Alliance for Childhood Campaigns to Take Pressure Off Children
When I last wrote to you about the Alliance I described our latest campaign to restore active, imaginative play to children's lives. In the intervening months news reports and research have underlined the growing importance of this work.
In a misguided effort to boost achievement, time for play is being pushed out of kindergarten in favor of academics. In many communities five-year-olds now attend all-day kindergartens where they spend 90 minutes each day in writing and reading lessons, 60 minutes doing math, and 30 minutes on science.
Music and art-once at the heart of the early childhood curriculum but now considered frills-come only once a week. At most, the children get one outdoor recess per day. Some new schools are being built with no playgrounds. In one Washington, DC area school district, the word "play" does not appear at all in the kindergarten curriculum.
In California and other states, kindergarten children are drilled on reading skills with programs that require teachers to follow a set script. In Chicago, according to the New York Times, all kindergarten teachers follow the exact same curriculum that dictates what is to be taught each day. Each activity is linked to a standardized test the children will take.
This year Head Start changed its curriculum to place more emphasis on early academics and less on play. Head Start programs will be evaluated according to how well children do on standardized assessments-in spite of research showing that testing of such young children is generally unreliable.
The Washington Post reported in March that school officials were eliminating nap time from all-day public preschool programs. "Nap time needs to go away," Prince George's County schools chief André J. Hornsby said during a meeting with Maryland legislators. "We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do."
The main reason given for such policies is that children need more time for academic learning. Yet long-term research shows clearly that young children at risk do much better in play-oriented programs than those pushed into academic work. They showed fewer learning disabilities, were more likely to graduate from high school, and were less likely to commit crimes and go to prison as young adults.
Good schools give breaks to enhance children's learning and well-being, just as good businesses give breaks to enhance productivity. Especially at a time when childhood obesity is growing, cutting back on children's limited opportunities to be active outdoors is short-sighted.
The Alliance for Childhood has embarked on an ambitious effort to educate parents, teachers, and education policymakers about the importance of imaginative play in children's development, and about the potential for harm in current policies that endanger play. This effort is every bit as urgent-and every bit as difficult-as the Alliance's continuing work in the area of technology and children, because it runs counter to what many adults assume is the best way to prepare children for the future.
We believe that children who are allowed to be children will grow into healthy, resilient, productive adults. "Today we are so busy preparing children for the technologically advanced workplace," writes developmental psychologist William Crain, "that we fail to give them the experiences they need.
"We see no point in letting the child ramble through weeded lots or dabble leisurely at the edge of a stream. Instead, educational-policy makers encourage more time at computer terminals and longer school days and school years, all of which mean more time indoors. And children's after-school hours are filled with video games, electronic toys, and television, keeping them in artificial, indoor environments."
Dr. Crain, who is a member of the Alliance's board of trustees, continues: "We are so obsessed with preparing children for the future that we are depriving them of the chance to develop their artistic orientation, ties to nature, and other distinctive traits of the childhood years. I am suggesting that we are, in effect, stunting their growth, and future research may show that the effects show up in increased depression, suicidal ideation, restlessness, and other symptoms of unfulfilled lives."
There are some hopeful signs, however. Using the Alliance's work, the press is beginning to question the wisdom of putting so much pressure on children.
"We're killing our students and teachers with this quest for accountability," the Portland Oregonian reported last month on the front page of its Sunday Forum section. "The Alliance for Childhood in College Park, Md., a child advocacy group, says 'high-stakes testing leads to large increases in the number of school dropouts and contributes to the flight of good teachers from public schools.'"
The Fresno, California newspaper quoted extensively from the Alliance's web site in commenting on California's increasing reliance on high-stakes testing. It pointed out that the Alliance's position statement on testing was endorsed by physicians Robert Coles and Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School, Stanley Greenspan of George Washington University Medical School, Marilyn Benoit of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and "a host of other notable signers" who stated that "test-related stress is literally making children sick." (To read the entire statement, go to http://allianceforchildhood.org/news/histakes_test_position_statement.htm.)
We believe that schools should be places where children grow, thrive, and learn. A balanced, creative education can foster good health in children-physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally. An imbalanced education, driven by unreasonable fear of failure, places unhealthy stress on children and contributes to the alarming increases in physical and mental illness we are now seeing.
To continue our campaign to educate the public about play, technology, testing, and their effects on children's health and well-being through the coming year, the Alliance must raise an additional $25,000 in the next few months. Please give as generously as you can. We invite you to work with us in honoring childhood and supporting children's right to a healthy upbringing and education.
To make giving to the Alliance easier we now have a secure service for accepting donations via credit card on our web site. Just go to http://allianceforchildhood.org. You can also mail a check to the Alliance for Childhood, Box 444, College Park, MD 20741. All donations are tax-deductible.
We thank you for the interest and support you've shown us in our first five years. Help us to achieve even more success in this most challenging time-for the sake of the children.
P.S.: All donors of $40 or more will receive a free advance copy of the Alliance's new report, Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology, when it is available this fall.