Let children play outdoors, get wise


NEW YORK – The phone rings. It’s my friend in New Delhi. She’s panicked; the teachers at her daughter’s school had recently complained that her four year old was writing her name in mirror image.

“Other kids can manage, why not yours?” the teacher had derided, filling the mom with remorse and guilt. What was she doing wrong? She wondered in despair.

Meanwhile, the child could be heard on the other side of the line, happily singing and showing off her art skills—scrawling her name backwards on anything and everything that resembled a notebook.

Her older brother was in the third grade and was expected to write full paragraphs in English to questions from comprehension. Although English was not their native language, the family resolved to converse only in English to help the child with fluency.

My friend was quite convinced, after a parents-teacher meeting, that her children were bound towards the road of failure. It seemed an uphill struggle for the family that only wanted to secure a good education for the next generation.

After I got off the phone, I returned, and sank into my thoughts. How cruel, I thought, to put young minds into such a tortuous learning process. How unfair, too, to rob the parents the joy and pride in their children.

Not that all schools have succumbed to such stringent pressure but, by and large, in every household, the stories are nearly the same with a few variants.

And yet there has been plethora of studies conducted world-wide in top universities to indicate that the first requirement for the healthy development of a child below the age of ten is a strong sense of confidence and high self-worth.

But schools in India barely pay heed and cram children with learning by the stick of extreme discipline at an alarming rate.

Blame it on the student-teacher ratio or the level of competition or parental expectations. The end result is that these unassuming children are suffering for no fault of their own and at the hands of an education system that does not always have their best interest in mind.

Wealth and adherence to the status quo take precedence over learning and creativity at such schools. For instance, there is, inevitably, the indiscreet partiality towards wealthy families, that can afford those expensive gifts to teachers from their numerous trips abroad.  This is coupled with a prevailing culture to express admiration for children who are deemed to be “smart,” when instead the focus ought to be in upholding those who are often brushed to the margins and left behind in classes, lessons, and games.

Education in the classroom is meant to be a microcosm of democracy and not merely meritocracy. Learning is supposed to be all-inclusive—not just for the chosen few.

In a sad state of statistics, India is among nowhere near the top ten countries when it comes to economy, entrepreneurship, education or health safety.

According to the Global Talent Competitiveness Index, India ranks 92 out of 118, which is way behind other developing countries such as Philippines, Malaysia or Sri Lanka.

Apparently, despite all the academic stress in our schools and colleges, there is surely something that is significantly failing not only in our institutions, but also in our collective, cultural psyche. Other countries provide alternate approaches to education that have allowed them to reach for higher ranks.

According to Sergio Pellis, from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, the link between academic success and play can be seen in international education ratings. Pellis notes that “Countries where they have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”

Take Finland, for example. The education system in the country has ranked at top of the hierarchy for the past 16 years. Children in Finland do not start school until they are seven years of age.

“We believe children under seven are not ready to start school,” says Tinia Marjoniemi, head of a large day care center in Finland. “They need time to play and be physically active. It’s a time for creativity.”

The goal is not to prepare the kids for education, but to promote health and well-being of every child through crafts, sports, music, and the arts.

There is enough research to show that outdoor play helps to improve concentration, perseverance, language and social skills that are crucial to academic success in later life. It also serves as a boost to children from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have access to cultural wealth and knowledge.

The American writer, Richard Louv, author of the best-seller, Last Child in the Woods, terms this gradual retreat from nature as “nature-deficit disorder” with technology, in the form of computer games, Youtube, and Facebook, taking precedence over nurturing nature walks.

To know the differences between a squirrel and a chipmunk, acorn and a pine cone, or a sparrow and a finch is not only a source of joy to children, but it feeds their imagination.  Whereas computer games are a push towards competition, playing outdoors furnishes a sense of responsibility towards environment and self-growth by plumbing into one’s own resources of mind and body.

Pressure from parents to use time constructively has led to children being put into strenuous routine such as organized sports, piano and dance recitals, coaching – all of which create anxieties in performance.

Instead, studies in various US universities reveal that when children are allowed to play independently and structure-free, they grow into their full maturity, growth and wisdom.

Just being around nature reserves, ponds, lakes and small animals have even helped reduce Attention Deficit Disorder.

Being able to climb a tree, peek into a bird’s nest or eat apples fresh from the tree surrounds a child with a well-being and a happiness that creates a proclivity to joy of learning.

Playing outdoors has a central role in children’s emotional, physical and social development which should not be ignored or suppressed by authority. As far back as the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, championed the importance of play and it continues to influence modern educationists and researchers.

Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century argued that play was the means by which children accomplished their first cultural and psychological achievements.

In our own times, research by Edward Fisher came to conclusion that play enhanced early development between 33 percent and 67 percent by increasing adjustment, improving language skills and reducing emotional problems.

At our house, we know spring has arrived when our neighbor’s kids are out, swinging from the old black rubber tire, tied by a massive rope to the cherry tree branch. Up and down they go, sailing with the wind, while their puppy goes yelping, back and forth along with them.

It’s the summer’s cacophony, the pets, the children, and the birds. One night, well past her bed time, our neighbor’s little girl came searching in our yard with a torch light, frantically looking for a cat that, she said, was lost up on the trees.

Ah, I told her it must be the cat bird. She had never heard of one, she said. I smiled and told her about the cat bird, a small grey bird that imitates the sounds of a purring cat and visits the north-east in summer months. She found it hilarious and went hoarse with laughter.

And I thought to myself that this is what childhood should be about. Dragon-flies, butterflies, little birds, cats and puppies and laughter without a reason.

Sometimes in the evenings over school-days, I see the little girl, wearing a pink dress, walking around the yard, talking to stalks of flowers. I know it’s a make-believe world she inhabits, full of faeries and folk-lore.

Her parents and the school-system have given her the ample gift of time, to roam around the green pine woods behind her house, to play with the wind and the grass with no smartphones, no dance recitals or soccer practices. No imposition of their own ambitions on the little frames.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)



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