Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Holiday Anticipation Starts Early

My children (and their significant others) are coming home for the holidays. Believe you me, I have envisioned how sweet it will be. The children will get up early and have breakfast with my wife and me and then happily join me on my last minute shopping trip. When we return they will be so excited when I suggest a rousing game of dominos that they will whip up some homemade cookies, and then let me win at the last moment.

Or maybe it won’t go exactly like that!

We have allowed the anticipation of the holidays to preempt the holidays themselves. As we anticipate an unrealistic, perfect event, we are, ironically, condemning ourselves to disappointment. This season let’s spend less time striving for holiday perfection and more time embracing life’s imperfections. Any occasion which brings family together and allows us time to contemplate our myriad blessings is more than enough.

So my wish for you is to have a slow holiday; a holiday that revolves around family and friends, and love and laughter. And to allow that warmth to carry you deep into a happy and healthy new year.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Importance of Unstructured Play

A recent article in Time magazine, “The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting,”,8599,1940395,00.html raises interesting issues about appropriate play and autonomy for children. For instance we have let free play for 6 to 8 year olds decline by 25% from 1981 to 1997 without considering what if any implications that might have. It is time to think hard about children’s out of school time.

In 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club premiered. In that broadcast, Mattel advertised its Thunder Burp gun. That advertisement marked the first time a toy company advertised outside the Christmas season and may have change childhood play forever.

According to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University and author of Children at Play: An American History, our children’s free time activities tend to revolve around one of three activities—products, screens, or organized activities. Prior to the burp gun commercial, children’s free time tended to revolve around peers and unsupervised activities. “Let’s play good guys and bad guys” has morphed into “let’s play Cops and Robbers on X-Box” and “let’s go outside and jump rope” is more likely to become “let’s go to Skip Sensations practice.”

As parents, we encourage (and sometimes demand) organized structured or indoor activities hoping to enrich and keep our children safe. However, this enrichment and safety come at a price. For instance, according to a study by Elena Brodrova, a psychologist at the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (, children’s ability to self-regulate has eroded dramatically in the last 60 years. Research indicates that today’s typical seven year old does not have the self-regulation ability of a 1950’s five year old. Brodrova’s concludes that the reduction of self-regulated and non-supervised activities drive this lack of self-regulation. Her findings are supported by Walter Mischel, a psychologist from Columbia According to Mischel, self-regulating skills are collated with high academic performance, career success, and personal happiness. Indeed, the correlation of self-regulation to academic success is higher than its correlation with IQ.

And further, both psychologists believe that self-regulation can be taught and improved upon. High self-regulators practice “private speech”-- internal speech which contemplates what to do and how to do it. According to Laura Berk, a self-regulator researcher (, one of the best ways for children to develop private speech skills is engaging in unstructured, imaginative play. Structured activities, be they leagues or video games, limit self-regulation and private speech and may well work to the detriment of our children. Think about interpersonal issues that must be navigated when children play soccer unsupervised and compare it to asking an adult coach to resolve a dispute during a Triangle United practice.

So here is the irony. Parents complain about all the activities to which they drive their children. Children complain about how exhausted they are from all the activities. Teachers complain students have no time to do homework after their outside activities. We know that studies indicate that too many outside activities may be detrimental to ultimate success and happiness. But yet, the zeitgeist says we must continue to push for our children to be happy. However, the tide might be turning. There seems to be a “slow parent” movement growing. One that claims downtime and even boredom is good for children. Carl Honore, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting claims that less extra-curricular activities are good for children and for family harmony. Maybe we should all embrace a little less structured time.

I will admit when our children were young, we limited them to one outside activity per academic year and limited their screen time. It enabled us to eat almost every dinner as a family and it gave our children time to use their imagination. They were rarely bored and developed independent interests. Further, they realized that while we loved them, we also had lives that needed nurturing and saw adults pursuing their passions and not just as glorified chauffeurs. (See the attached cartoon )

Feel free to make comments on the blog to suggest strategies you use to balance your children’s and your lives. This page will be more fun with interaction.

For a more in-depth reportage on the issue of unstructured play check out the following links. I relied heavily on these articles for the piece above.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teach Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Creativity

I highly suggest you take a look at Thomas Friedman’s article, The New Untouchables, found in September 21st’s New York Times

Friedman analyzes the economic meltdown in two sentences—“in our subprime era, we thought we could have the American Dream—a house and yard—with nothing down. This version of the American dream was delivered not by improving education, productivity and savings, but by Wall Street alchemy and borrowed money from Asia.” He laments that the failure in education is the largest present and future risk to the “decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness.”

He then mentions a lawyer he interviewed who admitted that in the Great Recession, those lawyers who were just capable, reliable and worked hard were let go when the firm downsized. Lawyers “who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained.” (Emphasis mine.) Harvard University labor expert, Lawrence Katz continued that workers “who have high-end analytical and problem-solving skills” have done well. Others, even college educated and capable others, have not thrived.

Friedman believes schools must and can help children “improve reading, writing and arithmetic” and also teach “entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.” Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources and a New York Times best selling author,, claims that creativity is one of the most important skills schools should be developing today; however most schools stifle creative thinking to the harm of our children.

I am so proud that at Duke School your children not only master reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic but, through active learning, are required to be innovative and creative problem solvers. Take the 6th grade project, Bones and Stones. Students not only had to become experts on a hominid tribe, they had to determine how to measure brain volume, how to construct a cave with “authentic” cave paintings made from natural products. They had to figure out how to build a skeleton out of bones discovered on an archeological “dig.” Finally, not only did they become an expert on a tribe, they had to determine how to communicate their expertise. This is one example but understand that all our project work asks students to do independent research, draw conclusions and then devise a self-directed plan to communicate their research. Our teacher’s guide students in their work but refrain from giving step-by-step instruction. This helps inspire students to be innovative and creative citizens.

As parents, it can be scary to have our children in an educational environment that promotes creativity and innovation. It is easier to evaluate your child’s work if there is one correct answer than to watch children struggle with uncertainty as they blaze their own trail. Creativity and innovation are uncertain processes, and we hope to be certain with our children.

So here is something to be certain about—Duke School is preparing your children to be creative and innovative enabling them to be tomorrow’s successful citizens. There is no greater gift to give our children.