What If Everybody Understood Child Development?

04/05/2013 03:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

When writing my Huffington Post piece on children and gun play, I found myself wondering what would happen if everyone understood child development. What changes would come about in education? How much healthier would children's lives be if this unique period of their lives was fully understood?

Since then, here are a few of the things I've encountered:

  • Another child, this time a 7-year-old, was suspended from school for biting his strawberry Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. (Really, people?)
  • A mom responded to one of my tweets about project-based learning with a comment to the effect that she'd just objected to that "nonsense" in her son's science class (perhaps the content area most suited to inquiry learning).
  • A mom sent me an email pleading for help because her daughter, who has ADHD, is constantly having recess withheld because she forgets things.
  • I read multiple stories of elementary-school children not allowed to talk during lunch.
  • A mom told me she prefers that her child do computer art because it's less messy than traditional art.

You might wonder why that last one is such a big deal. Well, anyone who understands child development knows that children learn and retain more when their senses are fully engaged. Manipulating a mouse and watching images transform on a screen can't begin to compare to dipping a paintbrush - or both hands - into a pool of color and slathering it onto surfaces with textures ranging from smooth to course, absorbent to impermeable. Or to the satisfaction that comes from kneading and shaping malleable clay or Play Dough. Or to wrapping little fingers around a big, fat, promising crayon and immersing oneself in the self-expression only possible with seven shades of purple.

Anyone who understands child development - as the teachers and administrators at every school should - would know that withholding recess is not only futile (it doesn't work as a deterrent); also, it can be said to constitute cruelty. By now we should have heard enough about the childhood obesity crisis to understand the value of physical activity. Human beings - especially children - need to move. Neither the body nor the brain can function optimally without movement. In fact, sitting for more than 10 minutes at a time increases fatigue and reduces concentration. And physical activity alleviates stress - something with which far too many children are living these days (often because the adults in their lives don't understand child development).

Still, when the above-mentioned mom took her case to her daughter's superintendent, principal, and teachers, she was told there would be no exceptions to their policy regarding the denial of recess to those who break the rules. Rules that included coming unprepared to class and leaving the classroom for a bathroom break! They even informed this mom that they could think of no deterrent other than a recess denial. (Again: really, people?)

As far as project-based learning is concerned, it may well be that those who were forced to sit in neatly aligned desks all day every day during their school years will see this approach as "nonsense." They were accustomed to having information force-fed to them only so that they could regurgitate it on tests. But anyone who understands child development - and brain-based learning - knows that pursuing one's interests results in truer, deeper learning. That hands-on, inquiry-based approaches stimulate the mind and the soul and will serve our children, now and in the future, far better than the expectation that there is only one right answer to every question. (To hear a great discussion knocking down the most common objections to project-based learning, click here.)

And children prevented from talking to each other at lunch? I was witness to this several years ago (adults standing guard like Gestapo) and was dismayed to discover that what I thought was an aberration is in actuality a common practice in this day and age. Where, I wonder, do such children learn to communicate? How do they learn to be part of a society? Certainly not in classrooms where they are instructed to keep their eyes, hands, and thoughts to themselves. Not on their way from the classroom to the cafeteria, where they're often hushed and/or threatened. Not at the one, brief recess they may get during the day. Not after school, in neighborhoods that have changed considerably since I was a kid, and when most children are staring at one screen or another anyway. How is social development supposed to be fostered in environments such as these? Do we imagine that one grows up and suddenly knows how to effectively communicate and collaborate? To be part of a community?

A while back, I was part of a discussion on BAM Radio Network, titled "Moving toward Child Development Requirements for Teachers." Most people, I imagine, would be surprised to learn that understanding child development is not one of the standard requirements to become a teacher. Or maybe not. Maybe most people, including those who decide what teachers need to know, are unaware of the incontestable connection between how children develop (not just cognitively but also socially, emotionally, and physically)and how they learn.

When I hear stories about teachers and administrators making decisions that create the impression they don't know children at all, I speculate about how different things might be if everyone understood child development. When I hear stories of small children who are bewildered, frustrated, and even defeated in their earliest school experiences, trying with brave determination to do what is asked of them and failing to understand why they can't, I wonder, what if everybody understood child development? At the very least, shouldn't every educator and school administrator?