In Mike’s playborhood, kids take risks


Children jump from the playhouse roof to the trampoline in Mike Lanza’s backyard in Menlo Park, CA. Photo: Holly Andres/New York Times.

As the “anti-helicopter parent,” Mike Lanza has turned his Silicon Valley home into a not-very-safe play zone, writes Melanie Thernstrom in the New York Times Magazine. He wants his three “boys to have a normal childhood, while complaining that his idea of normal is no longer normal.”

Kids need a chance to play outdoors, their own way, Lanza believes. Neighborhood kids are welcome to play in his yard at any time — without an adult to supervise.

“His free-time-is-for-goofing-around ethos is particularly anomalous in Silicon Valley,” writes Thernstrom, whose kids were preschool classmates of Lanza’s youngest boy. The area is full of “former engineers, executives and other highly educated women who have renounced work in favor of what they call uber-parenting.”

. . . .  parents think they should be producing model kids, optimized kids, kids with extra capacity and cool features: kids who have start-ups (or at least work at one); do environmental work in the Galápagos; speak multiple languages; demonstrate a repeatable golf swing; or sing arias. To a comical extent, parents here justify the perverted ambition through appeals to research (enlarging the language center of the brain and so forth) while ignoring research on the negative effects on children of being micromanaged.

A high-tech entrepreneur, Lanza is the author of Playborhood and writes a blog on turning neighborhoods into communities where kids can play outside.

I’ve walked past the Lanza house, which is in a lovely, expensive neighborhood near Stanford. I also did some freelance editing for his wife (who is not that happy about her kids playing on the roof) years ago.

Parents pay $1,000 for a week of kinder prep

For $1,000 a week, a private kindergarten prep “boot camp” will ready the children of the affluent and anxious for the “rigors of kindergarten,” reports Sonali Kohli for the Los Angeles Times.

Teacher Elizabeth Fraley teaches the days of the month to future kindergartners. Photo: Los Angeles Times

KinderPrep director Elizabeth Fraley reviews the days of the month. Photo: Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times

KinderPrep, a summer program in Santa Monica, primarily enrolls kids headed for private school.

Nearly all kids in this demographic have attended one or two years of preschool. But director Elizabeth Fraley insists they need to prepare for today’s academic kindergartens, where there will be “no play.”

In addition to the group session, some of the children “had been signed up for separate one-on-one sessions that cost $120 to $200 an hour,” reports Kohli.

 In addition to writing (with help) and listening to the teacher read a book, KinderPrep students practice walking in single file and packing their materials into folders.
Children listen to a book about animals, then pin pictures of the animals to a board. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Children listen to a book about animals, then pin pictures of lions and polar bears to a board. Photo: Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times

“At snack time, the children could partake in organic fruit, gummies and aloe water provided by the program, though many brought their own food because of dietary restrictions,” writes Kohli. “Fraley said she’s seen paté.”

Kindergarten isn’t just the new first grade, according to promoters of school “readiness.” It seems to be the new college — only with less play.

In my view, some parents are suckers. They read a carefully chosen book every night, feed the kids organic kale, quinoa and edamame salads and pay for the best preschool. Then they think little Aidan needs a kinder boot camp — and perhaps a $200-an-hour tutorial — so he can be the best, darn line walker and month identifier in kindergarten.

My younger (step)granddaughter will start kindergarten in a few weeks. She has a sophisticated vocabulary, a flair for math — and a lot to learn about self-control. She has time.

Why pre-K fails: Lots of lining up, little play

Preschool students from Nikki Jones' class at Porter Early Childhood Development Center in Tulsa, Okla., line up in the hallway on their way back from outside play.

Preschoolers at a Tulsa child-care center line up on their way back from a play period. Photo: John W. Poole/NPR

Federally funded pre-kindergarten won’t help poor children catch up, concludes Vanderbilt researcher Dale Farran. The quality of the free preschool isn’t good enough, she tells NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.

Farran’s research team visited federally funded preschools in Memphis and Nashville.

We know from other research that high quality preschool means lots of choice-based play in centers, small group instruction, and outdoor or gym play so that young children can move their bodies,” writes Kamenetz.

At the Tennessee preschools,  25 percent of the day “was spent in transition time: lining up for lunch, snacks, bathroom visits and switching between activities.”

By far the most common learning activity, between 20 and 25 percent of the time, was whole-group instruction.

Centers, or choice time, happened less than 15 percent of the time.

Kids had outdoor play or gym visits just 3 to 4 percent of the time — 15 minutes in an eight-hour day. In many classrooms, students never had a chance to run and play at all.

Many of the pre-K classrooms are in elementary schools, which are designed for older children, says Farran. “We really should not treat these 4-year-olds as though they are fourth-graders and can do the same things.”

In a large study of Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K, Farran found low-income children were more prepared when they started kindergarten, notes Kamenetz. “But by the second grade, those results were reversed: Children who had never attended pre-K were actually ahead of those who did.”

Kinders read more, play less

Kindergarteners are reading more and playing less, concludes a University of Virginia study.

In 1998, before No Child Left Behind put the focus on achievement gaps, 31 percent of kindergarten teachers expected their students to learn to read that year. By 2010, 80 percent believed kindergarteners should be learning to read.

Seventy-three percent of kindergarteners took a standardized test in 2010. That’s more than first graders took in 1998. Kindergarten teachers weren’t asked about testing. writes NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.

Fewer teachers offer music and art every day and there were “notable drops in teachers saying they covered science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids this age find really engaging,” says Daphna Bassok, the study’s lead author.

There were large, double-digit decreases in the percentages of teachers who said their classrooms had areas for dress-up, a water or sand table, an art area or a science/nature area. And teachers who offered at least an hour a day of student-driven activities dropped from 54 to 40 percent. At the same time, whole-class, teacher-led instruction rose along with the use of textbooks and worksheets.

However, children are more likely to have recess and just as likely to have a P.E. class.

With the sharp rise in preschool enrollment, teachers may expect more from students, writes Kamenetz. That leads to a sort of academic arms race: 1 in 5 kindergarteners is already six years old as more parents may wait a year to enroll a child who’s not ready for reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and testing.

In Australia, kindergarten gives ‘gun’ licenses


Children can play with toy guns, if they have a license, at a Queensland, Australia kindergarten.

Playing with toy guns is OK at an Australian kindergarten — with a “license.” Kilkivan Kindergarten, located in a rural area where many parents own guns, decided to teach responsible gun play, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Australia’s gun control laws make it hard — but not impossible — to own handguns and rifles.

Children must understand and agree to follow the “safe play rules” or lose their gun for the day.

“We don’t allow projectile guns, I think that is one thing that is a little bit risky, but they have handmade wooden guns that Dad’s made for them or a water squirter gun [with no water],” said Anne Bicknell, the school’s director.

Guns are locked in a cabinet when not in use. “When they want to play with it they get their licence first and then come and ask for their gun,” she explained. “They’re not allowed to lend their gun to anybody else; it’s their gun and their licence to use it.”

Free-range Marge

In the Simpsons’ season finale, Orange is the New Yellow, Marge Simpson was arrested and sent to prison for letting Bart play in the playground without supervision.

It turned out to be a vacation from her demanding family.

Lenore Skenazy appreciates the plug for what she calls Free-Range Kids.

Chief Wiggum tells Marge: “A mother at the park saw something she disapproved of and, luckily for your son, she overreacted.”

When Marge gets 90 days for child neglect, Lisa says, “This is Kafka-esque!”

“I’ve got my eye on you,” says the judge.

Lisa: “Now it’s Orwellian!”

Palestinian honoree teaches through play

A Palestinian teacher’s play-based methods have won her a $1 million global education prize, reports Diaa Hadid in the New York Times.  The Varkey Foundation chose Hanan Hroub for developing educational games for children traumatized by violence.

When a reporter visited her West Bank classroom, “second-grade students were not focusing on their assigned task of scrawling math problems on balloons,” writes Hadid. “They were popping those balloons.”

The teacher put four marks underneath a frowning yellow face.

“No, Miss! No! We will concentrate, we promise!” piped up a girl named Shurouq. Ms. Hroub and her charges discussed why they felt distracted, and promised to do better.

Not all is fun and games, reports Hadid. “Some Israelis have denounced her as part of a Palestinian education system they see as inciting violence, and noted with dismay that her husband assisted in the killing of six Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1980.”

Study: Playing video games is fine for kids

Playing video games may help children develop, concludes a recently published study that found no psychological harm and some benefits.

It’s not bonkers, concludes Jill Barshay on the Hechinger Report.

A team of researchers analyzed the video game-playing habits of elementary-school-aged children in Europe in 2010, she writes. “They found that children who played at least five hours a week had fewer psychological problems than students who didn’t play video games as much, and were rated by their teachers as better students, both academically and in social adjustment.”

Once video gamers tended to be “the isolated, techy, brainy kids,” said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia professor who’s one of the 13 authors. Now playing video games is “part of a normal childhood.”

. . . kids who play a lot of video games are socially integrated, they’re prosocial, they have good school functioning and we don’t see any association with adverse mental health outcomes.”

“It’s the kids who don’t actively engage with their peers around gaming and other types of popular children’s leisure activities that are perhaps more at risk for developing problems,” Keyes added.

There are no large studies showing that playing video games — even violent games — harms children, she said. But it’s possible that children who play 10 to 20 hours a week could be harmed.

Keyes limits her own grade-school-age son to 20 minutes a day of screen time, she told Barshay. “After homework.”

All reading and math makes Jack a dull boy


The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.

All reading and math skills — without exposure to the arts — makes Jack a dull boy — and not much of a reader, argues Jay Greene. “More research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.”

Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are spending less time teaching music, art, dance and theater, research shows.

Long-term success in math, reading and science depends on the general knowledge and fine-motor skills learned through the arts, studies show, Greene adds.

Researchers urge teaching children “a better understanding of the world”  by improving science and social studies instruction and building foundational skills through “the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play.”

Greene’s research has found that “field trips to art museums and to see live theater” not only build general knowledge, they “change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.”

Using nature to nurture

The classroom is outdoors at The Alaska Forest School, reports Erin Kirkland in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Lia Keller asked preschoolers if they could “find the tunnel from last time” and they led the way to a downed cottonwood, where they could play “foxes and bears” in a pit under the root ball.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake. Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

“I am passionate about getting children outside,” said Keller, who founded the school. “Kids have to get out as young as possible so they learn how to explore and foster a deep love of nature and our wild places.

She also believes “children need more unstructured time” to learn from their play.

Keller offers parents three sessions a week.

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take "appropriate risks." Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take “appropriate risks.” Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

The forest school idea started in Europe, but has spread around the world. It seems like a perfect fit for Alaska, says Beka Land, whose daughters are five and three. “The natural consequences of exploring the outdoors and talking through choices is so valuable,” Land said. “As a family, we like the idea of an outdoors-centered program that lets kids pick their own path.”

After 30 minutes of “hollering, discovering and exploring,” the preschoolers were full of questions, writes Kirkland.

Why does snow look like crystals under the frame of a magnifying glass? What happens when you try to climb a tree much taller than your mom and way higher than any recess monitor would ever allow? How can five small kids figure out how to tie up a blue tarp without adult assistance?

Keller answered many questions with: “What do you think we should do?”

I saw the link on OneTree Alaska, a Facebook site set up by Jan Dawe, a University of Alaska botanist who was my best friend in elementary school. We were co-editors-in-chief of The Wednesday Report, which we published twice a month for four years.