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.

Creating colourful memories

pokemon-party

Celebrating our 20th themed party. Last weekend we had a Pokemon party.


Chocolate heaven. I remember the aroma of chocolate that impregnated the whole house. Mum used to bake delicious treats for our birthdays and chocolate cake was her specialty. A bit muddy in the centre and crusty on top. Decades later I still recall those special days. It doesn’t matter how hard we work to leave our children real state assets and unearned money, most of what we really leave behind are memories. Memories of who we are, the time we spent together and the essence of our relationships. One of the most powerful sources of memories of my childhood are birthday parties, mine and of my siblings’. We didn’t have that many parties and they weren’t fancy but I still vividly and fondly remember them. It’s funny I have no recollections of the gifts we received but memories of the experience and the emotions it recalls on me is as fresh as my mum’s bread oozing with melted cheese waiting to cool in the kitchen table.

It’s no surprise then that I was naturally drawn to creating similar memories for my kids and wow how time flies, I’ve just celebrated our 20th birthday party last weekend. It doesn’t matter how busy I am with work and everything else, every year I manage to whip up two memorable parties (well, if they’re as memorable for the kids as they’re for me it’s unclear). It’s always a lot of work and painful paper cuts but I enjoy the late nights in this labour of love. I feel as excited as the kids, planing, organising, baking and sometimes I spend so many hours on these projects that I ask myself why, why… the kids would be as happy with an indoor playground party. But I feel it’s the little things that colour our lives and each family has their little things. For our family one of these little things is making birthdays extra special days.

I remember a family when I was growing up that didn’t celebrate birthdays. The father used to say that every day was special so he didn’t have to single one out. This sounds good in principle but in reality we are too distracted with life to make every day special. It just doesn’t happen. Our day of birth is a great opportunity to remind ourselves and our children that we are more than a speck of dust in the universe and that yes, every day is special but we need to stop and acknowledge it. All memories aren’t created equal. We are most likely to keep memories that are associated with emotions. If everyday is the same routine with no emotional experiences our memories of our early life will not be as colourful.

Long before I had children I realised that a birthday party can send a powerful message to a child. I was going to church back then and there was this migrant family whose mother had returned to their home country in Africa for a few months and the father was left with the kids. They had a daughter who was turning five and it broke my heart to think she wouldn’t have a cake, that no one would be singing happy birthday in celebration of her life. I ended up organising a party for her. I will never forget the sparkle with joy in her eyes when she arrived in the church hall and found it had been decorated for her. She held a smile on her face the entire party. That kind of smile that says “I’m special, I was noticed.” I can’t tell if one event like that can have a lasting impact on someone’s life but I’d like to think that any positive impact, even if temporary, makes the world a better place.

I sometimes think of starting a charity organisation to provide birthday parties for children in foster care. I imagine that most of these kids don’t get to celebrate their birthdays. How cruel is it to remember your childhood and think that no one cared enough to celebrate your birthday. No memories of cakes, piñatas, pass-the-parcel. I don’t know if there is a market for it, I don’t know if I have the energy to make this happen, at present it’s only an idea, but as my kids get older they will require less labour intensive parties and I feel like I could share the joy to other addresses. If you are a foster family reading this, please leave a comment, let me know if you think there is a need for a service like this.

Thanks for reading and hope you are creating colourful memories for yourself and your loved ones.

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