it without imposing it on all kids.

School was pure hell for me, not for academic-related reasons. And also for others, as recent threads have made clear. If I had had to look forward from, say, third grade and see nothing ahead of me but bleak, uninterrupted school until I was 18, without even time off for good behavior, I would have made damn sure I got time off for bad behavior.
posted by jfuller at 8:43 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Other factors that contributed to play time: 1. TV was really, really boring. Like, news and statistics about harvests boring most days. 2. Nobody had game systems or computers, except at the very end of the 80s 3. not sure if there was real safety, but there was widespread sense of safety: lots of kids of all ages roaming quite far away from home far into the hours of dark -- and that was in a quite largish city, (although it probably varied a lot by each family).
posted by rainy at 8:53 AM on September 20, 2013

jfuller: But if 12-month school is actually going to remediate summer academic regression, how can that be done without keeping the kids' noses to the grindstone 12 months out of 12?

Year-round schools are working quite well in my area. Most of them operate on a system where kids are in class for 9 weeks and then get a 3 week vacation, and there are 4 of those 9 week terms per grade level.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:54 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The long days of summer freedom were the best parts of my childhood. I think I learned more then than during the school year. I would leave in the morning, explore the neighborhood with my friends, go on adventures, go to the video arcade, plumb the depths of the woods, then back home for lunch. Then out to do the same thing until dinner, with a stop at the library for a stack of books to read into the night. It was exactly as the author describes in the article, and it strikes me as incredibly sad that those sorts of experiences aren't being replicated anymore.
On the other hand, there are some who think that the "long days of summer freedom" are harming poor kids and contributing, at least in a small way, to the performance gap between children from low and high income homes. I have fond memories of summer vacation, too, but I also had access to:
- Air conditioning (so I could comfortably sit at home and read/play with the computer/draw)
- A computer (as a kid, I learned computer skills from hobbyist attempts at writing video games)
- Books (at home, and at the public library)
- A parent who didn't have to work, who could be available to prepare food and provide some supplemental education and facilitate trips to the library or a museum
- Summer camps and sports teams to occupy my time and keep me engaged (which low-income parents might not be able to afford)

On examination, my long summer of unstructured learning wasn't all that unstructured at all. Less structured than the school year, for sure, but I wasn't just playing in the park for three months.
posted by deathpanels at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

No one is talking about doing away with formal education.

I don't know if you've been to a Sudbury school, but it is about as far as I think you could get from 'formal education' in the U.S. and still call it a school.
posted by madajb at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2013

On the other hand evolutionary psychologists are quite often insufficiently constrained by scientific method, experimental rigor and actual data.
posted by srboisvert at 9:06 AM on September 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm as critical of evo-psych as anyone, but I'm happy to see this kind of humanism. First, Pope Frankie, now this. There's a wee tear in me eye.
posted by No Robots at 9:24 AM on September 20, 2013

Play deprivation is bad for all humans, not just children. So is minimizing curiosity.
posted by yoga at 9:48 AM on September 20, 2013

> Year-round schools are working quite well in my area. Most of them operate on a system where
> kids are in class for 9 weeks and then get a 3 week vacation, and there are 4 of those 9 week
> terms per grade level.

Has the system had any effect on summer academic regression yet? Or has it been going on long enough to know?
posted by jfuller at 9:48 AM on September 20, 2013

jfuller: Has the system had any effect on summer academic regression yet? Or has it been going on long enough to know?

I don't know. My understanding is the system was introduced to save resources. With 1/4 of the school on vacation at all times, you can fit more kids into the same buildings. Any effect on academic regression is a bonus, so I don't know that it has been thoroughly studied.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:11 AM on September 20, 2013

I’m an evolutionary psychologist, which means I’m interested in human nature, its relationship to the nature of other animals, and how that nature was shaped by natural selection. I like to privilege extinct ways of life and rationalize my prejudices about human behaviour through appeals to natural selection.

There's a lot of bullshit in this article:

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood. Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play’.

And yet, Einstein completed his education. Why? Maybe because in order to engage in "combinatorial play", it was important to, say, know things. Behind every unschooled visionary evangelizing the latest technological whiz-bang, there's an army of engineers who've been doing three hours of homework every night since they were six. It's a profoundly unappealing reality to people who hate school (as I do), but that's just the way things are. Hunter-gatherer fetishists simply pretend that information and structure don't matter. They're wrong.

Maybe "hunter-gatherers" didn't have to know that much stuff. Or maybe this guy is misrepresenting or misunderstanding the reality of childhood in hunter-gatherer culture. I suspect the latter. I think people like this like to backhandedly paint hunter-gatherer parents as negligent children themselves, and discount the both the discipline that they apply to their children, and the serious, critical work that both children and adults do in those kinds of societies. It's just another portrait of noble savagery dressed up in fake science.

Either way, our times are different. We are adaptable, and it makes no sense that we would use the same life strategies now as we would have in neolithic times. And this begins to get at the reason that evo-psych is garbage. Most likely, the child-rearing strategies we use are adapted to present realities, not hard-wired by natural selection during a particular period in our past. It's culture, not biology. Evo-psych gives this author a convenient excuse for arguing that the world should be a certain way and attributing his argument to physical reality rather than simple prejudice.

In general, I agree that people should let their kids play for the first ten years of their lives, pretty much as I did, but I don't need to fabricate a post-hoc pseudo-scientific framework to justify it. I just remember it as fun an enriching. But as I got older, I began to realize that school wasn't just there to make my life suck. Once I got to University, where the real fun starts, I began to wish that I'd had a bit lot more structure early on.
posted by klanawa at 10:15 AM on September 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Rock Steady: "Year-round schools are working quite well in my area. Most of them operate on a system where kids are in class for 9 weeks and then get a 3 week vacation, and there are 4 of those 9 week terms per grade level."

jfuller: "Has the system had any effect on summer academic regression yet? Or has it been going on long enough to know?"

In most systems, yes. Moreover, middle-class families tend to like the year-round system quite a lot once they're in it. The summer break is usually 5-6 weeks, which is long enough for month-long summer camps for kids who do that sort of thing, or for long family vacations, or whatever. Then the 3-week breaks the rest of the year (or 2 weeks fall and spring and 4 at Christmas, is another popular model) give the kids regular breaks to have 3 weeks of uninterrupted relaxation and free play (if they so choose).

But what starts to happen is, park districts and YMCAs and boy scout troops and whatnot start to fill in the gaps in similar ways to how they fill in the summer with activities. What if instead of a 2-week vacation to the beach in the stifling heat of summer, your family can suddenly do a ski vacation at Christmas? Or Paris in the springtime? Or Civil War battlefields in the fall? What if instead of summer sports camps through the parks department, your kids can do a WINTER sports camp through the same parks department where they cross-country ski and ice skate and snowshoe? Or, suddenly local boy scout troops can take week-long back country trail-repair trips in the springtime before the hiking season opens, instead of battling for summer campground space. The teacher college here runs some really great mini-camps during the fall and spring breaks for our year-round students, where the college students get to practice with children and try out new and fresh teaching ideas for one or two weeks during the college semester. (Similar summer programs are logistically more difficult to put together, and cost more.) Or you can spend hours outside playing in the snow aimlessly instead of playing aimlessly in the sun if that is your thing.

Year-round schooling increases achievement for poor students, and middle-class families suddenly realize that year-round schooling has actually opened up even more options for diverse enrichment opportunities, rather than reducing them, and that their kids are MORE relaxed by having more frequent, shorter breaks than one long summer break where they're bored after six weeks.

Most districts who go to year-round school will start with it as an option (for both students and teachers), and experience shows the families (and teachers) choosing the year-round option tends to increase with time, and very few switch back to a traditional schedule. It won't be suddenly imposed; there will be a lot of time for the infrastructure to support it to grow as people choose it as an option.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:21 AM on September 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've said this on MeFi before, and I'll say it again in this context: why have public school at all if not to provide an educational safety net for poor children?

Yes, it is absolutely true that rich (and upper-middle class, and probably even middle class) families can provide their kids with important, formative childhood experiences during summer vacations and otherwise outside of school. They take their kids to the library and to museums, send them to camp, and even just send them out to entertain themselves by digging in the mud in the backyard or whatever. In fact, it seems pretty clear that children of even moderate means would benefit from more unstructured time during which they could play or participate in enriching activities with their families. We could abolish public schools, refund everyone's property tax money, and it's likely that a majority of American children would get educated just fine.

But we don't do that, and a large part of the reason we don't is that we consider it to be of paramount importance to provide education to kids whose parents couldn't (or occasionally, wouldn't) do so without help. And that means that we create an elaborate educational system that sweeps up 90 percent of American children, including a lot of rich kids who don't "need it," and make kids sit in classes for huge portions of their childhoods. Because we know that a substantial minority of kids' parents work more than full time, and live in neighborhoods where it's not safe to run around and play outside, and can't afford to take their kids to museums or send them to camp.

We sacrifice the rich kids' best interests in order to ensure that poor kids don't get completely shafted. At that point, the question of whether to have year-round school, or how much schoolwork to assign, or whether to encourage kids to join structured activities, is a question of degree, not of kind. And so I think the question we need to ask is, what is the empirical evidence about the difference between 1500 hours per year of school versus 2000 or more hours of school per year for poor kids? For rich kids? And what trade-offs are we as a society willing to make to try to save the former, even at the possible expense of the latter? I don't claim to know the answers to these questions. But it's clear that the answers are much more complicated than simply saying "we're hurting kids by not giving them more time to play outside without adult supervision."
posted by decathecting at 10:39 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with what klanawa said, I find there is a tendency among proponents of unschooling to minimize or even deny any possible benefit they received from their own compulsory schooling, on principle. This reminds me of the way some libertarians insist that they achieved their success without any influence from the government they oppose.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:04 AM on September 20, 2013

Okay, I basically agree, but

1) This extends to grown-ups, too; our current 10-hour work day ethic is destroying us.
2) That picture is of happy gamboling children apparently comes from France. You want a case study of hyper-repressed children in 24/7 hyper-structured school systems? Yeah, France is your guy.
posted by Mooseli at 11:13 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

WHYY radio did a piece on this recently as well.
posted by HuronBob at 11:34 AM on September 20, 2013

Decathecting, rich kids don't go to public school. Of all the problems we have with education in this race to become the biggest member of the third world, I think worrying about the wealthy is probably a pretty low priority.
posted by dejah420 at 11:51 AM on September 20, 2013

Decathecting, rich kids don't go to public school. Of all the problems we have with education in this race to become the biggest member of the third world, I think worrying about the wealthy is probably a pretty low priority.

I hope my first comment wasn't misunderstood, but perhaps my point was unclear. I wasn't saying that we should structure public schools around the needs of rich kids; I don't think that. I was contending that the article in the OP, as well as several comments in this thread, advocate structuring public schools around the needs of rich kids. I was saying that the prevailing attitude in this thread (that school/society is hurting kids by overscheduling them) is full of shit because it advocates taking something vital away from poor kids--namely, having a safe place to go all day, every day, where someone has the time and resources to nurture them and teach them something--in favor of giving rich kids more time to spend playing in their safe backyards and going on educationally enriching vacations with their rich parents.

And yes, rich kids do go to public school; almost all of them do. Nearly 90 percent of American children go to public school. Unless you're one of those people complaining that people who make $100k a year can't make ends meet in America, it is empirically true that many, many very rich kids go to public school. And many, many more middle class and upper-middle class kids go to public school. When we talk about public school kids who might benefit from more unstructured playtime, we're talking about the majority of public school students.

Public school is, in my mind, a lot like Social Security. Most people would be able to get along without it, and it's often crappy enough that it doesn't make a lot of difference for most people, because most people actually could do better on their own if they had a little extra money in their own pockets instead of taken out in taxes. But the reason we have a social safety net is because we care about the worst off people, and so we create universal programs to ensure that no one gets left to die just because the majority of us could do better on our own. And we make it universal, or near universal, in hopes that even the majority of us who might be able to do better on our own won't abandon the social safety net. And that, to me, means that when we're talking about potentially drastic overhauls of the universal social safety net, our priority ought to be figuring out how to make sure we're still taking care of people who would die or suffer greatly without it.
posted by decathecting at 12:45 PM on September 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

And yet there are so many other ways to provide safe spaces for poor kids. But before I want to get into that, I want to say that this is just the same old ass backwards American problem-solving in action:

We don't have a social safety net, so poor folks have to patch together relief via food stamps, disability and getting whatever benefit they can from one-size-fits-all programs, all of which are constantly under right-wing assault. So basically, what we have is a shitty, low-grade, inefficient, super-expensive semi-safety-net full of holes because we're too greedy, lazy and selfish to pony up for anything better. God forbid that [the social group I have decided to hate] should have medicare or decent schools or retirement, I'd rather do without it myself than give it to them!

So basically, we could have well-funded libraries, community centers, parks with services and all kinds of youth programs that would provide places to go for kids.

But even that assumes that our task as USians is not to change the fucking system we live under, it is to ameliorate it for the super vulnerable so that they can survive under it a little longer. Bigger cages, longer chains! By which we mean, bigger cages and longer chains for poor people, since the rich don't have to live in a cage in chains.
posted by Frowner at 1:43 PM on September 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I spent hours at the library in my youth too, but the librarians weren't babysitting me - I was reading, or looking at library stuff. In general, because we had an adequately staffed and funded library, we had a level of okay behavior. I am not sure that "kids are here" means "adults are babysitting".

And honestly, if the other choice is, as described up thread "give the schools money so they can keep kids in class being restless and miserable for more hours because their lives are too chaotic and dangerous otherwise" - then why not hire some librarians to run, I don't know, after school programs and let the teachers go home?
posted by Frowner at 3:19 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

jeremy rifkin (and ernest gellner) wrote about our educational systems being a product of the industrial revolution:
The public school movement in Europe and America was largely designed to foster the productive potential inherent in each human being and create a productive work force to advance the Industrial Revolution. Hundreds of millions of youngsters, stretching over eight generations of history, have been schooled on the Enlightenment assumptions about humanity's core nature.

Our ideas about education invariably flow from our perception of reality and our conception of nature—especially our assumptions about human nature and the meaning of the human journey. Those assumptions become institutionalized in our education process. What we really teach, an any given time, is the consciousness of an era.

Human consciousness, however, changes over history... people are biologically predisposed to be empathic—that our core nature is not rational, detached, acquisitive, aggressive, and narcissistic, as many Enlightenment philosophers suggested, but rather, affectionate, highly social, cooperative, and interdependent...

New teaching models designed to transform education from a competitive contest to a collaborative and empathic learning experience are emerging as schools and colleges try to reach a generation that has grown up on the Internet and is used to interacting in open social networks where information is shared rather than hoarded. The traditional assumption that "knowledge is power" to be used for personal gain is being subsumed by the notion that knowledge is an expression of the shared responsibilities for the collective well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole... The dominant, top-down approach to teaching, the aim of which is to create a competitive, autonomous being, is beginning to give way to a distributed and collaborative educational experience with an eye to instilling a sense of the social nature of knowledge...
rifkin on outdoor learning:
E. O. Wilson, the famed Harvard biologist, says that an intimate relationship with the biosphere is not a utopian fantasy but, rather, an ancient sensibility that is built into our biology but has sadly been lost over eons of human history. Wilson believes that human beings have an innate drive to affiliate with nature—what he calls "biophilia." For example, he cites studies across many diverse cultures that reveal a human propensity for open vistas, lush grasslands, and rolling fields punctuated by small clusters of trees and ponds...

Sadly, today children in the United States between the ages of eight and eighteen spend six and a half hours per day interacting with electronic media—television, computers, video games, and the like. In just the short period between 1997 and 2003, there was a 50 percent drop in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spend time outdoors engaged in hiking, walking, gardening, and beach play. Less than 8 percent of young people now spend time in these traditional outdoor activities...

E. O. Wilson argues that the natural world is the most information-rich environment that exists on Earth. Thomas Berry, the Catholic priest and historian, concurs and asks us to imagine how the human race could ever have developed metaphors so critical for creating human narratives and consciousness were our species to have been domiciled from its earliest origins on the moon where there are no other life forms. We would have, therefore, no ability to imagine the life of the other as if it were applicable, in some way, to our own experience—which is the very basis of metaphoric thinking and cognitive development...

Rachel Carson mused on this subject when the television screen was beginning to draw millions of children in from the backyard in the early evening...
A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. . . . What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something deeper, something lasting and significant. . . . Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
How can we expect present and future generations to attend to the long-term stewardship of the biosphere, which requires focused attention and patience stretched out over lifetimes of commitment, when they are so easily distracted from moment to moment by a blur of signals, images, and data screaming out of for their immediate attention. The well-being of the biosphere is measured over millennia of history and necessitates a human consciousness that can reflect and project along a similar time table...

So what are educators doing to reintegrate students into nature, recapture the biophilia connection, and improve their empathic sensibility and critical thinking abilities? Richard Louv reports on the remarkable approach to schooling in the Finland education system. According to a 2003 review by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Finland ranked first in literacy and in the top five in math and science among thirty-one OECD nations. (The United States ranked far behind in the middle of the OECD nations). Finland accomplished this feat in a most unorthodox fashion. First, students don't go to school until they're seven years old. Second, the Finnish school system puts a significant emphasis on balancing directed attention in the classroom with open play in the school yard. Every forty-five minutes, the students take to the school yard for a fifteen-minutes play break. Third, the Finnish classroom extends out into the community. Classes are conducted in various natural settings in the surrounding environment. Finland's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health says that the country's educational philosophy is centered around the belief that "the core of learning is no in the information . . . being predigested from the outside, but in the interaction between a child and the environment."
What Makes Education Systems Work?
posted by kliuless at 6:00 AM on September 21, 2013

oh and on play (in the last chapter: 'morphing from the industrial to the collaborative era')
There are four areas where people can engage in work: the market, the government, the informal economy, and the civil society. Market employment, however, is going to continue to shrink with the introduction of intelligent technology systems. Governments around the world are also culling their workforces and introducing intelligent technology in areas diverse as tax collection and military service. The informal economy, which includes household production, barter, and at the extreme end, black-market and criminal economic activity, is also likely to diminish as traditional economies transition into high-tech societies.

This leaves us with the civil society as a means of employment... like the Internet, the core assumption in civil society is that giving oneself to the larger networked community optimizes the value of the group as well as its individual members.

Unlike the market, where relationships between people are predominantly instrumental and a means to an end—optimizing each person's material self-interest—in the third sector, the relationships are an end in themselves, and are therefore imbued with intrinsic value rather than mere utility value...

Just as the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries freed people from serfdom, slavery, and indentured labor, the Third Industrial Revolution and the collaborative era to which it gives rise frees human beings from mechanized labor to engage in deep play—which is what sociability is all about. I use the term deep play because what I'm talking about is not frivolous entertainment but, rather, empathic engagement with one's fellow human beings. Deep play is the way we experience the other, transcend ourselves, and connect to broader, ever more inclusive communities of life in our common search for universality. The third sector is where we participate, even on the simplest of levels, in the most important journey of life—the exploration of the meaning of existence.

In his essay "On the Aesthetic Education of Man," written in 1795, at the dawn of the market era, Friedrich Schiller observed that "man plays only when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is fully a human being only when he plays."

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, being industrious was the mark of a man and becoming a productive worker the goal in life. Generations of human beings were transformed into machines in the relentless pursuit of material wealth: We lived to work. The Third Industrial Revolution and the collaborative era offer humanity the opportunity to liberate itself from the grip of a mechanized life cocooned inside a utilitarian world and breathe in the exhilaration of being free: We live to play. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre captured the close kinship between freedom and play. He wrote "as man apprehends himself as free and wishes to use his freedom . . . then his activity is to play."
or (surfing the web!) as louis ck explains :P
posted by kliuless at 6:48 AM on September 21, 2013

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