Teacher writer Jessica Lahey wrote a lovely piece about unstructured play and the summer time:
Most schools across the nation have marked the end of another academic year, and it’s time for summer. Time for kids to bolt for the schoolhouse doors for two long months of play, to explore their neighborhoods and discover the mysteries, treasures, and dramas they have to offer. This childhood idyll will hold true for some children, but for many kids, the coming of summer signals little more than a seasonal shift from one set of scheduled, adult-supervised lessons and activities to another.
We always try to make sure there is plenty of time for unstructured play time in the summer, but I am easily reminded that for many children “two long months of play” or any play, really, is a luxury their schools or neighborhoods or lives don’t afford. The schools could and their lives and neighborhoods should but often don’t.
The piece also reminded me of how the school year for my own children morphs into summer. I was half planning a post on this for my own blog (good thing I have this guest posting gig to make me publish!) about the end of the school year for my children. In Virginia, high-stakes standardized testing (the SOL tests) start in 3rd grade, so much of the month of May, and April if you’re even more unlucky, can be spent either preparing for or stressing out about the tests or both, and then taking the tests. That’s when I start to long for post-testing time. Even prior to May, there is test prep, both direct and indirect.
The lament used to be that students don’t do anything at the end of the school year. In my children’s schools (so far only elementary–we’ll see if this changes when my boys go to middle), I have found it’s quite the opposite: they do tons, working up until the very last day. Once the tests are over, “real” learning and fun can resume. There are novels and cumulative projects and science experiments applying the content they have learned and field trips and social activities and an adequate amount of recess. This is when the teachers bust out some of the lessons and activities they don’t feel they can do or have time to do during the rest of the school year. Both teachers and students continue to work hard, but what they are doing is more meaningful and fun.
This is a beautiful thing to behold. But it also adds to my resentment of the whole testing regime. Why can’t the rest of the year be like this? Why do teachers and students have to suffer through rigid and low-quality standardized tests so they can get to the good stuff? Will the pendulum swing in the other direction while my kids are still in school or will the over-bearingness of The Tests continue until their K-12 careers are over?
Furthermore, and this is (finally) getting back to Jessica’s piece, it makes us seek out more meaningful learning experiences (versus unstructured play) for our children during the summer, like science camp, writing workshops, theater camp,and art camp. Because they don’t get enough of that at school. I remember after participating in a camp at the Math and Science Innovation Center in Richmond where he designed his own math video game, my son said, “This is just like school, only it’s fun!” That kind of broke my heart.
As my husband wrote after spending a day in our children’s elementary school, school has gotten better over the past twenty to thirty years; much progress has been made. But this one piece that drives so much else has been a step in the wrong direction.