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Leave Those Kids Alone

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When my daughter was entering fifth grade, we went around visiting all the private and public school options within a 45-minute drive of our home in rural Vermont. Most distinctive, and in many ways the most appealing of the schools, was a Waldorf middle school. I liked what I saw until the art teacher expounded an elaborate unified field theory of child artistic and psychological development that forbade students from using the color black, and I said, c'mon, we're leaving. I didn't really care if my daughter used black in her artwork or not, that was her choice, but I thought that keeping black away in the name of an abstruse grown-up theory was too much for a fifth-grader. She went to public school instead, where they didn't have much art at all, so maybe I was being stubborn and willful to my daughter's detriment.

When we get too directive or overbearing about play and the arts, we can take more away from kids than we give them. Sometimes we have to leave our kids alone to play, and not obsess, belabor, hover or cajole like tiger mothers of the imagination.

What is the role of play in education? A recent study of 300 children from working-class families found: "The ones that emerged as most creative ...used their play as work," says Stanford professor Shirley Brice Heath. "They were very difficult to disengage from play. To a person, they disliked, avoided, subverted education if it was not related to what they saw as their interests." 'Science Looks at How to Inspire Creativity' by Sarah Sparks in Education Week, December 14, 2011 (Vol. 31, #14, p. 1, 16).

To oversimplify this a bit, kids do best when they want to learn; when what they learn is recognizably in their interests; when learning is fun; and especially when it's challenging and engages them. In 'Studio Thinking: How Visual Arts Teaching Can Promote Disciplined Habits of Mind,' Ellen Winner observes that "focus and develop inner-directedness... (are) taught first and foremost by presenting students with challenging projects that engage them and require sustained work."

Play as work? The arts involve play, not because the arts are easy, or even fun most of the time (and don't say frivolous). Play in the arts is the exploration of patterns and relationships; the rehearsal of possibilities; the in-the-moment tactility, movement, sound, light, and awakening of the senses; the puzzle, thrill, and risk of learning a new form of expression, a new language; the excitement of observing and making sense of the world, the interaction of our stories, our feelings, our shared discoveries.

All good. But the outcome is indeterminate; success is uncertain; setbacks are inevitable; making progress is hard work; and the pathway is unfamiliar and not marked out in advance. Play is work.

I heard earlier this year about a woman named Lenore Skenazy who let her nine-year-old take the subway across New York City by himself, earning her the epithet "America's worst mom." I sort of admired her. We can't control every aspect of our kids' lives. Kids have to learn some things on their own; they learn that the answers they discover themselves have special value, because they don't come easily.

When my daughter was a little older than nine (OK, a lot older), just for fun she and her best friend asked me to drive them blindfolded (them, not me) to an unknown location a half-hour from our house (this was Vermont, not NYC), and to drop them off so they could find their way back home, on their own (at that point they took off their blindfolds). I had driven them over to New Hampshire to disorient them. They made it back to the house in a little over an hour. I'm not sure how they did it. No doubt it took some ingenuity.

A lesson I learned early on as an art teacher is that the artwork your students make is not your own creation, not in the way the work you yourself create as an artist is. A teacher is more like the bad mom putting her son on the subway or like me driving the girls to someplace unknown; providing the challenge but not the ride home.