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Kids need more time to be kids

April 27, 2016

Kids need more time to be kids

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 27, 2016

Kids thrive with ample outdoor play. So I was reminded when I recently chaperoned a field trip for third-graders at a local park, where a parent, who is a fish biologist by day, worked with teachers to coordinate a set of pond study activities.

It was nearly spring break and students and teachers alike seemed to relish the opportunity to be outside, particularly, I thought, in contrast to long winter months of indoor learning and recent standardized testing sessions, each had endured.

To manage the flow of roughly 50 9-year olds, teachers divided the students into three teams. The first station, for the students to which I was assigned, included a host of art supplies – color pencils, markers, water colors and artist pads – and each child was encouraged to create a landscape image of the pond and surrounding terrain.

Clustered in small groups along the edge of a grassy slope, the kids set about creating their artistic renderings. My daughter Zoe, an art enthusiast, was in her element, chatting with friends as they sketched. As I roamed about, peeking at the drawings and helping students settle into the activity, I made my way to a boy who had found a spot away from the others.

His place was partially shaded from the morning sun by a stand of trees that stood at the water’s edge, where two other students eventually joined him. Paying little attention to my presence, the boy spoke to his peers with convincing sincerity, “I love art. It’s so peaceful. You can do whatever you want, there are no rules and no one tells you what to make.”

I walked away, thinking –  kids need more time for art.

At the next station students were encouraged to search for pond critters. The teacher and I each used long nets to dredge the bottom for muck, which we plopped into large plastic boxes. In teams of three, students sifted through their respective piles of mud and leaves, transferring the aquatic insects, crayfish and other creatures they found into separate containers of clear pond water for closer examination.

While a few students were restless during the brief instruction phase, once the hands-on learning began all students remained focused and engaged throughout the activity. Their enthusiasm was infectious as they screamed and giggled with delight at each new discovery, celebrating successes with other teams and never once requiring redirection.

I walked away, thinking –  kids need more time for nature studies.

My attention quickly shifted as I returned home to squeeze in a few hours of work before it was time to meet the school bus. Later, when Zoe stepped off the bus, she was beaming, looking refreshed from a day of outside adventure and discovery.

Younger brother Adam, on the other hand, grunted, passed his backpack to me and raced up the alley toward home. By the time Zoe and I walked in the door he had visited the bathroom, washed his hands and was halfway through his snack.

Moments later he rushed outside where he proceeded to set-up a temporary rock smashing station in the front yard, the full scale operation is located behind the house. There in the warmth of the afternoon sun, he knelt in the grass. With both hands firmly gripping the ballpeen hammer he had picked out at the local big box store last summer, he pounded a large rock that he had positioned atop a brick.

Swing after swing his 6-year old arms guided the hammer to the rock with notable intensity, in contrast, I imagined, to the indoor learning activities that had filled his day.

Each time a chunk broke loose, he paused, peering through his wrap-around safety glasses to examine the colors and crystals that were revealed. Satisfied, he continued, accumulating a collection of specimens to add to the rock and mineral museum he and sister Zoe created.

I have learned that the best chance of hearing what Adam is really thinking means waiting until we are snuggled in bed for story time. So that night, when I asked Adam what he most enjoys about hammering rocks he said, “Finding crystals.” When I asked how it feels to swing the hammer he said: “It feels good.” And, when I asked him what is like when the hammer hits the rock he said: “It’s exciting.”

After Adam fell asleep, I left his room, thinking –  kids need more time for smashing rocks.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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