It’s that time of year again. That time where conversations naturally turn to, “What are you doing for the summer holiday?” Thoughts of no alarms, books to read, good food and deliriously happy hours spent with people you love.
It’s also a time of year that breaks my heart. That time where advertisements for creative writing classes, etiquette lessons and coding camps invade every view here in Singapore. From the sides of buses, to newspaper articles, to public libraries, you can’t look anywhere without having a holiday tuition class invading your eyeballs.
No moment ‘wasted’
I worry about what we are expecting of our children, even during their holidays away from school commitments. They are worked hard during term time. So many families here in Singapore spend their time outside of school hours chasing extra-curricular classes. I could tell you about the mother who collected her young children from school at 5pm, after they had participated in the extra-curricular activities offered by the school, giving them dinner in the car on the way to their Kumon Mathematics class. Or the child who went to rollerblading lessons after her two hours of phonics class on a Saturday, at the end of a full week of school and before Drama enrichment lessons on Sundays. Or the family who spend precious, bleary-eyed time before school in swimming training, and then four afternoons a week, from the school bell to the dinner bell, in gymnastics classes. Or the six year old whose playdate with a buddy couldn’t start until 5pm on a Saturday, after the Mandarin tutor and Chess Tutor had left…
It’s not just school-gate whispers. A recent survey by The Straits Times found that 7 in 10 parents send their children to tuition outside of school. 40% of preschool children attend private tuition even before they start school, in an effort to help them match the academic level of their peers (!). And when asked why, one overarching answer was that everyone else was doing it.
This article claims that fear of “idling time away on weekends and school holidays” is causing parents to drag their children around the island. A recent Straits Times article declared that these June holidays, we should “Give children free time and space”. Bit of a false headline – the article then goes on to talk about alternative tuition opportunities, things outside ballet and mathematics classes that your child could attend when they are on holidays (besides the ever-clever Dr Sirene Lim, who stressed the importance of leisure time).
I’m not at all against giving children opportunities, or against children following their passions. What I am against is the over-scheduling of our children at the detriment of their time spent in self-directed play. Because if our kids are spending so long each day being told what to do by a teacher/instructor/tutor, at what stage do they get to make their own decisions, manage their own time and direct their own attention?
Executive functioning skills and child-led play
I truly believe this has a knock-on effect on our children’s ability to control themselves, their thinking and their behaviour. Throughout childhood, our brains are constantly growing and finding new ways of making us function as human beings. This over-scheduling of children, with many adult-led activities, leaves kids unable to practice making their own decisions, planning their own games and tasks, organising their own resources and ideas, and regulating their emotions and impulses. Our children need lots of time and opportunities to exercise these skills, which are broadly defined as “executive functioning” skills. These are the mental processes that enable our children to plan and organise, and help them grow up to lead a life as an active, contributing member of society. Harvard University gives a great overview of how these skills play out in child development.
I’ve seen plenty of children who can recite the alphabet and corresponding letter sounds, count to 100 and regurgitate their times tables on demand, but who can’t get their lunchbox out from their bag independently without reminders, despite hearing the lunch bell, washing their hands and having a rumbling tummy. Or who complain to the teacher that they don’t have a chair to sit on, despite an available chair being within their line of sight. But what do executive functioning skills have to do with child-led play?
Less-structured vs. adult led activities
In June 2014, psychologists from the University of Colorado conducted a study into the relationship between time spent in less-structured activities and executive functioning skills. They found the more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. They also found a strong link between structured activities and poorer self-directed executive functioning. It totally makes sense to me, as a teacher – the more that children have someone telling them how to do things and controlling their experiences, the less children view themselves as capable of doing things (BIG things, like thinking up ideas and making choices and overriding their impulses) for themselves. For me, structured activities don’t just mean sitting down at a desk and being told what to write about – structured activities can creep into our children’s lives in the guise of an indoor play centre, or a craft session, or a soccer camp.
Jessica Lahey wrote this fabulous article for The Atlantic about the study, and makes the great point that “Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health.”
Honouring our children
I’ve worked with children who defer to adults at the slightest roadblock. Who see adults as the keepers of all solutions, all permission, all ideas. I’ve encountered adults who view children as incapable of making their own decisions, as unable to find their own, effective ways of doing things. It breaks my heart that so many of our children spend so much time performing to adult agendas, following adult schedules, puzzling over adult-developed problems. When do we begin to see our children as human beings in their own right; to honour their ideas and desires and plans and journeys?
These summer holidays, I will be honouring my son’s urge to stay home and weave his own days.
I will be honouring his desire to make his childhood his own; not a myriad of experiences I think he will enjoy and gain from.
I will be honouring his urge to simply hang out with his friends; to structure their own games and rules and ways of doing things.
I will be honouring the beauty of boredom!
I will be honouring his right to have a bit of fun, his own way.
I will be honouring him as a human being, with a natural desire to play.
Other great links
A great Children and Nature Network article about nature and executive functioning.
The original research, “Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning”, 2014.
Need help with ways to support your children in self-directed play this summer? Check out this list (hand it over and let them do what they want with it….)
Not convinced that your child really is better off without your expert planning? See if my old favourite, Peter Gray, can convince you with his article, “Backing off is hard to do”.
My first article about getting out of the way of children’s play.