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The Race to Nowhere Starts in Early Childhood, Check This out Before Halloween

Young children are innately creative when given the opportunity. But even in early education, we see the effects of developmentally inappropriate expectations that often accompany the high-stakes education culture that has invaded our kindergartens and preschools.
10/30/2014 05:00pm ET | Updated December 30, 2014
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You still have time to watch a movie rated "must-see" by the New York Times. Race to Nowhere will be available on national public television through Halloween night. If you want to scare yourself, check it out.

While the 2009 documentary highlights the epidemic of anxiety and burnout among America's high school students, I see the effects of our "obsessive achievement culture" impacting very young children and their parents. Like many aspects of our culture, the "high-stakes testing, runaway school schedules and relentless pressure to achieve" have been pushed down in the past five years, and can now be seen in the lives of toddlers, preschoolers and young elementary age children.

It saddens me to watch how my kids and grandkids are caught up in this rat race. Parents come home from work and must immediately tackle homework with their kids, who are exhausted from six and a half hours of sitting in school with an after-school activity or daycare tacked on. Or they rush to pick up their little ones from daycare and have barely enough time for dinner and a bath. Or they bring their child to swimming or soccer or dance where the instructor drills their young kids on how best to achieve.

Well, there is a new campaign, Ban Busy, which may help parents, teachers, and coaches to hit the pause button. The campaign asks all of us crazy-busy adults to put down our iPhones and ponder the following adjectives all of us would want to describe the young kids in our lives:

Creative
Between 1984 and 2008, student scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, dropped nearly 37%.
Young children are innately creative when given the opportunity. But even in early education, we see the effects of developmentally inappropriate expectations that often accompany the high-stakes education culture that has invaded our kindergartens and preschools.

Rested
87% of high school students are chronically sleep-deprived.
In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics warned schools of a growing sleep loss epidemic among school-age students. Even for young kids, homework and extracurricular activities can lead to later-than-appropriate bedtimes.

Self-Directed
Studies show that children who engage in more unstructured activities (e.g. free playtime) have better abilities to be self-directed and accomplish goals.
Free play and hands-on learning experiences are still the best vehicles for young learners. Self-direction is one of those important soft skills for children that lead to success later in life.

Playful
Since 1981 the time children spend playing outdoors has dropped by 50%.
The shortening or loss of recess to have more time for directed learning ironically has the unintended consequence of making kids less able to learn. The Ban Busy campaign shares,

In Finland, teachers give their students frequent recesses during which the children can spend time on unstructured activities and interact with one another. These frequent breaks cause students to be more attentive in the classroom, while allowing them time to develop critical social skills.

Healthy & Active
One in four teens reports "extreme stress" during the school year. The average elementary school student gets less than 30 minutes of recess per day.
Children need time to recharge their batteries to maintain mental health. It goes without saying that they also need time to run and play to remain physically healthy. Lack of time for unstructured exercise contributes to the obesity epidemic that is now seen even the very young. Classes in sports often have more time spent watching than doing.

Mindful
Ban Busy says it best:

Daydreaming and mental downtime are important for reflection, self-awareness, fostering creativity, improving functioning ability, and sustaining emotional well being. For growing children, unstructured time can be an opportunity to let their mind wander and reflect over their day, their decisions, and who they want to be.

Empathic
Students entering college today have 40% lower empathy rates than their counterparts did 30 years ago.
When we reduce unstructured play time for young children, we also reduce ways for them to learn how to interact and get along with their peers. Lessening their opportunities to play with others also lessens their ability to understand points of view and ideas different from their own.

Ban Busy suggests ways for adults to restore some balance in the lives of children:

"Parents: Pick one day mid-week for no structured activities whatsoever. Replace it with fun, family activities like playing games, reading for pleasure or making dinner together."

Teachers: Pick a day mid-week for less-structured activities. Try an open-ended project over another round of worksheets. Let students pick their own reading for a day. Skip homework for the night!

Coaches: At every other practice, invite your kids to spend part of their time in an open-ended way. Coach soccer? Try 30 minutes of free play over sprints. Teach piano? Let kids improvise or play a song of their choice over another hour of scales."

I wish we adults could become a bit less busy to model a different approach to life for the young children in our lives. Maybe if we just let kids be a bit more like their natural selves and a bit less like mini-adults, they will model a more sane way to live for future generations.

Note: All stats come from Ban Busy.