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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 16, 2016

How I’d Change Grade School

By Mark Sisson
99 Comments

grade school finalResearch indicates that the growing emphasis on academic rigor in grade school is ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst.

Several months ago, a pair of studies threw early education enthusiasts into disarray. The first compared the subsequent achievement of kids enrolled in an academic pre-k program to kids who were not (PDF). By first grade, the kids who’d attended pre-k were slightly more advanced, but by grade two, the benefits vanished and even gave way to deficits. Second graders who’d never attended pre-k were beating those who had. They had better work habits and a more positive outlook on school in general. In the second, researchers found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced hyperactivity and attention problems at age 11 by 73% and nearly abolished the chance that the average child would have a higher-than-normal rating on the “inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measure.” Other than their preschool background, the kids were all drawn from similar pools.

Earlier pre-school studies have had similar results: small short term benefits to academic performance which dissipate quickly, give way to performance deficits by the second grade, and make kids feel worse about school.

Now, some kids thrive on this kind of system, while others thrive despite it. That’s obvious, given our overall success as a country. But there are millions of kids, particularly the rambunctious, energetic ones, for whom the traditional public school set-up doesn’t work.

So what’s wrong with most early education?

The kids sit in boxes

Grade school teachers try to spruce up their classrooms with books, posters, decorations, class pets, colorful wall paper. But you can’t escape the oppressive banality of the four walls, a ceiling, and a door you can’t access without explicit permission from an adult. Too many schools are slightly more friendly prisons.

The kids sit

Humans aren’t born sedentary (well, maybe a newborn is pretty dang immobile). Years of sitting changes our bodies and makes us inured to the ravages of sedentary life. Young kids aren’t there yet. They have yet to accept the inevitability of their classroom situation. They fidget. They fuss. They manage to be incredibly active while somehow staying in their seat. Give them the chance and they’ll burst out of their chairs to throw themselves into anything requiring ambulation. If I sit for more than a few hours, I feel like garbage. And I’m in my 60s. Imagine how your first grader feels. I’m convinced that the 12 years of primary schooling inures us to the ravages of sitting and makes it the default setting for the rest of our lives.

The kids have very little agency

If you’re walking through a Whole Foods parking lot, hold your kid’s hand and watch where they’re going. Prius drivers on juice fasts are not to be trifled with. But in safe environments with a low risk of traumatic injury, we should support kids’ instinct to roam and at the very least decide what to do with their time. School kids today have no agency. Heaps of responsibility (homework, routines, tests, extracurriculars) and little respect for their decision making skills.

Recess is undervalued and inadequate

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. 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.

They’re failing boys especially

In both the US and the UK, boys trail girls through primary, secondary, and higher education. The nurture versus nature debate notwithstanding, anyone who’s met a handful of them knows that boys are in general more rambunctious, more boisterous, and less able to sit still for extended periods of time. They’re also far more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD and placed on stimulants. Girls and boys who can’t sit still are penalized, but this “problem” afflicts boys disproportionately.

They are unnaturally rigid

The structure of school is unnatural. School starts at 7:30, sharp. You form lines. You arrange your desks in grids. You follow the lesson plan. Recess is 10 minutes to the second. Piercing alarms signal the end of fun. Back to class! Don’t run. Everything is distinct and separate. Math is 50 minutes. Break. Put away your math books; take out your English books.

Life flows. Life is fractal. Moments bleed into each other. School should reflect that.

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. Even the CDC has called for later start times for schools. as kids especially need a lot of sleep. Kids are staying up later and later thanever 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. 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 cold Poptarts and Gogurts in the car, 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.

Walking to school: Until recently, 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.

More and longer recess: Recess needs to be longer. The absolute daily minimum is 45 minutes (spread across 1-3 sessions), though I’d like to see the entire day spent outside with movement interlaced with learning/lessons..

More time in nature: Ideally, the entire school day takes place outdoors, but even a small daily nature excursion is better than nothing. The benefits are immense and irrefutable:

Add to those the general benefits of green space seen in all humans and the forest kindergarten setting looks more attractive.

More male staff: Quotas are abhorrent and I would never support them, but I’d certainly try to make schools more attractive to qualified males. As it stands now, over 80% of elementary and middle school teachers are women and it’s even more lopsided in kindergarten and first grade. Both boys and girls can benefit from a male perspective. It’s nearly impossible for people to avoid injecting their personal biases or preferences into their teaching style, whether the teacher’s a man or woman. Having both men and women teachers balances out the biases.

Fewer rules at recess: Kids can 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 won’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. 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. You get stuck, you get yourself unstuck. You can climb all the trees you want, but you’ll have to get yourself down.

No busy homework: The evidence for homework is weak to nonexistent. Instead of giving five year olds an hour of paperwork to complete, 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.”

“Make $20 by next Monday. Tell us how you did it.”

More doing: 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.

Mixed ages: Segregation by age makes little evolutionary sense (until the public school system arose, children had historically hung out with other children of all ages) and without age mixing children miss out on many benefits (PDF):

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 all that sounds good to you, fear not. Similar education models are out there and available. Homeschooling is growing (and homeschoolers generally outperform public school attendees), as is unschooling (a more radical, child-directed version of homeschooling; unschoolers also have good outcomes). Democratic schools, like Sudbury Valley or NYC’s Agile Learning Center, give children the chance to direct their own learning with staff as facilitators, not teachers.

Parents are going to have to ease up and let go and just let kids be kids rather than tiny college applicants. The hovering needs to cease. It’s one thing to share articles about the value of letting children fail and walk to school alone and take risks. It’s another to actually do those things.

But I’m optimistic. In the near future, I can see this model of school, or something approaching it, only growing more popular. It’s all part of the growing acknowledgement by everyone that the way we currently do things—whether it’s what we eat, how we exercise, how we raise and grow food, or how we educate our children—may run counter to our evolutionary heritage and that other, better ways probably exist.

What do you think, readers? Parents, kids, non-parents, teens, teachers: what does your ideal vision of early education look like?

Thanks for reading.

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99 Comments on "How I’d Change Grade School"

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Wenchypoo
Wenchypoo
7 months 12 days ago
If I sit for more than a few hours, I feel like garbage. And I’m in my 60s. Imagine how your first grader feels. This is why I never finished college–all that SITTING!! Go to a classroom, sit for 50 mins., then get up and go to another classroom, and sit for another 50 mins. Yeah, they were working on my mind, but nothing was ever done about the “below the neck” part. I dropped out and went to work so I could help Hubby pay some bills. For a short time, we both were full-time students early in our… Read more »
Kathleen
Kathleen
7 months 11 days ago

I think the only reason I finished my degree was because it was hands-on work. Lots of lab classes…not many universities have that philosophy though–it’s like the difference between a B.A. and a B.F.A., B.S. and B. A. S. (applied science).

Mike Sullivan
Mike Sullivan
7 months 12 days ago

Sounds a lot like Montessori school…

Gomi
Gomi
7 months 12 days ago

I was thinking the same thing. Add a Primal-style physical aspect to Montessori. My kids are both in Montessori, and it’s already mixed age where they learn by doing (and start later). That’s exactly why we picked it.

Ginger8
Ginger8
7 months 12 days ago

I’m moving this spring and picked my neighbourhood because of the montessori school I’ve enrolled my son in. Along with walking to school and the communal meal the kids eat for lunch, they spend their day choosing their own projects with guidance from the teachers.

The other pre-school I considered is called ‘Forest School’ in our area where the kids are literally out in the woods all day every day no matter the weather.

ps – and I had to laugh at the ‘George Clooney’ blurb at the top of how to use the comments today as he’s a montessori grad.

Kelda
Kelda
7 months 7 days ago

My 3 year old granddaughter attends a day nursery twice a week, one of those days is Forest School when they all go to the woods between 9 and 1 pm, she loves it. She has always been an outdoor child, as soon as she could toddle she’d open the back door to go and play in the garden on her own.

Momof1
Momof1
7 months 12 days ago
My son is in first grade and I agree with so many of these points. He gets 2 recess periods per day (though short, the morning recess is 15 mins, and lunch recess is 20 mins), they take frequent “brain breaks” where they are allowed to get up and move around the room and sing silly songs or dance. During independent learning time they are allowed to get up from their desks and find a cozy spot around the room. Science lessons are often taken outside. The first graders go into the kindergarten classroom for joint lessons and 3rd and… Read more »
ShaSha
ShaSha
7 months 12 days ago

Well, its about time! Traditional school models have been a big
failure for a long time as far as I’m concerned.

Jerome
Jerome
7 months 12 days ago

I’m surprised you didn’t mention nutrition in this article.

I teach at a middle school where the most common breakfast item are pop tarts and some sort of corn syrup infused cinnamon bun. . The kids are allowed to purchase as many bags of chips and cookies as they want and many end up ditching any semblance of a nutritional lunch for a half dozen cookies and a juice.

This isn’t just negligence, its abuse.

His Dudeness
His Dudeness
7 months 12 days ago

The canned and heavily processed hot lunches and UP skim milk they serve at my daughter’s school isn’t much better. This is an area where the French, at least traditionally, have the right idea. Food is prepared on-site from fresh ingredients, and kids are given enough time to eat it. Telling a seven year-old they have 15 minutes to wolf down a steaming heap of mushy vegetables and mystery meat just won’t work.

Myles
7 months 12 days ago
I remember way back when (early 90’s) when I was in elementary school, I could always get a donut for breakfast, they didn’t have edible eggs, and after all, eggs killed people at the time. Anywho, I always wanted to get their faux orange “juice” and the lady taking my $.75 from me always muttered “you gotsa get a milk.” So I did such, I went back and got some corn syrup laden low fat chocolate milk. She took my dollar, handed me back a quarter, and the milk promptly went in the trash. Now my patients with obese 12… Read more »
Susan
Susan
7 months 10 days ago

“I remember way back when (early 90’s)” LOL
I remember way back when in late 50’s, 60’s when we ate breakfast at home before heading to the bus.

Shauna
Shauna
7 months 12 days ago
While I don’t disagree with most of this (it actually sounds like an excellent system) I would like to point out that starting school later won’t do a whole lot of good for the majority of families. Most people are working class and don’t have the privilege of starting work later than their children start school, particularly if school start times get pushed back to 9 AM or so. Just who do you think is going to be home to make breakfast for the kids? I have multiple friends who have to wake their children up at 5:30 AM (sometimes… Read more »
His Dudeness
His Dudeness
7 months 12 days ago

Agreed. The suggestions for changing school are great, but to implement them, we’d need a major societal shift and a huge emphasis on quality public school systems for all kids at every level of government down to the family unit. I’m not opposed to this, but it would take some serious work by a lot of people.

Mrs Rathbone
Mrs Rathbone
7 months 12 days ago

Welcome to the wonderful liberated world of two working parents, where what’s best for the kids comes last.

Shary
Shary
7 months 11 days ago

Most working parents do so in order to pay the rent and put food on the table. I doubt that they intentionally put the kids last, even if it seems so to others.

Katie B.
Katie B.
7 months 11 days ago

I totally agree with you!! “Where what’s best for the kids come last”. Many people fail to think all of this through before they have children!

Mrs Rathbone
Mrs Rathbone
7 months 11 days ago
Shary, my comment was aimed more at the social engineering to devalue motherhood and stay-at-home parenting as a life-choice for women, especially, than at individual parents. Childcare, ages 2 – 16 – “Legitimate profession that deserves respect” – for non-family adults who are paid to undertake it. Childcare, ages 2 – 16 – “Regressive self-indulgent laziness, and hey can we level some kind of pathology at it regarding ‘clinginess’?” – if it’s the child’s own mother. These are the messages I was raised with, same with my mother’s generation, and I feel that a lot of the helicoptering and refusal… Read more »
Susan
Susan
7 months 10 days ago
I homeschooled in the 80″s when it was new. I had to have a physical to teach my own children and have the fire department inspect our home. At the time I told my children that to school them [we couldn’t afford the private Christian school] was going to be a financial sacrifice for the family and that they would have to handle college themselves. It was a sacrifice but one that I do not regret. 2 of my 5 children do, none of them homeschool their children, but my husband and I would do it all over again if… Read more »
Walter Bushell
Walter Bushell
7 months 9 days ago

Worth the money. Totally.

Now I was the kid who positively *hated* gym class. It was run by people hired to be mostly football coaches and thus T-totally unsuitable for those who had no athletic aspirations.

Carter McCoy
Carter McCoy
7 months 11 days ago

It can be done- I teach at a montessori middle school- the age when they need sleep the most- and we open the school early for student’s whose parents need to drop them off early. Most read, eat a snack or even nap on bean bags spread throughout the school. Academics start at 9 after a community meeting.

Shauna
Shauna
7 months 10 days ago
Irony: I just found out my son’s school district (he doesn’t start K until next year) starts at 9:00 for elementary and a bit earlier for high school. They also get out at 3:30 and only have 1/2 days on Wednesdays. Compared to your average school district, they’ll “barely” be in school. Makes going back to work full-time a bit more challenging for me, but I guess I’ll have to entrust strangers with the job of safely schlepping my kid to and from school. It’s either that, or listen to all the disparaging remarks about wasting my college degree, being… Read more »
D. M. Mitchell
D. M. Mitchell
7 months 12 days ago

How many people know this? “Horace Mann, credited as the father of the American public school system, studied a wide variety of educational models before implementing the Prussian system designed by Fredrick the Great. King Frederick created a system that was engineered to teach obedience and solidify his control. Focusing on following directions, basic skills, and conformity, he sought to indoctrinate the nation from an early age. Isolating students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms fashioned a strict hierarchy—intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.” (http://www.thenewamericanacademy.org/index.php/home/our-philosophy-menu/the-prussian-industrial-model) And we’re still deeply mired in that wrong-headed way of teaching today.

Nicholle
Nicholle
7 months 12 days ago
Ever since my son was very young (he’s now nearly 18), he’s always taken breaks from whatever he was doing to run around upstairs in our house. When he was about 5, I asked him why he did that and he replied that it helped him think. He still does it, though he’s now very tall and the upstairs is quite a small space. In fact, it’s the first thing he does when he gets home from school–it’s like he needs to shed the pent up energy from his day. I find it interesting that even at a very young… Read more »
Amanda
Amanda
7 months 12 days ago
This is a topic that hits very close to home right now. My fifth grade son is really struggling in school and I believe the nature of our education system plays a huge part in this. The result is that he is constantly being punished for not easily conforming to this structured, sedentary learning environment. I’m thankful that I am aware enough to see what is going on and try to support him instead of letting him think he is a failure. The problem is that these kids that don’t conform easily can fall through the cracks. I wish my… Read more »
Tom B-D
Tom B-D
7 months 12 days ago

Right there with you–though I gasp at the cost of the private schools here…

Angel
Angel
7 months 12 days ago
K-12 is free and amazing.It is at your pace and I can see my kids are so much happier. We had to get them out of the constant false terror attack drills and lock-downs for emergency what-ifs. It was scaring them and unfair to their learning. We have made adjustments in spending our income… I am now at home and not in the work force. OK we are now really poor considering the “standards” .. but we feel SO much richer. No one is suffering we are all thriving. LOVE home schooling. We start off the day with a walk… Read more »
Susan
Susan
7 months 10 days ago

Amen. Did it for 18 years. We were poor too. But they grow…

Amanda
Amanda
7 months 6 days ago

Thank you, I will check out K-12.

Laura
7 months 12 days ago

Our world needs kids who have enough gumption to resist conforming to restrictive institutions. Their “misbehavior” is actually strength.

Consider homeschooling. Millions of us do it, many of us also work. We manage to homeschool because we create our own networks of families where kids can go to each others’ homes and share the work of getting kids to learning centers, field trips, apprenticeships, arts practices, nature areas, etc.

Laura Weldon, author of Free Range Learning

http://lauragraceweldon.com/category/homeschooling/

Shary
Shary
7 months 12 days ago
This article describes my grade school years to a large extent. We had two recess periods plus a gym class, and we were always outdoors during those times unless it was extremely cold. We had monkey bars, tether-ball poles, trees, and various other activity equipment in the school yard, which we put to good use. My mother walked me to kindergarten the first week, to make sure I knew the way. After that I walked by myself or with a friend. I was not quite 5 years old. Back in those days nothing bad ever happened to kids who walked… Read more »
Eric
Eric
7 months 12 days ago

I spent part of last year in New Zealand and my kids attended school there for a term. You basically described how grade school works there. The kids move constantly, are outside a lot, and have very few rules once they are out. Plus many kids walk to school by themselves. And it turns out it works as New Zealand schools are among the best in the world. Returning to the U.S. meant my kids did a whole lot more sitting and spent a lot less time just being kids.

Andrea
Andrea
7 months 12 days ago
As a high school teacher, I wholeheartedly agree with almost all of these suggestions, and many of us already try to implement active learning, open ended questions, and are thinning out our homework load. But also as a teacher, I recognize that for every good suggestion, there are other good (though perhaps less sexy) reasons why it isn’t happening – money, busing schedules, extra curricular demands, comparisons to test scores from China, and a hundred other things. Our schools are a product of our culture. Public schools are funded by public monies and governed by elected school boards. Want to… Read more »
Jessica
7 months 12 days ago

Mark, you’ve done it again! Could you please somehow manage to be appointed Nat’l Education Czar? And institute all of these proposals in every school in the US?

TF
TF
7 months 12 days ago

+1

Tom B-D
Tom B-D
7 months 12 days ago

Brilliant, Mark, thanks again.
This comes just as our 6th grade daughter is struggling with middle school and we’re wondering if it’s ADD that is becoming pronounced…whatever the case (and we’re working to figure it out), she’s incredibly smart, talented, yet hating school. Wish I could quit work for a while and take her to the woods, a beach, start homeschooling…
You have my vote for education czar also!

Lisa
Lisa
7 months 12 days ago

Hormone fluctuations are a huge factor in learning at this age.

TF
TF
7 months 12 days ago
I love this article so much. Only one thing that’s weird to me… What is ‘butts up’? My baby boy turns 1 in 3 days, got a while before having to think about any schooling but I’ll likely go with home/unschooling. I can’t imagine sending him off to a building full of fluorescent lights, strict adults, and rules… And crap food. And sick kids… Not to mention my baby isn’t vaccinated and will never be, so I’d rather avoid finding a school that’s okay with that. Plus I’m super attached to my baby and I don’t think I could bare… Read more »
grey
grey
7 months 12 days ago
I’m probably ADD (the world was ours till the last few thousand years), but I find it pretty hard to believe in school for boys at all, not when there are Ruth-Stout-style mulch gardens to grow 12 months a year at almost every latitude, forests to explore, small boats, martial arts that mix kindness with speed, and practical things to learn to build. Girls, don’t know. Don’t know much about them. I have three undergrad degrees, two masters, and a Princeton PhD in about three disciplines, but I got rid of all that and was enjoying sprinting barefoot in the… Read more »
Nathan
Nathan
7 months 12 days ago
Great article Mark. My wife and I are expecting our first child in June. We both work full time and are currently looking around at day cares. As much as we would like to avoid daycare, it is not feasible for one of us to quit our jobs. The one positive i see to daycare is the social benefit of interacting with other kids, but beyond the early months I start to see them as too confined as you mention. We will definitely be looking at better alternatives as our child gets older, as well as hoping that schools start… Read more »
Tenny
Tenny
7 months 12 days ago

This is great! Last year, we started homeschooling our children in an effort to give them a deeper, richer life. It’s a challenge and an adventure, but we are “doing life” with them imperfectly, one day at a time.

Bob
Bob
7 months 12 days ago

Excellent, Mark! I think every Educator and School Administrator should read this!

timothy D
timothy D
7 months 12 days ago

I am a teacher in high school and I second the motion as to poor nutrition. Also perhaps Mark is unaware that he is advocating more spending to attract teachers to this profession ( Go forbid as our whole country is rather anti child) all we as a country do is trash this teaching profession and scream that we need to ” hold these lazy teachers accountable” and yet many of of are killing ourselves to help kids find themselves and a better future. This Primal Teacher could use some support rather than criticism.

Vicki
Vicki
7 months 11 days ago

+1

k
k
7 months 11 days ago

This!!

Colleen
Colleen
7 months 12 days ago

I am in a battle with my daughter’s first grade teacher right now because the kids cannot use the monkey bars (in the brand new playground) or run at recess. Yes, you read this correctly. These activities are not safe. This is the mentality present in many areas.

His Dudeness
His Dudeness
7 months 12 days ago

This became a problem about the time some parents decided that every bruise or scraped knee was cause to sic a lawyer on the school district. In my experience, public school administrators are, in general, spineless bureaucrats who would just as soon see the kids inside al day memorizing facts than open the door to anyone being upset with them.

Carol
Carol
7 months 11 days ago

At my daughter’s school the monkey bars were closed down after my daughter fell and broke both wrists. The school was afraid of lawsuits. Ironically, I was surprised by their decision and disagreed. Once healed, my daughter went back on the monkey bars at the local park. She has built great upper body strength that way. The following year, the school banned running on the playground. About all the kids were allowed to do was play four square.

Colleen
Colleen
7 months 12 days ago

I think this problem is also manifested in problems with boys in day care/preschool. They do not get adequate time outside or running, jumping, playing, being physically challenged and the result is hitting and other bad behavior. Instead of physical activity, the answer is medicating the problem.

Andrea
Andrea
7 months 12 days ago
As a high school teacher, I wholeheartedly support many of these suggestions, and in fact I (and many other educators) already incorporate active learning and open-ended exploration, and are thinning out our homework load within the limits of the systems in which we work. However, for every suggestion listed here, there is a valid, if unsexy, reason why it has not been adopted: money, resources, facilities, extra curricular demands, comparisons to test scores from China, etc. Schools reflect our culture. Public schools in the US are funded by public monies and are governed by elected school boards. If we want… Read more »
Megan
Megan
7 months 12 days ago
The recess area at our local elementary school looks like a prison yard. There is a large asphalt area with a half dozen basketball hoops and a large grass area. There is a fitness area (with a few pull up bars and two balance beam things). That is it. No play structure. No trees. We pulled my son out halfway through first grade to homeschool him after they sent home some computer report saying he failed to meet language arts standards probably due to being from a “print deprived environment.” Ha! I have a degree in English and a graduate… Read more »
Brett Rhyne
Brett Rhyne
7 months 12 days ago

Waldorf schools! Rope swings, organic gardens, mixed aged grades, loads of playtime outdoors no matter the weather (a difference with Montessori), an emphasis on developing the whole child, not just the intellect, play and imagination based in the younger grades (another difference with Montessori), understanding that the physical nature of children has a huge impact on their mental and intellectual abilities, developmentally appropriate curriculum, rejection of standardized education (especially standardized tests)…I could go on and on. If you have a Waldorf school in your area, check it out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imaW-TabxOE

Barefoot girl
Barefoot girl
7 months 12 days ago

Yep! You’ve described the Montessori environment. My kids are in their late 30’s now, Montessori school pre-K through 8th grade– that education was worth every bit of sacrifice. The 60-90 minute recess was had during even the most brutal Ohio winters.

Eric
7 months 12 days ago

This is a great article and I mostly agree with everything said. Hopefully this movement gains begins to gain traction with all levels of schooling. Any steps made in the general direction of these ideas is progress for schools.

PeterW
PeterW
7 months 12 days ago
It says something about modern society – and not something good – that our default is to have other people care for our children. Whether it is because we value our “career” more than our families, whether we are forced to by circumstances….. or whether we have simply taken on too big a mortgage to finance the overly-large house and need two incomes to pay it off….. Does it really benefit children so much to have individual bedrooms and a pool room, that the absence of both parents for so much of their lives (not to mention the sleep issues… Read more »
Erin
Erin
7 months 12 days ago

Agree.

Lisa
Lisa
7 months 12 days ago

Charlotte Mason extolled the virtues of short, but varied lessons, physical activity, healthy and diverse meals, regular nature study, and a wise “letting alone” of the child by the parents. No formal studies until age 6. Yet there are many Mason style homeschoolers who fret their child will be left behind if they don’t begin reading instruction at 4. It’s like society really believes if we control every variable in our childrens’ lives they will turn out “perfect.” And, inevitably, those of us who don’t believe it will be shamed by those who do.

Jackie
Jackie
7 months 12 days ago
I’d like to address the question of pre-k vs. non-pre-k differences. You say the differences don’t last in the long run (2nd grade). That’s true but the reasons are unclear as to why. IMO, as the mother of 2 kids where I saw this happen personally, the reason is our school system holds those kids back so the other kids who did not have the benefit of pre-k instruction can catch up. In my daughter’s K class, I saw kids who could already read and I saw kids who didn’t know their colors. It seems the goal of K is… Read more »
BobM
BobM
7 months 11 days ago
We paid for our oldest daughter to go to full day kindergarten, which they did not have at the time in our area. She’s still “ahead” of her peers, such that they take her (and others too) out of class for extra math and reading. She’s in third grade now. On the other hand, we held our youngest back from full day kindergarten (which they have in the new area we live in), as she seemed too immature. She will be headed to kindergarten in the fall of this year and is reading simple books, so she’ll likely be ahead… Read more »
TerryP
TerryP
7 months 12 days ago

This sounds so much like the description of elementary school in Ecotopia. Maybe a primal home school movement is needed.

Pamela Ellgen
7 months 12 days ago

A primal home school movement? YES! I love the double meaning: a movement. Because shouldn’t education have a kinesthetic element for little kids?

maidel
7 months 12 days ago
With you one hundred percent. However…. I would add one thing. Do as the Swedes do and have handcraft skills as a regular part of every day …woodworking, knitting, building, sewing, rabbit raising, etc. They claim kids really love it and learn better as a result. In grade school I did an unholy amount of tether ball, tag, jacks, hopscotch, dodge ball, jump rope, especially Double Dutch, Red Rover, etc. etc. Also often walked a mile and a half home, unaccompanied, in all kinds of weather, and no one thought it was child abuse. After school was outside chores, building… Read more »
Walter Bushell
Walter Bushell
7 months 9 days ago

But, I was the kid who almost flunked shop.

And I feel so much better once I got Jesus Haploid Christ out of my life.

maidel
7 months 9 days ago

But you kept your sense of humor!!! And your independent spirit!! Held your own, so to speak. Seriously, though, you’re right, shop and religion (what a combo) should be elective. Maybe you should have been given art studio time….?? (But I’m pretty sure Christ was diploid….however that was arranged. And, like you, he didn’t respect organized religion either. He liked the rebels.)

Elizabeth
7 months 12 days ago

Yes! This post is right on! I was a kid that did fine in the structured setting, but the things I remember most were when we really DID something. Like the 7th grade science teacher that organized projects involving a local creek. Or the marketing professor in college that gave creative, action oriented assignments. But elementary school was way too structured. And it’s worse now. My kids are 16 and 18 and have done just fine, but could have really thrived and learned more in a different setting.

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
7 months 12 days ago

Mark you are a modern day Renaissance man. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this, you’ve outlined a fantastic framework for an optimal learning environment / experience.

Geranium
Geranium
7 months 12 days ago

One thousand “YESES” to this article. I love all of it, every single idea. I unschooled my son two different years (and one of those yrs we also had his little friend with ADHD who was suffering so in school). It was wonderful; I wish I could have done it more years.

D
D
7 months 12 days ago
I’m a teacher, and I would 100% advocate for a return to more recess and fewer rules at recess, but in our current climate of lawsuit-craziness, schools are sued for the most ridiculous things, and so we have to ban so much. My school was recently sued for an accident that occurred on the school grounds that had nothing to do with the school at all. Because of the litigation climate we live in, time-honored traditions (like snowball fights at recess) are gone. It is absolutely absurd to hear an adult tell a child he or she cannot pick up… Read more »
Monikat
Monikat
7 months 12 days ago

Don’t forget getting rid of the time change! What insanity.

Laura
7 months 12 days ago
Oh gosh, I’m on Mark’s site to check out his new bars, and yet again, another irresistible topic. This hits close to home as we homeschool our son on the spectrum. Even though he’s quite social and had numerous friends, the stress became too much, and he was having tummy aches every morning. Consequently, we were late too many mornings and became in danger of being truant. Having a police officer speak with us along with the principal, was not an option. So we pulled our son out of school. He’s writing code in 3 languages and attends homeschool classes… Read more »
Mrs Rathbone
Mrs Rathbone
7 months 12 days ago

Laura, for what it’s worth I take my hat off to you and the other homeschoolers (and unschoolers) here. ‘S all. 🙂

Kristin
Kristin
7 months 10 days ago
I agree with many of these points, except later start times. That’s probably a great idea for high school, but doesn’t make sense to me for elementary. I have a kid in 3rd grade, one in 1st grade and a preschooler. They are all naturally awake at 6 am ( they go to bed at 7:30 or 8), and our school starts at 8. Most of our friends have the same schedule and having 8 am as a start time is about the latest any of us could manage and still be to work on time. And yes, we have… Read more »
Beccolina
Beccolina
7 months 10 days ago

We’re homeschoolers too. It’s great for my dyslexic daughter.

Laura
7 months 9 days ago
Yes, but my son does miss the social aspect. My other children are in their 20’s and 30’s and have left home. We’re taking a break from so many activities but will need to resume some of them soon. It’s funny how my son has a sense when we’ve become too busy, though. I dream of a world where schools that meet our children’s needs are free and flexible. He doesn’t need to go to school everyday or even all day. I’m looking into private school options for the future that allow this. It’s inspiring to see what other communities… Read more »
Pamela Ellgen
7 months 12 days ago
I echo the other parents here, and this post could not be more timely. The children in my son’s school are disciplined for being children. Jumping off of a 2-foot wall onto the sidewalk is punished with staying in from recess and writing a report about it for parents to sign. When reminded that this is age-appropriate behavior for an 8-year-old, the principal said with a completely straight face, “We don’t allow age appropriate behavior.” It’s so disheartening, especially because I feel so grateful to live in a country where boys and girls have access to a free K-12 education.… Read more »
Colleen
Colleen
7 months 11 days ago

My daughter was put in a time out for running at recess. It’s not safe (if you were wondering why), at least the principal is with me on this one though the teacher is being slow to comply (a work in progress).

cr
cr
7 months 12 days ago

best article ever since i first found this site

RGB
7 months 12 days ago
Great article! And I love that it describes my kids’ school: Acera School in Winchester, MA. Every point is right on: a fluid environment, where classrooms have hammocks, exercise balls, lofts, etc., and kids are allowed and encouraged to move during their lessons. Two recesses a day, and one of them almost an hour long, and kids are almost required to be outside, where they are climbing trees, building climbing structures out of bamboo sticks, ladders, ropes, and anything else they figure out how to attach to the trees or something else; they are playing and exploring. Classrooms are small… Read more »
on
on
7 months 12 days ago
Lots of good ideas. I’d add a couple of things: – the basic problem is more and more to cover in the same amount of time. Knowledge and technology has exploded. Lets take the pressure off the timetable and add a year or 2. The would leave more time for all those things listed above. – individualised corrective exercises as part of physical training rather than just games to aimed at help each individual grow a strong, fit healthy (primal) body and a mind to go with it. -regular sessions practising natural, easy, effortless mental relaxation in a symmetrical, slightly… Read more »
Rebecca Ree
7 months 11 days ago
I love your picture. I haven’t seen a classroom set up like that in… Well, ever. Also, I must live in the best state ever where start times are 8:45 and 9:20, where developmental play is required, and where children are allowed to make choices, move around the room, work at various table groupings, on the floor, standing, etc. I don’t know where you come from, but where I am, school looks different. As for letting kids do what they want at recess. When parents stop sueing schools because kids get injured or picked on, then I think recess will… Read more »
ann
ann
7 months 11 days ago
Iwe took our kids out of their private school last year to homeschool. My oldest was 2 years behind in reading and math and the school wasn’t willing to change her remediation programs. My second oldest was getting sent to special ed almost every day because she was having ‘attention issues’ but was not behind. The kids were cranky, tired and had no time to play or unwind after school because they would have hours of homework. We only school a few hours a day and the kids have at least 4 hours of outside time to play every day… Read more »
Erika
Erika
7 months 11 days ago

If people want to encourage their own public schools to implement more flexible, child-directed learning, I highly recommend checking out the Tools of the Mind curriculum for pre-K and kindergarten. Kids end up learning all the typical academic content, but the individualized, play-based learning activities are all structured in ways that help kids learn to set and achieve their own goals.

Learning self-regulation skills early on pays off year after year, even if the rest of the grades in the school follow a more rigid, traditional model.

Aimee
7 months 11 days ago
Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree with so much of this. I feel so blessed to be able to send my two boys to a school which lines up with so much of what you say! I always say its the perfect mix between home school and regular school. 16 kids total, grades K-5th with two full time teachers and a part-time teacher. They get TONS of recess time. The teachers work with the students all of their years and so they really KNOW the kids and don’t feel pressure to have them all at the same point by the… Read more »
Joshua Crosby
Joshua Crosby
7 months 11 days ago
Later start times would be cool, except the start time was intended to coincide with the parent’s work schedule. Public schools are intended to be the parent while the actual parents enter the workforce like good little lemmings. Give them your kid in the morning, get them back in the evening, make sure they do their homework for another two hours, and repeat the next day. Even if Mark’s ideas were followed to the letter, that size would still not fit all. Doing it yourself is the only way to get the closest to giving each kid what they need.… Read more »
Danielle Meitiv
7 months 11 days ago
I love everything about this post. I’m the Maryland mom who almost got arrested (twice!) for giving my kids some freedom and I would do it again in a heartbeat – wait, I do everyday! – because kids need to move, to play, and to learn in their own ways, not like little adults. One thing to add to the “we need more men” argument: when boys see only women in the classtoom, many get the message that schools and learning are “girls only.” Just as having a woman on the Board of Directors or in the Oval Office is… Read more »
Sam
Sam
7 months 11 days ago

Newborns are pretty immobile? Mark Sissonyou have clearly never been pregnant or nursed a newborn!

shannon
shannon
7 months 11 days ago
Women teach school because men are not attracted to jobs where the pay has become worse and worse since the 1960s. (Women choose the job anyway b/c they’re off when kids are out of school and so daycare is not such a huge problem.) Education is underfunded. That’s also why a lot of kids are crammed into these prison-like rooms, sometimes with no windows. I tutor kids in a county in the rural South. We need to get kids away from these prison-like boxes. BUT. We also need more academic rigor when they ARE in a classroom. Kids around here… Read more »
Carter McCoy
Carter McCoy
7 months 11 days ago

What you are describing is a well run Montessori School. Much of the same could be applied to middle school and high school as well. check out http://www.amshq.org for more info!

Sarah
Sarah
7 months 10 days ago

Grateful for your post about this important topic as there is so much that we do in the standard educational model here in the US and in many other countries that is not based on the needs of children (or adults for that matter)! Our family has been a part of the Agile Learning Network schools for a few years now and it has completely transformed our family and our children. If you are interested in checking out the Agile Learning Centers, here’s the website: http://www.alcmosaic.org

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