Set them free?

By Kevin Bushweller — October 13, 2006 2 min read

“We are deeply concerned that current trends in early education, fueled by political pressure, are leading to an emphasis on unproven methods of academic instruction and unreliable standardized testing that can undermine learning and damage young children’s healthy development.”

That is the opening line of a Call to Action on the Education of Young Children, which the Alliance for Childhood is promoting in the wake of a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggesting that too little time for free play is leading to increased stress for children and missed opportunities for them to learn how to take initiative and be creative. The Call to Action was actually first released almost a year ago, but the alliance is promoting it again in light of this recent report.

In a nutshell, the alliance argues that children have too little time for so called “unstructured play” -- which in my days as a schoolboy was simply called playtime. The signers of the call to action include Harvard professors Howard Gardner and Kathleen McCartney, pediatricians T. Berry Brazelton and Mel Levine, as well as child psychiatrists Kyle Pruett, Alvin Poussaint, and Stanley Greenspan.

As a journalist, I am always a bit skeptical of these “call to actions,” because more often than not they exaggerate the problem, and engage in what I call “crisis-speak.” There is little balance in what they have to say.

Still, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, because this debate is undeniably connected to student motivation. If children do not have enough free time to play with their friends and investigate their environments, they are likely to be less happy and creative. And if that is the state of their minds, they are also less likely to be motivated in school.

Don’t misread me. I do not envision schools where children have unlimited free play time, and study only whatever they happened to be interested in. That seems like a recipe for classroom chaos and questionable academic standards. But I do envision a little more leeway, because I think it can pay off.

I plan to test this theory in my life as a youth sports coach.

Over the years, as a youth sports coach in soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse, I have noticed some troubling traits among today’s young athletes. While they tend to be more technically skilled than we were at their age, they are less creative and seem to have trouble with the concept of initiative. They rarely play pickup games with their friends, as we did on ice-covered ponds and basketball courts all the time. As a consequence, they don’t react as instinctively and creatively as we did even if their skills are better. Too often, in games, my players look confused when something happens that wasn’t covered in a drill in practice. If something isn’t scripted, they almost seem lost. So my plan is to set them free ... by giving them more “free time” in practices to simply play. We’ll see how it goes ...

More important, though, is this question: If I am seeing these traits among young athletes, are educators also seeing them in their classrooms? Please comment on what you’ve seen in your classrooms and how that might be connected to the issue of free time.

What do you think? Do we need to set these kids free? Or is the allilance exaggerating the problem?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.

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