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.

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Junk inside your stockings?

Empty red Christmas stocking hanging on a door

Photo: Creative Commons

 

I’ll never forget my first Christmas in Australia. We were invited to celebrate the event with our former host family (this is long before Airbnb was invented), this lovely interracial young couple (Korea meets Australia) with two gorgeous small children. The Australian grandparents joined the party too. Apart from celebrating Christmas in broad daylight, the party was not dissimilar to our Brazilian Christmas soiree—overeating and drinking, music and family. But then it came the time to open the gifts. Grandpa had the presents in a gigantic red sack and he could not tie the ends of the bag together, the gifts were overflowing, I was left wondering if more guests were coming considering the number of presents. He started distributing the gifts, most of which were for the children. The first couple of beautifully wrapped toys made the kids jump with excitement but the more gifts they opened the less they cheered. You could tell that the first gifts were carefully selected, age-appropriate, but the rest were just ‘stocking fillers’, an expression I had never heard until that day.

My head kept turning to the clock on the wall, the gift giving was becoming too long and boring and the pile of worthless junk tucked beside the Christmas tree was getting taller by the minute. By the time the last gift was distributed the children were more interested in what was showing on TV.

Back then, climate change was not a mainstream topic of discussion but I could not help thinking of the waste that millions of Australian households were creating that day and how they were nurturing a throwaway generation.

At that time it was clear to me that, by comparison, the Brazilian Christmas was very much a celebration of hope, love and piece rather than a purely consumeristic event but I was forced to change my mind when I went back to my country of birth for Christmas in 2005.  My city, Recife, had been invaded by stores selling cheap goods manufactured in sweatshops in other third world countries. Now, everyone had access to crap they could afford and this was reflected in the Christmas giving that year. I guess our Christmas principles weren’t so different after all, the festive Brazilian people just didn’t have easy access to an oversupply of things they didn’t need.

Fast forward 18 years from my first Ozzie Christmas and now we are all talking about climate change and the impact of our consumeristic society in the environment. But it doesn’t feel like we are matching our words with actions. I recently saw statistics showing that each Australian family contributes enough rubbish each year to fill a three-bedroom house from floor to ceiling. I think that Christmas alone is responsible for filling up the whole lounge room.

There are truckloads of reasons why society has evolved into such a remarkable waste producing machine and one of them is because we now can afford to buy more things and these things last less. It’s a vicious cycle and of course, this has an impact on the planet.

So it really surprises me when I see that the idea of filling up Christmas stockings continues as strong as ever. Don’t kids (and adults) receive enough gifts already? Do we really need to top up the Christmas gift giving extravaganza with more?

To make piece with our compulsion to buy, lots of websites are now promoting environmentally friendly, zero-waste stocking fillers. But this defeats the purpose, if we are combating excess, we don’t need fillers. We need substantial changes to our behaviours, we need to realise that Christmas giving doesn’t have to mean excessive buying. Giving makes us happy, but we can replace needless stuff with other ways to give like giving our time, offering a helping hand, being there when our friends need. That’s the true Christmas spirit, in Australia and elsewhere.

Stick figures: 21,000 min slicing carrots

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I did the maths. Every single school day for seven years I’ve cut carrot sticks for lunch boxes. This equates to 21,000 minutes or 14.5 days cutting the same beta-carotene vegetable (sometimes I add cucumber for a bit of variety) and stuffing them in little plastic containers. Today while I was going through my daily ritual it was borne in upon me that we haven’t had Disney’s lunch boxes in a while, my children have actually grown (I have these revelations from time to time), so why don’t I let them cut the vegetables and prepare their own lunch boxes? With their help, I would save 15 minutes each day.

There are many explanations why my kids don’t prepare their lunch boxes, but the main reason is the mother:

  • I don’t want them to make a mess that I will have to clean up
  • I don’t want to put up with the whining and whinging (they don’t want to do their lunch boxes)
  • I don’t want them to get hurt using a sharp knife
  • I take pride in a properly made lunch box, one that includes fresh food and prepared with love

As I was writing this I was thinking, gee, if I wasn’t in the equation, they would be using a butcher’s knife by now. I had set a deadline that by high school they would be doing their lunch boxes but now high school is just around the corner for my eldest and we haven’t had much progress. The mess they make in the kitchen and the complaining drive me crazy. And watching them use the knife sends shivers down my spine.

I know I have to do something about this so I rationalised that  I’ll continue with the vegetables and they can do the other food groups. But then the other night I was watching my eldest spread butter on his toast. I was standing there staring at him, my head shaking in disbelief as he maneuvered the butter knife. He made a deep whole in the creamed milk and ripped up his bread trying to spread the butter on top. Another revelation: my 11-year old can’t handle a butter knife, or any other knife for that matter. My kids are bad with knives because I haven’t given them access to the tool, I haven’t taken the time to teach them how to use one properly. I have to admit that rather than nurturing future helpers I’m over protecting my precious treasures from most house chores and denying them the chance to grow. I might be protecting their little fingers now but this can actually hurt them in the long run.

I want my children to be capable of looking after themselves by the time they leave home and I know there are still many years to get them ready but they have embarked on a journey towards independence from the moment they learnt to crawl and my role is to equip them for the journey, help them gauge the risks accurately rather than removing all obstacles.

The new year will begin with a better division of chores, a present that they don’t expect Santa to bring but they can thank me later in life. And the carrot sticks will continue make their way to school next year, but there will be a new pair of hands making them.

Mum, brace yourself, I’m going to high school

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First day at school – the backpack was as big as him.

The rain is falling on my window pane setting the perfect mood for this nostalgic Sunday afternoon of sifting through hundreds of moments frozen for digital eternity. I’ve procrastinated this task for a few weeks but today I rolled up my sleeves and sat in front to the computer with a pack of biscuits, a coffee and a mission: to find photos for my son’s end of primary school video. It was a retrospective look at the last seven years of our lives and it didn’t happen without smiles and tears.

I knew this day was coming and I’m grateful that I was able to participate in all transitions, from cot to playground to pre-school to primary school and now high school. But my heart clenches at the thought that from now on it’ll be more of me trying to get involved in his life than him in mine. I got used to him not reaching for my hand when we walk, saying ‘stop embarrassing me’ when I hug him in public and complaining when he has to join the family in our outings. I’m uncertain what’s going to be the next step of independence.

Looking at the images today made me realise that time is moving faster as my children get older. Perhaps because every time I look back there are more and more memories to remind me of what life once was, how cute they were, how much younger I looked. Sometimes I want to get back to the past to revisit those moments, make them last a bit longer. Other times I’m just happy that some of those moments are just a memory.

But what scares me is that some of these memories are just a vague recollection. These are the moments that I think I wasn’t as present as I should have. I was either too busy or life got in the way of living and if it wasn’t for the photographs some memories would just evaporate as if they had never existed.

That’s when I remind myself that I have to slow down and stop the auto-pilot because you can really only appreciate life if you are present to experience it and I want to look back at the end of Year 12 having not only collected memories but feeling and appreciating the different stages of life.

Now if you excuse me, someone is calling me to play with Pokemon cards 🙂

The year of the snake

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Celebrating 11 years of caking making for my kids. We’ve had all kinds of cakes (and sleepless nights) over the years, from the Hobbit, to spideman to animals

My life is full of imperfections and minor disasters but I’m glad and grateful to say that today,  I had a perfect day. I managed to finish the birthday cake the night before Lucas’ birthday party so in the morning I could work on the details of the celebration. Lucas invited 21 friends for the occasion – there was a lot of work to do.

The weather in Sydney has been gorgeous this autumn but on Saturday when I got up and looked out the window the ground was wet. Yes, rain on the horizon. Well, it was more of a strong drizzle, but that couldn’t be happening, not today when we were going to take 22 active boys on a bush walk. Luckily the birthday party fairies were on our side because an hour before the party the sun came out to save the day.

And so off  I went to the bush to hide 22 stuffed animals for the treasure hunt. I climbed up trees and rocks trying to camouflage the toys amongst the leaves and bark. I marked the area with bright ribbons and drew signs on the ground to hint to the kids where to look for the toys.

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I’ve been organising children’s birthday parties for 11 years. It’s always a lot of work. I’m always exhausted by the end of the day. I always promise next year I’ll do less. But then I look at the photos and think of the children’s face and my heart clenches. My eldest will soon be a teenager, he won’t be wanting these types of parties for much longer. So every year I keeping going back for more.

Despite the hard work, it’s so much fun organising the parties with my boys. Weeks before the celebration they come up with a theme, ideas of games, food and friends for the big day. We all cherish these moments and I’m sure these are memories they will return to for the rest of their lives.

IMG_5487

Back to the fine day, we went to an hour’s walk/treasure hunt in the bush down the road. Our march to get there drew the attention of onlookers, probably wondering why the exodus of so many children. My husband was notably stressed though. He thinks I’m crazy for organising these big parties and entertaining so many kids. The children behaved well and I could see some of them were not used to exercise and tree climbing, a few were quite tired by the end of the adventure. When everyone had found their toy we headed home to recharge the energy with  pizza, sushi and of course, treats.

Just before cake we had a Brazilian style piñata, made with a giant inflatable balloon. This is one of my favourite parts of the party, watching the kids going over the candy like ants. I’m glad to report that no one got hurt on the making of this video.

After everyone left we sat on the floor to read the birthday cards and open the gifts. This moment always brings a bit of jealousy on the other sibling but they have been generous enough to donate one of the gifts to the other.

Nothing really extraordinary happened today. Just a family celebrating life with children. And life doesn’t get any more perfect than that.

Do you organise parties for your children? Would love to hear your stories.

The year of the snake

IMG_5453

Celebrating 11 years of caking making for my kids. We’ve had all kinds of cakes (and sleepless nights) over the years, from the Hobbit, to spideman to animals

 

My life is full of imperfections and minor disasters but I’m glad and grateful to say that today,  I had a perfect day. I managed to finish the birthday cake the night before Lucas’ birthday party so in the morning I could work on the details of the celebration. Lucas invited 21 friends for the occasion – there was a lot of work to do.

The weather in Sydney has been gorgeous this autumn but on Saturday when I got up and looked out the window the ground was wet. Yes, rain on the horizon. Well, it was more of a strong drizzle, but that couldn’t be happening, not today when we were going to take 22 active boys on a bush walk. Luckily the birthday party fairies were on our side because an hour before the party the sun came out to save the day.

And so off  I went to the bush to hide 22 stuffed animals for the treasure hunt. I climbed up trees and rocks trying to camouflage the toys amongst the leaves and bark. I marked the area with bright ribbons and drew signs on the ground to hint to the kids where to look for the toys.

IMG_5464

I’ve been organising children’s birthday parties for 11 years. It’s always a lot of work. I’m always exhausted by the end of the day. I always promise next year I’ll do less. But then I look at the photos and think of the children’s face and my heart clenches. My eldest will soon be a teenager, he won’t be wanting these types of parties for much longer. So every year I keeping going back for more.

Despite the hard work, it’s so much fun organising the parties with my boys. Weeks before the celebration they come up with a theme, ideas of games, food and friends for the big day. We all cherish these moments and I’m sure these are memories they will return to for the rest of their lives.

IMG_5487

Back to the fine day, we went to an hour’s walk/treasure hunt in the bush down the road. Our march to get there drew the attention of onlookers, probably wondering why the exodus of so many children. My husband was notably stressed though. He thinks I’m crazy for organising these big parties and entertaining so many kids. The children behaved well and I could see some of them were not used to exercise and tree climbing, a few were quite tired by the end of the adventure. When everyone had found their toy we headed home to recharge the energy with  pizza, sushi and of course, treats.

Just before cake we had a Brazilian style piñata, made with a giant inflatable balloon. This is one of my favourite parts of the party, watching the kids going over the candy like ants. I’m glad to report that no one got hurt on the making of this video.

After everyone left we sat on the floor to read the birthday cards and open the gifts. This moment always brings a bit of jealousy on the other sibling but they have been generous enough to donate one of the gifts to the other.

Nothing really extraordinary happened today. Just a family celebrating life with children. And life doesn’t get any more perfect than that.

Do you organise parties for your children? Would love to hear your stories.