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Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School

Sat, 05/09/2015 - 10:26am
 This article from the Atlantic has interesting information about self-directed play for children. This is exactly what drives the Montessori environment (not really a "classroom") and the outdoor environment of our summer program.




 The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals. Jessica Lahey                                                   June 20, 2014                                             Most schools across the nation have marked the end of another academic year, and it’s time for summer. Time for kids to bolt for the schoolhouse doors for two long months of play, to explore their neighborhoods and discover the mysteries, treasures, and dramas they have to offer. This childhood idyll will hold true for some children, but for many kids, the coming of summer signals little more than a seasonal shift from one set of scheduled, adult-supervised lessons and activities to another.
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. The value of free play,  daydreaming, risk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.
Children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function.The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in “less structured,” spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and “structured” activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control. It’s worth noting that when classifying activities as “less structured” or “structured,” the authors deemed all child-initiated activities as “less-structured,” while all adult-led activities were “structured.”
All of this is in keeping with the findings of Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who studies the benefits of play in human development. In his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, he elaborates on how play supports the development of executive function, and particularly self-directed control:
Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.When we reduce the amount of free playtime in American preschools and kindergartens, our children stand to lose more than an opportunity to play house and cops and robbers. Some elementary programs recognize the importance of play and protect its role in preschool and kindergarten. Montessori schools and Tools of the Mind curricula are designed to capitalize on the benefits of self-directed free play and student-initiated activities. Tools of the Mind programs, for example, place even more importance on developing executive function than on academic skills. In their terminology, “self-regulation” is the key to success both in school and in life:
Kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as the most important competency for school readiness; at the same time, these teachers report that many of their students come to school with low levels of self-regulation. There is evidence that early self-regulation levels have a stronger association with school readiness than do IQ or entry-level reading or math skills, and they are closely associated with later academic achievement. This is not news to most teachers, who, when tasked with educating increasingly crowded classrooms, hope and pray for students with well-developed executive function. The ability to self-direct can spell the difference between an independent student, who can be relied upon to get her work done while chaos reigns around her, and a dependent, aimless student, who is distracted by his classmates and must be guided from one task to the next.
Parents, if you really want to give your kid a head start on coming school year, relinquish some of that time you have earmarked for lessons or sports camp and let your children play. That’s it. Just play.
Categories: Citizens

Watch and Wait

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 11:43am
From the folks at Baan Dek:

On May 6, 1952, Maria Montessori passed away in the village of Noordwick aan Zee, on the North Sea, in the west of the Netherlands. As with those who were brave enough to live, great stories are told of how they met their end. In Rita Kramer’s biography, Montessori’s last moments are recounted thus:
“Maria had been thinking of making a trip to Africa, but it had been suggested that because of the state of her health she ought not to travel but arrange instead for her lectures to be given by someone else. Mario was with her and she turned to him and said, “Am I no longer of any use then?” An hour later she was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.”

Three years before, at the Sorbonne in Paris, Montessori was awarded the Legion of Honor from France. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Price in 1949, 1950 and 1951, respectively. It was a time of great hope and promise – a certain sense of renewal and dedication to the future was everywhere self-evident.
The life of Maria Montessori, to be sure, was replete with travel and adventure. There was a great sense of personal and professional achievement. Yet, her singular purpose was a fearless commitment to see her newly discovered science of education disseminated across the world. Of course, her ambition was not merely to spread her observations, it was much more centered on how to empower children to follow their interests.
Montessori trusted that while her original insights would eventually be validated by science, as indicated by her global recognition, what mattered most wasn’t the method, practice or even implementation, but rather, the adoption by children. If the Montessori approach to education was to be truly successful, it would have to be at the hands of children.

It wasn’t teachers, or even parents that would see to the success of Montessori. No, it was future generations. It was, as Montessori might have said, not the fact that society was focusing its attention, but rather, what that attention was pointed towards: the child. The child held promises that had long since expired, or in the least faded away, in adults. Nevertheless, everyone could readily identify in the child, the outlines of what was to come.
Rita Kramer makes the case that, “An educator and teacher, Montessori ended her life by saying that neither teaching nor education brings about the child’s development.” Kramer continues, in a somewhat radical and far-seeing summary of the Montessori philosophy, one that contains the heart of what makes this approach so special:
“ all educators and teachers can do is refrain from placing obstacles in the child’s path by providing him with an environment in which he is “free to create himself ”As we look back and reflect on this magnificent life Montessori led, with the vantage point of nearly three quarters of a century, we are humbled by her project and her willingness to, even at her last moment, engage in the noble effort to spread a different set of values throughout the world.
Montessori was once asked to sum up her new approach to education. “Attendee, osservando – watch and wait.”
Categories: Citizens

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