There are things kids don’t learn at school

The sun was fading in the horizon when I got home on Wednesday and my children were still playing outside. They had built a wall of dirt orange bricks in the backyard and had sand in their hair. They had not yet had dinner, homework had not been done and I had just arrived from a school event where I learned what schools in Australia are was doing to prepare the children to live and work successfully in the 21st century. By my side in the full auditorium, a mother showed me brochures about kid’s computer coding class and maths tutoring. She confided that her son had spent the entire primary school doing Kumon and now for high school, she was looking for other options to occupy and expand her son’s mind. I felt like a bad mother. While the other kids are having coding classes, a skill required in the digital age, mine are digging holes in the backyard. So, I got home and once again, sat on the fence while I watched my children play, uncertain if I’m letting them have too much fun instead of filling up their schedule with more structured activities.

This year at school orientation night, I heard a lot about the 4Cs that are required for individuals to live and work successfully in 21st century — creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking — and how the schools are embedding these elements into their curriculum. It was encouraging to learn that the education system is trying to equip young people with the capacity to think, create and solve problems but I couldn’t help thinking that schools should have been doing this since the beginning of times, not just in the digital age. Didn’t we need these abilities in the 20th century and before? The education of last century took us to the moon, gave us heart transplant surgery, personal computers, the Internet, Tim Winton, Martin Luther. The adults involved in these amazing inventions, the social changers, the inspired artists, must have had well developed 4C skills. If the school of the 20th century didn’t give them these skills, who did?

If the school of the 20th century didn’t give children these skills, who did?

I think it’s important that we answer this question because parents like me are being left feeling that it’s all about the school, formal education and the expensive extra curricular activities that money can buy. Sometimes we forget that education continues long after the bell rings. Children learn by observing their parents and the community, experiencing and exploring the world and of course, playing. Free, unstructured play, beyond the watchful eyes of adults, provides critical life experiences without which children cannot develop into confident and competent adults. That’s the view of many psychologists and educators and, when I think of my own childhood, this makes a lot of sense. 

I grew up in Brazil and had only four hours of school per day (but shorter holidays compared to Australia). After doing my homework, I was free to roam with the children from the neighbourhood. Together, we were always involved in some kind of adventure, from rescuing kittens from a nearby shantytown to building our own cubby house with materials found in old construction sites. We argued about rules, many times got into trouble but we did learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control. Where were the parents in all this? Well, most mothers were at home providing the kind of loose oversight that free plays require.

Today, it’s fair to say that many children don’t have the luxury of a stay-at-home parent to provide that type of supervision. Busy working parents have no choice but to outsource at least some the supervision to tutors and coaches. Or in many cases, to the TV and an assortment of electronic devices. (I’m guilty as charged, my children have all of them). But even when parents are available, they are still reluctant to let kids venture past the front gate. They fear the traffic and stranger danger, or that if there aren’t enough structured activities in place, their children will fall behind and won’t be ready for the hyper-competitive future.

Last year, one of my son’s friend couldn’t come to his birthday party on a Saturday afternoon because he had four hours of tutoring to endure. On another occasion, the retired neighbours complained that the kids were playing on the cul-de-sac road. It saddens me when parents and community don’t see free play as essential for the development of children and as an opportunity to learn and grow. Unfortunately, the value of play these days is often underestimated.

That’s no surprise then that play has been declining in the last decades. Psychologist and research professor at Boston College, Peter Gray, shows in this article that in the last fifty years, “school and school-like activities” have gradually replaced free play, leaving children today with “more hours per day, days per year, and years of their life” either at school or involved in adult-directed activities. And according to Gray this isn’t a good thing. He correlates the decline in play with the continuous increase in anxiety, depression and suicide rates in young people, a rise in narcissism and a decline in measures of empathy and creativity.

“You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play” Peter Gray

Gray argues that we are going through a period of creativity crisis. In this article, he quotes research that shows that creative thinking is a better predictor of future life success than IQ and school grades. Children, he says, are our greatest innovators, but by raising play-deprived children we are curbing their ability to retain their creative capacity through to adulthood.

Parents that question the value of play often quote Pasteur, saying that “chance favours the prepared mind.” I could not agree more. But the school is not the only place to prepare minds, especially developing minds. The school is an important component of our lives and yes, they must embed the 4Cs in the curriculum. But to raise fulfilled humans and good citizens it takes the effort of communities to create spaces for safe play, governments and organisations that have the right policies to allow for flexible work, and parents willing to create opportunities for their children to explore the world.

As I write, a child just ran past the corridor with arms and head tightly wrapped in toilet paper. Another child wearing only pyjama pants chases him. The front door bangs. I hear giggling and the words hospital and video. I don’t know if I’m raising artists, doctors or scientists but I hope I’m opening the door for my children to imagine a better world in this century and beyond.

Painting the full picture

I was lying across the couch with a book trying to decide whether to read or take a nap, when mum appeared from the kitchen with a Tupperware container full of colour pencils.

“That time of the day.” She announced smiling at me.

It was 3:30 pm and it was hot and I thought it was the perfect time for a nap, so I put the book on the floor and made myself more comfortable on the couch. But mum wasn’t talking about nap time. She walked over and sat at the dinning table and placed the container alongside two stacks of books laying in front of her. Her skinny, pale hand scattered the books on the table – books with black outlines of animals, flowers, patterns and cupcakes. She picked the title Floral Designs. She loves flowers and talk about flowers but there was no talking that afternoon. She was ready to fill the blank spaces with colours.

Mum flicked through the pages then put the book aside and started inspecting the tips of her colourful tools. She pulled a pencil sharpener from the Tupperware container and shaved away the worn surface of three pencils: “red, green and yellow” she said out loud. Looked like she was now ready to start her project, to get lost in the world of colouring in.

I’m all for meditation but have no patience to sit still to colour in mindfulness colouring books, or any books for that matter. I think I may waste precious time unable to relax, trying to figure out which colours to use and how to combine them. But mum has been colouring in these books for months. Her collection just keeps growing. She says it’s calming and that she likes watching the colour slowly spread across the page and the surprise element of creating something unexpected and pretty.

I realised I wasn’t going to fall sleep anymore so I sat down and moved to the corner of the couch to observe mum more closely. I saw that she selected the green pencil and, in slow, repetitive movements started to fill the stencilled page. She was focused and the room was quiet. All I could hear was the hypnotic scratching sound of pencil lead on paper. She paused from time to time swap pencils or turn the pages.

Mum smiles at everyone she meets and I saw her smiling at what was appearing underneath the colours. So I got up and sat beside her to take a peep at her creations.

She was creating beautiful patterns and I congratulated her on her creativity but what really caught my attention was that most of the patterns were unfinished. She was moving on to the next object without finishing the previous one. I flicked through the pages in the other books and most of them had not been completed. It didn’t make sense to me to leave the images partially done.

“Mum, why don’t you finish a pattern before you move to the next one?”

“That’s funny,” she frowned, “my friend asked me the same question.”

“Your pages will be even more beautiful if you complete them.”

“I don’t know,” she continued without looking at me, “I don’t feel like I need to finish them.” She turned the page.

Oh no. I could immediately feel drops of sweat running down my back. At the moment I came to the conclusion that mum, who is 74 and had recently been diagnosed with dementia, was losing the ability to see the full picture. She was going downhill much faster than I expected. I knew I was catastrophising. I wasn’t sure if the page hoping really indicated a progression of the disease but my Hypochondriac brain tends to resort to the worst case scenario when it comes to health issues. I grabbed a pencil and the book closest to me and started colouring in to calm down. I needed to find my focus again.

I just sat there in silence with mum, following the lines with my left hand no end in sight, no destination and I didn’t know if it was the repetitive strokes but I could sense I was starting to relax. When I completed a couple of patterns I looked at mum, content in her world of patterns and colours. Her back was straight and her neck leaning slightly forward. She was losing her hearing and her memory, but she looked content and poised. Just then I realised that it didn’t matter if she can see the full picture or not. What she sees makes her happy and that’s enough. I felt like I was learning to get the full picture. These books can be useful after all.