"The kids were free, joyful, everything we hope for"

I am in such a brand-new realm now in terms of my thinking about this blog and what I want to say on it. Up until this summer I feel like I had some measure of control over whether or not Wally had the kind of childhood I envisioned for him. True we live in Manhattan with all the noise and neighbors, the noisy, nosy neighbors and a million things we "should" be doing like seeing James Turrell at the Guggenheim or going to the Fall Festival in Madison Square park. The lack of a backyard, the gymnastics classes for newborns, the fact that people enroll their children in preschool before they are born. But, as I've detailed here before, there were so many ways that this felt like a small town. And I tried to keep the days simple. Wally did not seem stressed. We brought the compost to the greenmarket on Saturday, read poetry in the mornings outside, and he played outside with neighbor friends until dark. But now, he is in Kindergarten--Kindergarten!!-- and it's suddenly like Real Life with schedules and rushing around and giant backpacks (even though he doesn't get homework yet, unlike most Kindergarteners in the city) and racing through dinner to start with the bedtime routine and pure exhaustion on Wally's part! Our part, okay, but Wally, exhausted? And it's the sitting still all day that's tiring him out.

We are in a realm now where is so much that is just wrong. (Not horribly wrong, First-World Problems wrong.) The Common Core Standards, The High-Stakes testing, immensely stressed out teachers having to keep up with crazily intense and unnecessary written lesson plans and evaluations that take all the time away from actual teaching, dissolving science and social studies curricula (because they are not tested, teachers are not evaluated on them, principals are not fired and schools are not closed down based on failing scores in them). Wally goes to a fantastic small, progressive public school but they still have to deal with all this stuff and they can't just continue on like it's 1984 (the real 1984, not the Orwellian version) letting kids play house and finger paint and take a nap. 

This illustration below is from a vintage book on Kindergarten, but it looks very much like what Kindergarten was like for me. And now it's full day with all kinds of workshops and literacy and reading centers and this tiny, little, itty bitty choice time at the end of the day (when kids can pick something to play with, though I see hardly any toys in the classroom). It's like 30 minutes maybe, at most. And this choice time is the one that often gets cut into and squeezed by other stuff happening.  

This is at a school that (from what I can tell) doesn't necessarily even agree with all this, and tries its best with lots of art and music compared to other places, and like I said, no homework at least until First Grade. But what can they do? This is what we've all agreed to. I guess? Or ignored as it was happening because we didn't have kids. This is what public education has become. So part of me is resigned, grateful for the relatively low-pressure school where even now, the 5th graders there are touring middle schools for next year and the 4th graders are gearing up for the test that will determine their entire future. And 3rd graders are gearing up for the practice test for the real test that will determine their entire future. 

So what does a parent do? Write letters, join campaigns, talk to the school but basically go along with the other reasonable, well-meaning parents and accept an education system that is not developmentally appropriate, that doesn't give young children the time to learn through play (which is how they're meant to learn), that exhausts them, burns them out by the time they're 10, that no longer gives much attention to social studies or science, (let alone art, music and recess already cut from many schools to give more time to test prep), to a system that doesn't teach problem-solving, free-thinking or creativity because the teachers simply don't have time to let kids learn through discovery, through trial and error, don't have time to let kids internalize lessons, and because those qualities aren't tested, and the teachers are fired or not based on how well they "teach" the opposite - uniformity, conformity, rote memorization?

Or do you break away, like other reasonable, well-meaning parents have done. Let children explore. Dig in the dirt. Go on adventures. 

Can you believe this picture? It's from my friend in New Hampshire, known on this blog as Roo & Moo. She writes:  

knew taking the picture that it was an amazing moment captured.  The whole day was spectacular in that way.  We were supposed to meet our entire home school group for a hike, but they cancelled because the weather was not ideal in the morning.  My friend and I decided to meet up anyway and it turned into this gorgeous afternoon, and an epic outing.  The kids were free, joyful, everything we hope for.  I wish you could have been there.  We actually went back the next day and hiked it with [my husband]. [My older son] kept exploring off trail and found his perfect "quiet place".  He then insisted we meditate.  

The kids were free, joyful, everything we hope for.


  1. I love this post. Well, really it makes me sad, so love may not be the best choice of words. But, it is truth filled. We home school, but still there are those activity filled, hectic days, where it is hard to find a moment to breathe. It makes me relish the days where the pace is slow, where we can tuck ourselves into our cozy home to learn, play, listen to music, drink tea, and explore. Today we "buckled down" early and hit the books, as yesterday involved school in the morning, then heading to a family I tutor, and then meeting with friends to hike. So, today we had to make up in the academic realm. Yes even my kindergartener, because after all, with those core curriculum standards, we homeschoolers have to keep up for our standardized tests, or evaluations at the end of the year. But then, our entire front yard filled with birds, and we just had to gather all our bird books to identify them and listen to their song. It is those spontaneous moments they remember. My second grader even decided (on his own) to journal write and do a picture about the dark eyed junco. That sort of learning sticks. All the core stuff were are forced to cram into them rarely inspires.

    You are correct that the system is developmentally inappropriate at best. That is why this former public educator has made the choice that I have for my kids. I will do it as long as it is financially feasible and feels like the right thing for my boys. Life is full of stress and sometimes sadness, but I don't want my kids to have experience that at such an early age. They have no comprehension of why our neighbor comes home from school exhausted, hungry and often grumpy after a "bad day" in second grade. If my kids are exhausted at the end of school day, I want it to be from hiking a mountain, not trying hard to stay still, attempting material many are just not ready for developmentally, and the added social pressures of the modern day. It all seems overwhelming to me as an adult, so I can only imagine how it feels to a child. We work hard to practice "nowness". There is so much to learn when we can embrace the moment and learn from what is right before us, without all the distractions.

    I truly feel like we were allowed more relaxed, exploratory learning when we were kids. But perhaps my memory is now jaded. As one of my favorite Costa Rican groups, Malpais says in their song Cancion del Capitan: "Quedan lejanos los cuentos repetidos, los inventos siempre más hermosos que la realidad." ("Those retold stories, those inventions always seem more beautiful in our distant memory than in reality.") I distinctly remember nap mats, art class, music, and find a quiet space and read a book time. Let's just hope that those elements remain. If we can't teach our children to think creatively, explore freely, and quiet the mind, then it will be one wild world out there when they are adults.

  2. Wow - this comment deserves is own post - incredible, thank you - so much to respond but will do so tomorrow. In our case we definitely had more relaxed, exploratory learning, but those lyrics are so true.

  3. "The kids were free, joyful, everything we hope for." So frustrating for me as a mom and a teacher to realize that this is not what school currently is. And trying so hard in both realms to capture some of that -- but knowing that much of the time I fail.

    Diane Ravitch says, and I agree, that it is parents that must push against the standardized testing. But it's an uphill battle.

    A glimmer of hope -- http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-77889090/

    Let's hope Obama, Gates, and the other powers-that-be come to their senses soon.


  4. I really appreciate these comments - Thanks for that article - That is definitely a glimmer of hope. I think I should post the letter here cause I know O is a daily reader of LAC. More soon and thank you.

  5. Roo & Moo - thank you for giving us such a picture into your cozy and sometimes majestic and sometimes hectic homeschooled life. I agree the core standards rarely inspire and often do the opposite. We really have to hold onto and make room for those moments like the birds on your front lawn and the story of the dark-eyed junco. Those are the times when kids learn - in the "now" without distractions, as you write. Kids are so naturally drawn to them-- soaking in the quiet under the tree in summer, gazing at the Hunter's Moon in the chill of an October dawn -- and yet those are the first experiences to get lost in the hectic schedules, the "race" to meet national standards, to exceed our (imagined?) counterparts in Asia. It's so depressing to me to think of you a former public educator who has made the (wise it sounds) decision not to have your children participate in public school, and other public school teacher friends and family members who are losing or have lost faith in the system.

    D – Thanks for your thoughts – I think you’re doing a great job in both realms - let's keep the discussion going about what can be done. Pushing against standardized testing - with the schools, community leaders, local, state and federal agencies? I know Diane Ravitch’s website is a great resource. More and more people seem to be waking up to what's happening. It's strange to think of wading through the maddening bureaucratic maze of education reform policy, to get to the story of the dark eyed junco.


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