Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What I Needed to Know I Learned In My Child’s Kindergarten

You know those quintessential kindergarten teachers you meet in picture books? They are always ready with a hug and a song, an endless supply of delightfully messy projects and deliciously nutritious snacks. They have a block area, a dress-up area, a big bucket of junk, and a welcoming lap. They have a reading corner crammed with colorful overstuffed pillows. They understand the importance of play. Mary Jo is one of those teachers, and then some. Her reading corner is a refinished antique claw foot bathtub which overflows with the comfiest pillows anyone’s ever snuggled into. That tub is where my daughters learned to love reading.

Because my girls attend a school with multi-age classrooms, their kindergarten teacher stayed with them for first and second grade as well. My daughters were born just over three years apart. Three years, three weeks, and two days to be exact. There isn’t any correct period of time between having children. Every age has its advantages and disadvantages, but the particular gap separating my daughters came with one unforeseen bonus. It allowed each of them to have the incomparable Mary Jo for three years straight. It presented me with six consecutive years to count my children’s blessings.

The result was six years of essential development in which my daughters built dynamic structures out of blocks, painted sensational pictures, created mysterious potions involving borax (mysterious because I am still not clear what borax is ever used for outside of potion-making), learned how to cooperate with others, and went on nature walks to discover the greatest joys in the simplest things. The ultimate result is that my girls love learning and, even in their relative advanced ages of twelve and nine, can’t wait to get to school every day.

Shortly after my youngest said her tearful goodbyes to Mary Jo at the end of second grade, she received a sweet letter from her teacher conveying beautiful wishes written personally for my daughter’s future, wishes which expressed knowledge of who my child is as no one else could have articulated. Truly touching sentiments which brought tears to my eyes that I will treasure forever.

Accompanying the letter was a newspaper article Mary Jo had found. It was about kids and summer time, how middle-class children today are formally scheduled for such a giant portion of their summer vacations – swim team, camps, classes on every subject under the sun. When they are home, they spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet and with video games instead of playing baseball in the sandlot. The author mourned the carefree days of her youth, playing in the street until nightfall and being allowed to get bored. This is a tricky issue.

I live in a large city but it is not just urban dwelling parents who worry about our children if we let them out of our sight. We know instinctively that they need to have the freedom to run and make their own mistakes and figure out the pecking order in the neighborhood. We also know that very real dangers may be lurking around the corner. I have a hard time allowing my children to walk the dog for more than a couple of blocks without taking a cellphone with them. That is not the world I grew up in, nor the one I want to live in.

I have rarely seen my children more happy than on a family vacation to Siesta Key, on Florida’s west coast. The beach was wide and mostly empty, of people and obstacles. We all loved time on the sands before sunset. My wife and I strolled and enjoyed the time to connect that only vacations can bring. Our girls ran wild for what seemed like miles. Naturally, or perhaps environmentally cautious, they would turn to check in once in a while, but essentially they had the freedom of the whole beach. It was a magical time and one we find hard to duplicate at home. The story serves as a good reminder to take more vacations, but also brings up an important question. How can we find a balance between protecting our kids and giving them space to grow up to become independent thinkers and adventurers?

A wise friend once told me that she thought it was important that children learn an essential lesson in life: how to be bored. The last time we moved house, while my wife and I were packing and organizing in the weeks leading up to the move, the kids got into the habit of watching more television than they were used to. From our point of view, it kept them quiet and out of the way. For them, it gave them some respite from the chaos.

After we moved to the new house, we didn’t get around to plugging in the TV for a few weeks. We were all busy creating our new spaces. Something else unexpected happened. My daughters re-discovered the joys of finding their way out of boredom without a television. They made a city out of moving boxes, they played cards together, they painted, they got to know the new kids in the neighborhood, they read books, they spent their time doing all the wholesome things we imagine kids did before the dawn of TV. When we eventually did connect the television, they were already in the habit of finding other things to do. They still don’t watch too often. They have discovered some child-friendly websites which keep their attention on the computer screen more than I would like, however they continue to create, to play, to read, and to run in the sprinklers.

In the summertime, my family tries to find a balance for the girls between camps, classes, and pure unadulterated downtime. Even I wouldn’t expect my children to entertain themselves for three whole months, time that was once set aside for them to help me bring in the harvest. However I do think they need to learn how to pull themselves up out of the well of boredom.

In the article that Mary Jo sent me, the author made a great point about how unstructured downtime allows the creative spirit to flow. Neale Donald Walsch makes the same point in his popular book Conversations with God. If we’re always busy, or spending our free time in front of a screen, how can we let the underlying seeds of our creativity begin to poke their heads into the light? Are we raising a generation devoid of poets, writers, actors and songwriters if we deny our children the space to find their way out of boredom?

As a part-time writer who has a full-time teaching job and a family, both of which require great chunks of my time, I struggle with these very questions. It’s not that I cannot make the time to write, but I find myself with very little downtime in which to simply cogitate, to let the ideas flow. If I structure my life so that I am continually busy, constantly keeping occupied by the list of things I have to do, I will never learn to find my way out of boredom. I will minimize the development of my creative abilities. The artist in me yearns for that kind of time. The responsible adult hates to give it up.

There is infinite wisdom in Robert Fulghum’s famous essay All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One of his recommendations goes like this: “Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” I know Mary Jo agrees with this sentiment.

As teachers, she and I have talked about the difference between the work we are paid to do and the work done by our friends and relatives in the so-called ‘rat race’. My work was once dismissed by someone close to me who claimed that “those who can do, and those who can’t teach.” Baloney. Not only have I worked alongside incredibly talented teachers who could be outstanding artists, managers, engineers, and stockbrokers, I have personally trained former architects, lawyers, soldiers, and salespeople to become teachers. They wanted to contribute to the common good. The way Mary Jo describes it, those of us who teach may not be turning a profit, but we are affecting the future by molding young minds.

I know that Mary Jo has been instrumental in teaching my girls to live what Fulghum calls a balanced life. Under her guidance and tutelage, they learned some and thought some and drew some and painted some and sang some and danced some and played some and worked some every single day. They continue to do so. With the tragic cultural shift towards standardized testing and away from arts programs in our public schools, much of what Mary Jo teaches every day has been tossed by the wayside. It shouldn’t be. It is through the kind of learning that goes on in Mary Jo’s kindergarten, first, and second grade class that our collective future lies.

I want my children to know facts. I want them to know how to balance a checkbook, read the smallprint, speak a foreign language, and learn the lessons of history. I also want them to exist in the world as artists. I want them to create their way out of boredom, out of a problem, and out of the box. I want them to be independent thinkers and adventurers. I want them to work well with others, to find the joy in learning, and to love life.

I know that they have received an outstanding start at the hands of an unbelievably talented educator and friend. I am filled with awe and gratitude.

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