Summertime Classrooms

kids-playing-for-the-summerSo Memorial Day weekend is coming and the schools are closing for the summer. Tomorrow will be the last day for teachers and students across the land…NOT! Shockingly, virtually every child still has an entire week of classes left and some even have two more weeks to go. What happened to the launch of summer fun on Memorial Day? Who decided that it was a great idea to keep the kids working until well into June? How did this happen without someone protesting? Is this really healthy or necessary for our youth?

I just left my daughter’s home and I worry that my grandchildren are majorly stressed out. They are only in the sixth grade but they have comprehensive final exams in every subject next week, Can you guess what they will be doing over the so called holiday weekend? They have intricate multi-page study guides with information that they must review before the big tests which begin on Tuesday. There will be no time for barbecues or swimming or a quick trip. Instead they will spend the three day weekend making certain that they remember everything that they have learned during the school year. There goes all of the fun for them and their parents!

I honestly don’t understand what anyone hopes to accomplish by extending the school year more and more. When I was young we were always finished in time for Memorial Day and we knew that we wouldn’t have to return until after Labor Day. We weren’t exactly an ignorant generation because of that schedule. In fact we actually learned quite a few bits of practical information and skills during our three month vacation. That was when a week spent with my grandparents on their farm taught me about birds, rocks, gardening, cooking and survival skills. It was the time when my mother taught me how to touch type without looking at the keys and how to sew. I went on a book reading binge each summer, checking out as many volumes as the library allowed and consuming them well before they were due to be returned. That was also when I got my first jobs and because they actually lasted for three months I earned a full four quarters of Social Security time before I had even graduated from high school. I also found out how to keep books in a medical clinic and what it takes to run an office. No amount of class time would have given me such fantastic experiences. I literally had an internship with life each and every summer.

I understand that there is a belief among many that children need more, not less time in classrooms. Still, our society has gone a bit overboard in demanding so much of a young person’s time. I have watched my grandchildren leave for school at seven in the morning and not return until after five in the evening. They have no time for independent play. After a quick dinner they have to hit the books because they have so many assignments and projects to complete. There is rarely a moment to spare. If they are very lucky they manage to get everything completed before bedtime but there are also nights when their work keeps them up far longer than they should be. They become grumpy and tired and mostly they just don’t get to be kids. At this moment in the school year they are hopelessly burned out and yet the demands continue unabated.

I realize that some children live in deplorable conditions and that school is the safest and most productive place that they might ever be. I certainly agree that we need to create programs for them but why pull the entire population of children into the same one size fits all schedule? We really don’t need to over-plan the lives of our youth. It is often in those moments when they have to rely on their own creativity that they learn the most.

I remember putting on shows for the neighborhood. It took rehearsals and imagination to produce a worthy program. I garnered more knowledge during those moments than I might have filling out worksheets and tests during an extra week of school.

On other occasions me and the other neighborhood kids created a local newspaper, complete with comic strips and editorials. Each of us contributed to the process and had to use our writing skills as well as our business expertise. It was great fun. I would later read that Truman Capote and Harper Lee did the same thing when they were children living next door to one another. They used an old typewriter and spent entire summers creating stories and using their fledgling writing abilities. Who knows how things might have turned out for them if they had been stuck in school instead.

I don’t want to underestimate the power of education and adult guidance but I also believe that there is much to be said for providing children with the freedom to innovate. It is in those moments that adults are not watching that we are often the most curious. When nobody is there to help us we use our minds to find solutions to our problems. We also learn how to work with others without the interference of well meaning parents. We navigate around the bully who lives down the street and negotiate with friends to distribute power. We learn teamwork from experience.

I don’t expect to see the powers that be changing our educational year anytime soon. I suspect that the pendulum is swinging in favor of ever more time spent in classrooms which actually makes me a bit sad. Children are flexible and they will adapt to whatever the adults tell them they must do but when I think about what they will be missing it makes me worry. I had a near perfect childhood and I would so love for all youngsters to have the adventures that I had. I had no father and very little money but each morning for three whole months I was the ruler of my day. I got to decide if it was going to be spent reading a new book from the library or playing a life or death game of Scrabble with my friends. I could ride my bicycle to the swimming pool at the junior high or walk to art lessons at Ripley House. It was my call and I loved it.

Perhaps we can find a way to compromise. Children today are certainly being exposed to ever more information and opportunities but they often have no idea how to entertain themselves. We need to help them to develop that skill along with the others that prepare them for life. Sometimes being stuck in the yard with only a water hose and a few friends is the perfect invitation to creativity. When faced with boredom, most children eventually discover how to have fun without spending money or attending a class. Sometimes the best classroom is the one that they have to run by themselves.



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