Saturday, April 18, 2009

Planning Ahead - What's The Point in Summer?

Why don't children go to school during the summer months? We no longer live in an agrarian culture where our children have to help in the fields or toil on the farm. Why then, don’t children attend school year round? Is it not financially viable to pay our teachers to work for 12 months in the year? Let’s be honest, for many working parents summer means scrambling to find extended supervision and a sharp spike in “working parents’ guilt”. To a child, however, summer is unquestioningly playtime!

Self Directed and Self Initiated

Summer affords children the opportunity to engage in self directed, self initiated play and discovery. Without the pressure of homework or tests they can experiment, explore and question. They can wander, cognitively speaking, wherever their thoughts take them. The entire process of learning is inverted as our children take charge. Instead of imposing knowledge upon our children or asking them to learn material that may be of little interest to them, summer creates a unique moment in time for children to learn from their own exceptional perspective. This is in stark contrast to the regular school year where the constraints of formal education, the need for accountability and testable outcomes render learning linear in form with a fixed starting and end point. To that end, textbooks have a preset order and teachers design work that has a predetermined structure. Children’s thinking, however, has a more frenetic constitution. If we could look inside a child’s mind, we would see a neural network of knowledge, beliefs and expectations that is as individual as each child. Imagine your child’s mind as a spider’s web linking ideas, memories and facts together with neural strands that are individually crafted from life’s experiences. Children learn when those webs are expanded and enhanced. Summer recess offers children the freedom to choose their own areas of interest and follow their existing neural networks in whichever direction they lead. The breadth and depth of this thought is enhanced by each interaction that a child experiences because that link is created from within an existing knowledge structure that is then linked to new information.

Sparking Interest

Lacking insight into our child’s thoughts, we do not know which activities will spark great interest or motivate our children at any given moment. We do not know ahead of time which memories they will store and which will be forgotten. Is coaxing a bored child around a museum more educationally sound than building sandcastles on the beach? Will make believe dragons make a better memory than s’mores around the campfire? In our highly pressured, fast paced society we have grown accustomed to results and end products. Try to avoid looking for a quantifiable outcome and focus on the actual event.

Neural Networks

As your child’s ice cream is melting down his or her arm and soiling a new, overpriced tee shirt on a hot summer’s day remember that your child will internalize this experience within that neural network from the unique perspective of childhood. Similarly, letting your child plan day trips to museums and historical sites turns these activities into child directed events with greater potential for significant cognitive growth. Because they are the architects of their neural networks this information is stored in a more meaningful context that can be utilized and retrieved with greater flexibility. It is not the activity itself that holds the potential, it is the execution of the act as a child centered, child directed process with no preset goal that determines its long term value.

Follow Their Lead

To maximize the benefits of summer, our charge is to listen to our children and follow their lead. Use the luxury of summer time to encourage your child to pursue his or her own ideas. Be spontaneous. Trust your child. Focus on creating a risk free environment where your child can hypothesize, plan and think as an individual.

The Illusion of Knowledge

Ironically, this type of discovery or constructivist learning that is the ideal tool for cognitive growth is often suppressed during the school year in favor of facts can be learned by rote and that give the illusion of knowledge. They tend to create superficial learning since they are not connected to the child’s existing body of knowledge in a meaningful way robbing a child of the depth of knowledge that is associated with expertise in any given field. That “ah-ha” moment of realization that Archimedes experienced when he discovered displacement while sitting in his bathtub exemplifies the complexity of thought and the distinctiveness of each person’s neural network.

The Point

The point of summer, then, is to offer our children the intellectual, social and emotional freedom to experience their own “ah-ha” moments. They may not be as grandiose as displacement theory but the potential for creativity and genius none-the-less exists within those long, hot lazy days of summer.

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