Lancer Letter – A Simple Gift

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

Author’s Note: For the next three weeks, I will be rerunning a three part series which I wrote for the holiday season in 2011. I call it the “Simple Gift series” and I hope you agree it is worth printing again.

A Simple Gift. In the popular holiday movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s a scene from the childhood of George Bailey, the lead role played by Jimmy Stuart. In the scene, George and all the neighborhood kids are sled riding down a hill next to a pond. The kids use wide coal shovels as their sleds and George’s younger brother, Harry, goes too far and falls into the pond. George jumps in to save him and with the help of the other children, they are pulled to safety.

kids sledding In today’s world, that scenario would be quite different. The children would not be improvising with shovels as our abundance would provide a variety of sledding devices to use. If a child fell in the pond, the news media would be there asking all kinds of questions: “Is the manufacturer of the shovel at fault?” “Is the property owner at fault?” “Why isn’t there a fence around the pond.” “Who should have been supervising?” Of course the incident would prompt a legislator to draft a bill so “this will never happen again.” All shovels would have a warning label reading, “This device is not designed for sledding” and sledding devices would be labeled, “Only to be used under the supervision of an adult.”

While it is always good to be concerned about the safety of our children, I’m afraid that we’ve allowed our abundance and fears to rob children of a very critical activity: unstructured play time. This Christmas, millions of dollars will be spent on elaborate toys. But, neuroscientist Adele Diamond and psychologist Deborah Leong have good news: The best kind of play costs nothing and really only has one main requirement — imagination.

In a report for National Public Radio, Alix Spiegel notes about play of the past, “while all that play might have looked a lot like time spent doing nothing much at all, it actually helped build a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of elements, such as working memory and cognitive flexibility. But perhaps the most important is self-regulation — the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. Executive function — and its self-regulation element — is important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ.”

Children need time to play using nothing but their imagination. They need opportunity to let their back porch be their ship and the awning its sail. They need to create a “gas station” using sticks, ropes and door handles. They need the opportunity to play in groups where, they, not the adults, make the rules.

We now have an abundance of toys and electronic devices that are available to children. These devices can offer some valuable learning experiences and have their place. But, we cannot allow time spent in front of screens to totally replace time spent in unstructured play both alone and with other children. “Moderation in all things.”

I have had the conversation several times with fellow educators expressing our fears about how adult-dominated activities have taken over children’s lives. There are soccer leagues, wrestling clubs, little league, music and dance lessons. I’ve often joked that adults would organize a league for fetuses if they could. (All that kicking in the womb could be the beginning of a great soccer career!)

In her report, Spiegel goes on to say:

“Unfortunately, play has changed dramatically during the past half-century, and according to many psychological researchers, the play that kids engage in today does not help them build executive function skills. Kids spend more time in front of televisions and video games. When they aren’t in front of a screen, they often spend their time in leagues and lessons — activities parents invest in because they believe that they will help their children to excel and achieve.”

In recent years, I have heard the term “executive function” more and more from the psychologists involved with our children. Can it be we are placing more children in special education and special programs just because we’ve robbed them of appropriate play opportunities? The answer is YES!

In these difficult financial times, our district has not cut back on our arts programs like many schools have. Giving children an opportunity to exercise creativity and practice self-expressions is critical and parents must continue it at home by giving children opportunity to find their own creative voice.

If you are one of the many people who say, “I’m not creative,” I’d like to suggest a book for your Christmas list. A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger Von Oech is a fun read with simple ideas to help you find your creative spirit. It was originally published in 1983 and is still available due to its popularity.

If the book doesn’t help, watch this year’s installment of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from a different perspective. It’s a bunch of kids who, without adult supervision, have established their own society with its own rules. Charlie Brown may be a blockhead, but he’s developing good executive function.

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The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion.

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