Things have been troubling me the past few weeks. I feel a growing sense of dis-ease, like I’ve witnessed something disturbing, or remembered something I used to know. Maybe I have…
My little boy just started school this autumn. No, not Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (where he would have fit right in). Just normal school.
And while I expected it to be a big change for both of us, I was mostly focused on the ‘momentous-ness’ of the occasion. First day at school. Although he has been at a Montessori nursery school two days a week for the past few years, I have been mostly at home with him. And so I knew it would be a big change, and a moment that revealed that my baby was growing up.
I wasn’t prepared for the realities of school.
And to be fair to myself, that’s because most people I had talked to about Reception/Kindergarten had told me misleading things. “It’s basically play,” they said. “It’s really just about learning how to negotiate social relationships.” Learning (again) to share, listening to other children’s ideas when they conflict with your own, taking instruction from adults that are not your parents. These things seem like pretty important and pretty relevant skills for a four-and-a-half year old to take on. When I went to the parents’ evening, the Head of School/Principal gave us all a lovely talk about how each child was an individual, and the school strived to cater to individual needs etc. etc. It all sounded nice and soft and fluffy.
Let me just say, that is not how it is.
From pretty much the second week, I began to feel the ‘System’ of school descend on us. Words like ‘government targets’ and ‘skill sets of the typical child’ replaced the fluffy language of individuality. Now, seven weeks in, and I have gotten used to filling out the ‘Reading Book’ which records what I have read to my child the night before (giving some documented proof that I read to my child…some concrete evidence that can be shown to a team of outside observers that my son is ‘making progress’). I have also received our second piece of ‘Home Learning’ “to be enjoyed together” (because calling it that rather than Homework makes it better?). I have also been instructed to practice phonics and number recognition with my son at home, as well as basic adding and subtracting numbers by +/-1.
Honestly, I loved school. I have my Ph.D. because I loved school so much and never wanted to stop going… But I fit into school like a round peg in a round hole. School was made for people like me…children who like to colour and want to read as soon as they realise reading is a thing.
What I want to say to his teacher and to the school is this: My son is with you five days a week from 9am-3pm doing school work. The rest of the time, he is too busy with HOME PLAYING to do more school work. He is too busy making tents and campervans and castles and cafes. He is too busy pretending to be an Octonaut or driving his super-super-booster-car. He is too busy listening to made-up stories and then telling his own stories. He is too busy being a kid to bother with reading and math.
It’s not as if I think learning phonics or learning to recognise numbers is bad. What I find disturbing though is the focus on these things above all others, especially at such a young age. While research continually show the benefits of delaying formal education (the most recent article here), and books on developmental psychology reiterate the importance of unstructured creative play to a young child’s brain development, these ‘expert ideas’ do not seem to be ‘trickling down’ to the education system.
Therefore, the meeting with my child’s teacher the other night focused mainly on (1) whether or not his behaviour is conforming appropriately to the school environment (which I was also told could not cater for what I perceive as his extremely high energy levels), and (2) whether he was achieving their targets for maths and phonics. (I would like to say here that his teacher is actually pretty awesome. But she also has to conform to a system that dictates how she must teach and what targets she must achieve with the children.)
I don’t doubt that my son does a lot of creative things in school, and just that day they had all dressed up as the various characters of the Ramayana as a way to learn about Diwali. That’s awesome. But the fact that the parent-teacher conversation focused on achievements in core subjects at the age of 4 1/2 says a lot to me as well. It says, this is what REALLY matters, this is the stuff we consider REALLY important. The rest of the stuff…drawing, colouring, playtime are just breaks between serious learning.
Then I listened to this TED Talk on education and creativity by Sir Ken Robinson and it just spoke to my heart. In it, he argues that “creativity is just as important in education as literacy”. Towards the end, he talks about a woman Gillian Lynne who as a child was failing at school and was brought to a medical doctor to determine if she had a learning disability. After hearing the list of ‘problems’ with this child, the doctor and the child’s mother left the room, but the doctor turned on music before they left the room, and both adults watched as Gillian immediately got to her feet and began to dance. “Mrs. Lynne,” the doctor said, “your daughter isn’t sick. She’s a dancer.” As Sir Ken Robinson adds, Gillian was one of those people who has to move to think. She later became the choreographer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
This is my son. My wild wonderful boy has to move to think. He doesn’t dance, he RUNS, he JUMPS, he SKIPS, he RACES on his scooter, he throws his body.
This is a genuine NEED he has, almost as important as eating, drinking and sleeping. When he is not allowed to do this enough, he screams, snatches, and his running becomes agressive because it is usually in an inappropriate space–like our kitchen when I’m trying to cook. I feel the lioness inside of me grow enraged when I hear his actions being labelled ‘naughty’ when I know these genuine needs aren’t being met because he is almost literally caged inside all day every day at school.
There is plenty more to say. But as I stand in this incredibly uncertain place, so many question whirl through my head.
What will happen to this next generation of children educated in this kind of system?
How can we continue to talk about a ‘crisis with boys’ and continue to do the same old thing or worse in terms of meeting their needs as growing men?
And, do we really need to be preparing four year olds for WORK? (because that seems to be the underlying logic for emphasising maths and literacy above painting, dancing, creative play, story-telling etc. etc. for four and five year olds!)
Kids or no kids, I’d love to hear what you think. What was your experience of school? How did it impact you?
As always thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.