The older of our two children initiated this conversation with me last week. As a follow up to Father’s Day, it seemed appropriate:
“I never really understood the purpose of homework.”
“Well, sweetie, some people think that it helps you practice what you’ve learned.”
“Well, why can’t we practice in school?”
“Some people think it helps you remember better if you do it at home.”
“That’s so not true.”
“Maybe, but it is true that when you are older you will have to do some things on your own in order to be ready for school and the next lessons.”
“So why can’t we wait until high school?”
“Some people think that’s when homework should begin. I think it probably makes sense to wait until at least 5th grade.”
“Yeah. You should tell Ms. H*** that.”
“I think I should probably let your principal do her job herself.”
I have to confess that there is something both poignant and a bit tragic in this conversation. It is very important to my wife and I that we offer support to the teachers and school our children attend, but it is also important to tell the truth to them as best as is appropriate for their very young ages. The truth is that I have complained (my wife might say ranted) about homework policies since our children began in New York City public schools because I can think of no actual developmental advantage at all to beginning homework in KINDERGARTEN. While there is some lively debate among childhood development experts about when to begin and how much homework is appropriate (some suggest it is never appropriate), I know of no research that suggests 20 minutes of seat time an evening does much of anything. And I can think of a number of reasons why it is counter productive.
For some children, this is not an exceptionally big deal. They enjoy worksheets. They have unusual focus. They are also outliers. My older child is a bit of a homework resister, has a mind that enjoys wandering and making up stories about just about anything. Things get very creative, but they do not get speedy. Seat time at home, unsurprisingly, stretches out regardless of the approach we take as parents, and in the spirit of telling the truth, I personally struggle with offering a cheerful and enthusiastic “Let’s finish your homework!” in contrast to “Let’s play with some Lego!” Playing with Lego offers a child a chance to practice decision making, planning, eye hand coordination. It invites experimentation and revision. It offers a chance to interweave narrative into the process of building. When done with another person, it requires compromise and negotiation. In pretty much every conceivable way, 30 minutes of such play is vastly more enriching for a young child than 30 minutes of worksheets.
Even though I am not an early childhood development expert, I think that, if asked, I could in short order create a “homework” program for early grades that requires that parents and children sit down twice a week and the children use work that they’ve done in school to explain to parents what they have been learning. The idea behind that would be to foster greater awareness among parents of what their children’s teachers are doing and reinforce the message to families that an education is a partnership. And I’d leave it at that at least through all of elementary school because children need unstructured, free play. This is not even up for argument as the research is very clear. Unstructured play is a vital component of growing up, and it nourishes a range of skills that children need if they are going to be competent adults who know how to think creatively, problem solve, make decisions and work cooperatively. A bucket of Legos, a box of costume clothes, a set of Matchbox cars, paint and paper — all of these represent genuine opportunities to stretch and enrich the mind.
And we are, more and more, taking them away from children. An elementary school student who spends 8:15am to 3:15pm in school, who then goes to music, dance or sports classes every day of the week and then comes home to seat work is an eight year-old whose entire day is filled with activities that others have chosen for her. They may be fun and interesting, and the people with whom she comes in contact may all be outstanding at what they do. And there isn’t a real consensus among experts about where the line between “healthy enrichment” and “neurosis prone stress case with no planning skills” exists (hint: it is going to be different for every child). But those caveats do not diminish the importance of “down time” without structure or goals.
And when homework becomes an accepted norm in early elementary school, we’ve just bitten another chunk out of available time for play.
This wound, by the way, is almost entirely self-inflicted. While we are hearing occasional stories about elementary schools curtailing recess so their students can prepared to take their “College and Career Readiness” tests as part of the Common Core reforms, it would be disingenuous to suggest that middle class parents have not be hurtling along this path of less and less free time for their children for some time now. David Labaree of Stanford University has written extensively about the pitfalls of “credentialism” in education. The idea is that when parents assess that the purpose of school is for their children to gain the credentials necessary for them to move up an increasingly competitive ladder of educational and then economic rewards, the pressure increases to do anything that differentiates their children from their peers — who are viewed more and more as competitors rather than playmates. We don’t just see this in after school activities. We see it in endlessly seeking things in school that will “look good” on a college application, including looking for a portrait of a school community that will send out the message that everything is “rigorous” and appropriately time consuming. Does it matter if the school’s curriculum is really teaching planning and problem solving skills, so long as people nod their heads approvingly that all of the honors students have hours of homework a night that is squeezed in between school newspaper, orchestra, at least one sport and a bedtime that doesn’t allow a healthy 8 hours a night? We used to point in horror at that stereotypical Little League Father who screamed at coaches for not playing their kids enough — it turns out they were trend setters among parents of college bound children.
All of which loops back for me to my conversation with my child. I think the teachers that I have met so far understand all of this, but they are part of a system whose most involved stakeholders have demanded more and more the appearance of rigor without understanding that the substance of learning in both formal and informal settings is a lot more messy than an ledger sheet. We don’t need to eliminate these things from our children’s lives, but we most assuredly need to seek better balances. And we need to rethink our values. Growing up and becoming a capable adult requires time, and that time cannot just be packed if we really expect our children to learn from it.