Almost no one’s happy with school these days. Kindergarteners are sitting in front of devices for 4-5 hours a day. Teens are dreading daily online meetings and getting prescriptions for “Zoom fatigue.” Some of this is growing pains—kids, teachers, and parents are being asked to completely change the way they do school on a moment’s notice, and change like that doesn’t come easily. But that’s not the only reason.
There just aren’t many great options left. Parents don’t want their kids stuck on the computer all day, nor do they want them in class masked up and unable to touch or play with their peers. There are big problems in every direction.
Change is in the air. People are fed up with the new way of doing things and realizing they don’t like the old way all that much either. I don’t have kids in school anymore, but I do have a grandkid who will be in school soon. Besides, everyone who lives in a country has a stake in the school system of that country. The schools shape the people who become the adults who shape the nation. That affects everyone. Something needs to change.
If I could wave a wand, how would I change school?
Here’s what I’d like to see:
Later start times
8:30, 9 AM. This would give kids extra sleep. Everyone needs sleep, but kids need it more than anyone. It helps them consolidate memories and recently learned skills.1 Even the CDC has called for later start times2 for schools. as kids especially need a lot of sleep. Kids are staying up later and later than ever before. Particularly in studies using teen subjects, delaying school start times by 25-60 minutes can increase total sleep duration by 25-75 minutes per weeknight.3 That’s up to more than an hour of extra sleep a night, five days a week. That’s a huge ROI.
There’s more beneficial fallout that the studies don’t address. When you push the start time back, the mornings are less stressful for everyone. Instead of giving your kid a ziploc bag full of dry cereal, you’re scrambling eggs, slicing apples, and frying bacon. You’re not worried about being late, you’re taking your time. Hell, maybe there’s even time to walk to school.
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Just go full whole food Primal with a macronutrient-agnostic bent:
- Full-fat dairy
- Real meat and eggs and seafood
- Fruit and vegetables
- Starchy tubers
- No seed oils or gluten or refined sugar
That may sound strict. You may think “kids would never go for that.” It may be overkill. And you couldn’t control what kids ate at home or brought for lunch, and not everyone would participate in the program. But just imagine: We’d finally see what could happen if you removed most of the processed seed oil-and-sugar-and gluten-laden junk from kids’ diets—on a national scale.
A nation of kids eating eggs and fruit and kefir and potatoes cooked in butter for breakfast, a burger patty and yam for lunch with a side of full-fat milk. You’ve seen what getting some good protein, fat, and clean carbs in your kids for breakfast and lunch can do. Imagine everyone else’s kids eating the same thing. That could change the world.
Walking to school
I used to run to school every single day. That’s actually how I got into cross country running at an early age: I realized I could beat the bus to school if I just ran. So I did. Those daily runs to and from school introduced little bouts of pure freedom and adventure into my life that made me who I am today. Until several years ago, kids weren’t even allowed to show up to school alone. They needed to be dropped off or accompanied by a parent or guardian. I’d go a step further. At my ideal grade school, the default would be arriving alone. If a parent wanted to drop their kid off, they’d need a permission slip and doctor’s note.
I’m kidding, of course. But kids these days need that freedom and adventure more than ever, however they can get it. There’s not as much to go around.
More and longer recess
Recess is shrinking. Most grade school kids are lucky to get a single 20 minute block of free outdoor play per day. Some schools don’t even give first graders any recess at all, and a disturbing number of them even hold recess hostage as a punishment for poor behavior or performance.4 This is a travesty, not only because recess (and PE) increase physical activity and step count, but because physical activity improves learning and reduces acting out. In one Texas grade school, implementing four 15-minute recesses a day reduced bullying and tattling, improved focus and eye-contact, and even stopped the neurotic pencil chewing teachers were noticing among their students. The kids are testing ahead of schedule despite less actual classroom time and test prep. Recess improves academic performance, and physical play improves subsequent learning capacity. Give a kid a 15 minute play break for every 45 minutes of book learning and he’ll learn more than the kid who studies an hour straight.
Recess needs to be longer. The absolute daily minimum is 45 minutes (spread across 1-3 sessions including lunch), though I’d like to see the entire day spent outside with movement interlaced with learning/lessons.
Hold classes outdoors
The benefits are immense and irrefutable:
- Kids with ADHD can focus better after exposure to green spaces.
- Kids who frequently spend time outdoors get sick less often and show better motor skills and physical coordination.5
- Kids with exposure (even just visual) to nature have better self-discipline.6
- For kids dealing with stress at home (who isn’t?), nature can act as a buffer.7
- Kids with consistent daily sun exposure have more vitamin D, better circadian rhythms, and stronger immune systems.
- The more outdoor time a kid gets, the lower his or her risk of myopia.
Add to those the general benefits of green space seen in all humans and the outdoor classroom setting looks more attractive.
Ideally, the entire school day takes place outdoors, but even a small daily nature excursion is better than nothing.
We’ve all heard of Socrates’ peripatetic school, where he’d lead his students on walks around Greece while lecturing and leading discussions. This is incredible. Who else loves going on hikes with friends not just for the nature, but for the incredible conversations you end up embroiled in? There’s something special about physical movement that stimulates mental movement. Physical flow promotes cognitive blood flow.
The kids could make stops to write and do some deeper work, but class discussions and lectures could easily happen on the move.
More deep work, one subject per day
This isn’t the only way, but I think many kids and teens would thrive on a “one subject a day” schedule that allowed them to really immerse themselves in a subject or project. Imagine reading an entire book from start to finish. Imagine working on an art project all day long. Imagine getting lost in history, going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, following whatever thread tugs on you.
Kids tend to obsess over things. Schools should take advantage of that.
Eliminate almost all rules at recess
Kids should be able to climb trees, roughhouse, leap fences, ride bikes, play tag, play dodgeball, play butts up, and all the other classic playground games that carry a modicum of danger. Kids shouldn’t be expelled for playing cops and robbers or making finger guns. Staff intervenes only if kids request it or injury is imminent. The whole point is to introduce kids to risk. Navigating relatively small risks (skinned knee, hurt feeling, short fall, wounded pride) builds mettle and prepares developing brains to deal with bigger risks. It makes them more anti-fragile. People talk about school as preparation for the meat grinder of “real life,” but most schools eliminate any real prep work because adults mediate every conflict, grievance, hogged sandbox, and stolen dinosaur toy.
Tons of climbable structures and trees
Kids (and adults) need to climb things. It’s fun, it builds strength, and introduces manageable risk and responsibility. You get stuck up in a tree, you get yourself unstuck. You can climb all the trees you want, but you’ll have to get yourself down.
I’m imagining networks of trees and structures all over the playground and campus to the point that a kid could get anywhere without touching the ground. There’s actually a great book about this: The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino. It’s about a young Italian nobleman who runs away from home as a child to live in the trees surrounding his estate and stays there for the rest of his life, never touching the ground.
No busy homework
The evidence for homework is weak to nonexistent.8 Instead of giving five year olds an hour of paperwork to complete or 15 year olds four hours of work, give them open-ended suggestions.
“Read a book with your parents and tell the class about your favorite part of the story.”
“Find 7 leaves, each from a different tree, and bring them to class.”
“Start a business. Come up with a business plan, a product, and marketing materials.”
Enabling deep work and deep learning during the school day would make most “busy” homework pointless.
Bring back “tracks”
Only don’t limit these tracks to “academics.” It’s not that you split the kids up by “smart” or “dumb” or “advanced” and “behind.” You allow the kids to establish their own track based on interest and aptitude. You get more specific with the tracks.
Someone wants to just do math all day? Let them focus on that.
Someone shows promise as an artist? Let them draw and paint to their heart’s content.
Someone’s obsessed with video games? Let them learn to make their own.
Obviously, even a math-obsessed whiz kid should also read great literature, but I’m not sure the math whiz kid needs to be writing essays on “Brave New World.” Simply reading it is probably enough.
More doing and playing
Humans learn best by doing. Everyone accepts that we learn languages best by speaking it or being thrown into a foreign country, not by reading language lessons. But learning through doing works for everything. Learning the fundamentals matters, but only if you also practice them. I learned to write by reading and aping other writers. This even works in subjects like math. One American educator, Benezet, showed that children who delayed formal math instruction in favor of natural math instruction (doing) until 8th grade quickly caught up to and outperformed kids taught the traditional way.
You could very well teach simple arithmetic by playing card games like Blackjack or Addition War or Subtraction War.
You could teach (or reinforce) grammar by playing MadLibs. Or just giving kids cool things to read.
Don’t just bring back the old woodshop and metalshop. Introduce full-blown apprenticeship programs. Paid ones.
- And so on
Name a profession and you can probably figure out an apprenticeship program. Heck, this already exists in many states. Check out the listings for California apprenticeships for an idea of what’s possible. Many high schools can even set this up. I bet there are guidance counselors who currently do it, or have. But is it the norm? No. It should be.
Lots of kids would really benefit.
Teach basic competencies
There are basic physical skills everyone should learn.
- Self defense
- First aid
- Physical fitness (running, sprinting, climbing, strength standards)
And other “non-physical” core competencies:
- Bill paying/taxes
Home economics, in other words.
Segregation by age makes little evolutionary sense (until the public school system arose, children had historically hung out with other children of all ages). As a kid, whenever we weren’t in school I’d rove around my neighborhood in age-desegregated packs. It was all very fluid. We’d have the bigger kids leading the way, the smaller ones tagging along, and because everyone pretty much lived in the same place their whole lives, kids would graduate into different roles and new kids would always be coming up in the ranks. Without age mixing children miss out on many benefits:9
- Younger kids can’t learn from older kids.
- Older kids can’t learn how to teach younger kids.
- Younger kids can only do age appropriate activities. With an older kid’s help, a younger child can accomplish much more. Two 4-year olds throwing a frisbee around is an exercise in futility. Include a 7-year old and it gets a whole lot more productive for everyone.
If any of this sounds good to you, what are you waiting for? No politician is going to make this happen. The Department of Education certainly won’t make these changes. You have to make it happen, either by finding a school that does this or creating your own curriculum at home. If you have the option, consider gathering together with a few other families to form a “pod” to realize your vision.
If that’s not feasible, get together with other like-minded families and petition your district for incremental change.
No one school or parent can enact all these changes. Some conflict. Some are downright impossible in certain environments. But even if you just implemented one or two of these ideas, you could have a positive impact.
What do you think, readers? Parents, kids, non-parents, teens, teachers: what does your ideal vision of early education look like?
What would you change? What you add or take away to the current set up?
Thanks for reading.
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