These days we spend a lot of time, in our lives and in our schools, trying to figure out how to focus. From what I can tell, we seem to be very worried that our multi-tasking and multi-media are going to be the ruin of our brain’s ability to zero in on a problem and solve it and that we are, as a whole, getting dumber–at least that’s what the test scores would indicate. Right?
And, it appears as though the answer from above (wherever that is) is to provide more and more rigor, more structure, more and more opportunities for quiet, focused W-O-R-K, and more testable ways to measure just how good or bad we are at this or that task. For adults, this can be seen in the way that many workplaces have now blocked their employee’s ability to access the internet in an effort to encourage workers to stay on-task at all times, and, for children, schools have become frantic, anxious places where meeting the required “instructional time” is the end-all, be-all objective. Now that we are fully immersed in a NCLB educational culture that strives to forge the measurable, quantifiable types of tested intelligence over the intuitive, imaginative, creative types of knowledge (that we all know are actually so important), people like me always seem a little bit crazy to the Rulemakers. In this data-driven environment, I’m always looking for proof to uphold the notion that a little craziness is really a smart thing.
But, first, I need to rant just a bit.
Here in my school district, you are just 9 or 10 years old when you experience your last recess. Now, despite the fact that there is no shortage of information regarding the benefits of the active playtime known as recess, I find this phenomenon to be almost universal in the 30-40 different school districts that I visit each year. Google Dr. Tom Jambor, an internationally renowned “Playground Specialist,” and Dr. Olga S. Jarrett, associate professor of early childhood education at Georgia State University, to read about real studies that show how this trend of cutting recess for academics is completely wrong-headed. A 2006 article I found on this very topic reveals a shocking truth: Only 3 states now require recess and only 10 recommend it. According to this report, my state of NJ neither requires nor recommends it, and this article is almost five years old.
Parallel to the diminishing, free playground-running-around-time is the new, disturbing rise of childhood obesity.
Also in my school district, the period of time that children have to buy and eat their lunch is only 20 minutes. Forget that they want (and need) to socialize with their friends and forget even fitting in using the lavatory in this time frame and just think about how meaningful eating could possibly be when you have 10-15 minutes to do it by the time you get to the table? Fast food nation, indeed! After lunch, they are shuttled off to the auditorium and, despite the fact that this room is, by its nature, an acoustically soundproof room, children are given assigned seating with 2 chairs between them and no one is permitted to talk or move around but, instead, forced to read in silence. Oh, and there are eight, numbered bathroom passes available for this 20 minutes that can be picked up by eight students to use the lavatory but only 2 kids may leave the room at a time. My understanding is that students have become manic in trying, not only to get the cards, but to get them in an order that will allow them to use the bathroom with their friend. You can get in a lot of trouble during this time, ironically referred to as DEAR (for Drop Everything And Read), for talking, laughing, or getting out of your seat, and for which you will get a lunch detention. But the kids don’t seem to care because the lunch detention is not all that different than DEAR. Ask them what they think of it and they say, “I hate lunch.” Since the beginning of time, NO CHILD has EVER hated lunch…. it’s usually the answer to the question, what’s your favorite subject in school?! Am I crazy or does this sound draconian?
So, here’s an article that says exercise makes us smarter. And, it’s not just some crazy, artist-educational-consultant like me saying so–it’s real scientists who looked at brain scans, basal ganglias and everything!!
And, here’s an article about how LL Bean actually increased productivity by substituting assembly time with mini-exercise breaks. Yeah, that’s right, they took away production time for exercise and production went up.
Here’s an article about the benefits of laughter and it includes a whole bunch of information about hormonal influences, social development, and even a little exercise of the diaphragm. Plus, there are sources at the bottom–from real learned people who do real studies, collect real data and know all kinds of real smart stuff.
And, importantly, here’s a link to the well-known Hart and Risley study about how conversations make kids smarter. Dr. Risley delineates the difference between “business-talk” and “responsive communication” with children and likens the latter to a dance. I like that.
Finally, just for you adults, here’s an article on why grownups should have access to the internet at work. Turns out there’s a real study, by real scientists, that shows…. well, you can probably guess.
My son hated his fifth-grade teacher and he was always getting in trouble in her class. It was a terrible year. I winced every time the phone rang. I’m sure she didn’t like him either and I am not so in love with my children as to believe that sometimes, people just don’t like each other, that chemistry is what it is and all you can do is to suck it up and get through it. But I will never forget coming into the first parent-teacher conference with her to sit down to a spread of papers upon which he’d doodled all kinds of cartoony characters. She had them all there to show me what he’d “been up to” in her class. Gross, boyish depictions of monster-like guys doing gross things.
He drew them on the back of his homework, along the sides of his worksheets and even on his tests and quizzes after he’d finished them. I asked how his grades were and she told me he was making A’s and B’s but she was infuriated and said, “Mrs. Hosta, this has got to stop.” The only thing I could think of to say was “O.K., I’ll work on this.” And then the artist went home and commanded her child to stop drawing.
I only wish I’d known, then, about the real and actual scientific study that was going on in the UK by Dr. Jackie Andrade. Who knew that doodling can increase concentration in boring settings by about 30%?
I’d write more but in about an hour, I’m meeting awesome, creative, laughing and joking friends Lena Shiffman, Pam Swallow, and Doris Ettlinger for lunch. At first we worried about taking time out of our busy schedules and walking away from our responsibilities and deadlines to have a luncheon just for fun…. but then we came to our senses and remembered the sacredness of sharing a meal with friends and a simple truth of life: There will never be enough time for everything but you must make time for the things in life that truly matter. We might just take a whole hour to talk, laugh, eat and, who knows, maybe we’ll even go to the ladies room, too. I’m living on the edge today, friends.
TRY THIS WEEK: Share a meal with your family, friends or colleagues. Don’t complain about anything, just joke, laugh and wiggle in your seat.