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5 Things High Schools Can Learn from Kindergarten

Schools are scaling back on child centered activities

A recent study commissioned by the non-profit Defending the Early Years, reached an alarming conclusion about kindergarten classes in Massachusetts. What they discovered is schools are scaling back on child centered activities such as free play, rest, recess, snacks, and lunch. There are a lot more activities where students are sitting passively in their seats while the teacher directs all of the learning, much of which is scripted, and students are being given instruction centered around test prep.

This is troubling for a couple of reasons. First off, young children need to be active. Studies have shown that sitting for too long can have the same health effects as smoking. On average, a middle-aged adult sits for 12.3 out of 16 waking hours. Based on a study of 8000 adults, there is direct relationship between the amount of time spent sitting and your risk of early death. Why do we want to start them sitting still at such an early age?

Secondly, kids should be allowed to be kids. The more and more schools are around, the more and more we want kids to grow up faster. It used to be children were allowed to take their time learning, mastering the simple concepts at a natural pace. By the time a child reached kindergarten, they may have some basic understanding of things such as numbers, colors, and shapes, but if they did not, it would be taught to them. Now we expect children to come into kindergarten being able to have all of this already. In Finland, who frankly is kicking everyone’s butt in the education game, children do not start formal schooling until age 8. Before this, the focus of learning is either on playtime or social skills.

In essence, schools are making kindergarten more like high school. I would make the strong argument that it ought to be the other way around; we should be making high schools more like kindergarten.

What lessons can we learn from kindergarten to make our high school students more effective learners? There are many but here are five of the most obvious ones.

1.) There should be recess

Typically, students have scheduled recess during their elementary and middle school years, and then suddenly they are cut off. No more going outside and hanging with their friends, engaging in sports or other games that keep them active. Instead, we get them in and out of lunch and on to the next class where they will be sitting idly for hours.

Recess can actually help students with their schooling. It gives them a break from “rigorous cognitive tasks” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This break allows them to reset their brains for the rest of the day. The study also shows recess can help students retain more of what they are learning. In other words, students who have recess are going to be more effective than those who are not, so why not sacrifice a few minutes of each class to allow for recess so that the time that is spent in the classroom is more productive.

2.) There should be hands-on activities

If you go into most any elementary classroom, you see students engaged in activities where they are getting to work hands-on. This could be cutting, playing games or activities, using manipulatives, or constructing arts and crafts. Your chances of going into an elementary classroom and seeing kids out of their seats is much higher than high schools.

The number one benefit of hands-on activities is that students are using all of their senses. This is important because scientists believe that when children use all of their senses, it helps the brain to create pathways that make it easier to retain what they are learning.

3.) Need to add free play

High schools typically have a lot of structure. I mean prison-like structure where students are corralled like cattle into their classes and react like Pavlovian dogs to the ringing of the bell. We need to find a way to break this up.

One way to do this is to allow high school students to have free play. Instead of being told what to do, you give children the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. Free play also gives students the opportunity to be social. This type of activity is crucial to developing social and communication skills. One might argue, students should have these skills by now, I would argue there can never be too much of developing social skills. They will need these social skills when they go off by themselves to college or when they enter the workplace and must interact with their coworkers. Why do we need free play to develop these? Because these social skills usually do not get taught in the classroom.

4.) Nap time needed

Remember the glory days where you went to school and then halfway through the day, you were able to take a nap. Man, I wish I had that now. Every day around 1:00 or so, I am struggling to stay alert and if given the opportunity, would snooze for a few minutes. On weekends when this feeling overcomes me, I give into it, taking a power nap, and waking with a new outlook on the day and vigor in my step. Imagine how effective this would make high school students if we allowed them to take a power nap. Studies have shown high school students tend to do better in their earlier in the day classes than those at the end of the day. This makes sense. After sitting all day, their patience is nearly spent as is their attention span. A cat nap could solve all of these problems, giving students a second wind.

Daniel Pink in his book “When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect-Timing,” argues for taking naps. He points to a mountain of research that shows that people are more productive, more replenished, more creative, and just all around happier when they take a nap. This translates to doing better work. Why wouldn’t we want our high schoolers to be more productive?

5.) More child-directed activities

Walk into your typical high school classroom and what are you going to see? Desks likes up in perfect little rows; all pointed to the front of the classroom. I am often alarmed how often when observing high school classes that the teacher is doing most of the talking, leading the students through what they are supposed to be learning. High schoolers participate in a lot of teacher-centered activities.

This sort of passive learning is not very engaging. To put it less politely, it is boring. Students who are not engaged in the learning are more than likely to either not learn it, or to get it for a brief amount of time but not to have enduring understanding. I would rather spend an hour on one learning concept that students were actively engaged in than five concepts over the same amount of time that were covered but not necessarily learned. It is a much more effective use of time in the classroom. The more authentic we can make the learning for students, the more engaged they are going to be in the learning which raises the likelihood of them actually learning it.

In conclusion, instead of treating high school kids more like adults, we should actually be treating them more like kindergartners. It would certainly make for a better learning environment. Naps for all, I say.

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