Karen Swallow Prior has been teaching literature at the collegiate level for nearly three decades. During that time, she says she’s noticed that
Many readers have been conditioned to jump so quickly to interpretation and evaluation that they often skip the fundamental but essential task of comprehending what the words actually mean.
She notes that this failure to attend properly to the text is even reflected in bodily posture: “Often their first response is to turn their eyes upward in search of a thought or an idea, rather than to look down at the words on the page in front of them where the answer actually lies.” Fortunately, while “attending to the words on the page requires deliberation,” the ability to do so “improves with practice.” Prior’s new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books seeks to convince you that “It is not enough to read widely. One must also read well.” And to make her case, Prior weaves together philosophy (particularly Aristotelian virtue-ethics) and close-readings of great books, including well-known works like Jane Austen’s Persuasion and lesser-known masterpieces like Shusaku Endo’s Silence. But Prior does not just seek for us to be good readers, she also wants us to become good people and she believes that good literature is essential in achieving that goal.
Virtue and Storytelling
Discussing virtue in connection to stories might call to mind the kind of overly didactic fables told to kids in an attempt to teach them some “moral” or lesson. This is not at all what Prior has in mind. First, Prior thinks that the very activity of reading is connected with the cultivation and expression of virtue.
There is something in the very form of reading – the shape of the action itself – that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading…requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.
Second, when Prior describes a book as virtuous, she means that it functions as a “vision of the good life,” which means the goodness is found in the world of the book, inseparable therefore from the characters, the plot, maybe even the very literary form of the book, and thus not found in some lesson that can be extracted out of the book. And so her argument is less that reading good books can teach good lessons and more that reading good books can cultivate “knowledge of and desire for the good.”
Literary Criticism and Finding Meaning
The value of literary criticism is that it can help us put into words the various intuitions we often have about the deep meanings of a story. Prior spends the bulk of the book sharing reflections on some of her favorite literary works, helping to tease out the various ideas and insights she sees embedded in those stories. One particularly notable chapter is her discussion of Mark Twain’s beloved and enduring novel Huckleberry Finn. For Prior, Twain’s novel is a rich exploration of the importance of courage in our lives. She writes that “Huck finds his courage, albeit accidentally, through circumstances that come partly from his own doing and partly from sheer bad luck.” The beauty of this story is that it “reflects the way life falls out for most of us most of the time: some choices we face are the result of our own doings, others completely outside of our control, most some combination of the two.”
Twain’s novel also gives us characters who subtly show us what counterfeit courage looks like. For example, The King and the Duke “display ample boldness” but “gall is not the same as courage. Men who swindle, cheat, and steal their way through life, no matter how brazenly, are far from virtuous, and therefore do not have virtuous courage.” Similarly, as loveable a character as Tom Sawyer is, he isn’t an exemplar of this virtue either.
If facing difficulty were the only thing required of courage, then all a would-be hero would have to do is create obstacles to overcome, and voila! – courage would be born. This is exactly what the lovable but foolish Tom Sawyer does.
Courage requires prudential judgment: it doesn’t embrace risk for the sake of having an adventure. But that isn’t to say that courage avoids risk altogether. Prior draws attention to the willingness shown by Jim to risk becoming enslaved again in order to rescue Tom. She writes: “recognizing the risk and facing it for a greater good – a boy’s life rather than his own freedom – Jim embodies the virtue of courage,” and further, that “Jim’s courage is rooted in both reason and conscience.” Thinking through the moral complexity in the novel can be a helpful aid but the key is reading the novel itself, which is ultimately what Prior is hoping her chapter will entice you to do. After all, you can drill a student on the dictionary differences between courage versus bravado, but if you want to inspire that student to want to be or become courageous, nothing beats reading the novel aloud, and allowing her to judge for herself which characters she wants to emulate.
In the end, Prior’s book does two things for the reader. First, it reminds the reader that literature really does matter in cultivating our interior life. She writes that “reading well adds to our life – not in the way as a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.” The second thing that Prior does for her readers is, of course, to introduce them to twelve great books that we can read and love as friends who add to our life.
In an article in The New York Times entitled “The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected” Nellie Bowles argues that “America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools” while “the rich are banning screens from class altogether.” Bowles reports on a study from Common Sense Media which found that “lower-income teenagers spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes.”
Parents say there is a growing technological divide between public and private schools even in the same community. [. . .] While the private Waldorf School of the Peninsula, popular with Silicon Valley executives, eschews most screens, the nearby public Hillview Middle School advertises its 1:1 iPad program.
Nellie Bowles reminds us that “it wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide.” She writes that now “it could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.”
At Demme Learning, we fully encourage hands-on learning and play structured around “old-fashioned” toys like lincoln logs and LEGO.
In an earlier post, I reviewed The Design of Childhood (Alexandra Lange) which explores this kind of play in detail.
One of the reasons that Lange is such a fan of kids playing with blocks is that this kind of play provides opportunity for imagination and creativity. In lovely prose, she explains that ‘many of our longest-serving toys have no baked-in narrative. Simple shapes and sturdy materials encourage free play and meet the child at her level. She may get in the box, color the box, cut the box, stack her box with a friend’s.’ I really like this language of toys that do not stifle the imagination with “baked-in narratives:” I get the sense that when parents bemoan “electronics” what they are really rebelling against is the (very wrong) idea that kids can only entertain themselves when the toys they are playing with give them explicit parameters for that play.
Nevertheless, we also love technology, which is why we are really excited about our math manipulatives app and our new digital toolbox. Likewise, Lange is not opposed to video gaming. As I noted in my review: “Lange sees games like Minecraft, which is literally a block-building game, as being analogous to physical block play. For example, she writes that ‘today the sandbox is as likely to be the rectangular space of the computer screen, where digital sand, in the form of Minecraft cubes or Scratch block commands, are used to explore building, civilizations, and geography.’”
One of the more lighthearted portions of the New York Times article I quoted above is the story of the mom whose son’s Christmas list was “a Wii, a PlayStation, a Nintendo, a MacBook Pro and an iPhone.” That mom responded, “Kiddo, you’re not gonna get one of those things…Yeah, I’m the mean mom.” This reminds me of the times when my parents would make me put away my Game Boy Advance SP (nineties kids know what I’m talking about, lol) to play outside or read a book. Speaking of “mean” parents, check out this funny parody that the Holderness family made about unplugging the video game consoles in preparation for going back to school. (And honestly, why would you play Fortnite when you could play Super Smash Brothers Melee instead???)
In my blog post Risky Play: A Need of The Soul I explore the insight of the French philosopher Simone Weil on our need for risk, the American Academy of Pediatrics on the importance of childhood play, and CityLab on the emergence of “adventure playgrounds.”
Ethan Demme, CEO of Demme Learning, has a helpful review of the book The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. Ethan explains that “Crouch isn’t afraid of technology, but he is concerned about potential pitfalls.”
Hey, Mom and Dad! We’re doing the best we can!
Being myself one of those dreaded “millennials” who has been the subject of a seemingly endless popular discourse, I was eager to read Malcolm Harris’ new book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Harris is himself a millennial; the cover of his book proudly marks his birth year: 1988. More importantly, Harris is a well-read and rather attentive cultural critic, and he’s able to deftly weave personal experience with hard data into a compelling description of the challenges that face me and my peers. I want to dig into Harris’ insights and then end the review with some of thoughts of my own.
Harris begins his critique with a depressing view of childhood culture. He writes that we have created “a culture in which children are taught that the main objective while they’re young is to become the best job applicant they can be.”
Here is Harris’ bracing description of childhood in 2018 America:
If they track into the right classes, and do their homework, and study, and succeed in the right extracurriculars, and stay out of trouble, and score well on standardized tests, and if they keep doing all that from age five to eighteen, they’ll have a good chance at a spot in a decent college, which is, as far as you can plan such things, a prerequisite to ‘better life outcomes.’ Of course, the more kids who can do all that, the harder everyone has to work to stay on top.
Two quick notes on that description.
First, Harris’ description of this culture most aptly describes public and private school settings, and yet I’d argue that homeschoolers are not immune to the underlying anxieties and thus to the corresponding conformity of behavior we are tempted toward.
Second, you might have heard about the problem of grade inflation, likely presented as another sign that Millennials are rewarded for little effort in an attempt to boost our self-esteem. Harris rips that explanation apart in one pithy sentence: “It’s a twisted system that aspires to train every student for “A” work, then calls it a crisis when the distribution shifts in that direction.”
Myth-Busting in Kids These Days
One way to approach the book is to focus on the myth-busting.
For example, as an age cohort, we millennials have been labeled lazy: Harris retorts: “no one puts their whole self into their job like a Millennial who never learned to separate work and life enough to balance them.”
Here’s the substance behind that retort:
Technological development leads to increased worker productivity, declining labor costs, more competition, a shift in the costs of human capital development onto individual competitors, and increased productivity all over again.
In plain English, Harris is describing a reality in which we have spent our childhood working our tails off in academics, extracurriculars, and volunteering, in order to get into a college where we can continue that same work, while perhaps picking up an unpaid internship (“students are paying their colleges and working for companies [or the state or nonprofits], and in return both will confirm for anyone who asks that the student indeed paid for the credits and performed the labor”), all in the hopes that we’ll land a good enough job to pay off student loans that we can’t default on. We’re taking out those loans, by the way, because given the price of tuition we literally can’t work our way through school: we know, because despite it being impossible, we are still trying.
Harris has the exact numbers: “In 1960, 25% of full-time college students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four worked while enrolled. Now it’s over 70%, and 20% of these undergrads are working full-time hours.” It’s sobering to see the statistics and realize that “for all the jokes about students living off ramen, undergraduates are significantly more likely to experience high levels of food insecurity (in technical terms: ‘hunger’) than to live in a dorm.” Anyway, a full two-thirds of us college students have taken out loans because “succeeding at contemporary American childhood now means contracting out hours, days, years of future work to the government, with no way to escape the consequences of what is barely a decision in the first place.”
Another favorite disparagement of the millennials is that we are entitled, largely due to all those participation trophies. Harris observes that “no AYSO-playing Millennial in fourth grade ever owned a trophy factory – we’re not giving trophies to ourselves.” Participation trophies do tell us a lot about the state of our culture, says Harris: specifically “the market for plastic awards has grown with the level of competition, organization, and anxiety about success.” And to be clear, that anxiety begins with parents who are understandably concerned about their children’s increasingly precarious economic future. That same parental anxiety, by the way, likely explains why so many school-kids are over-medicated. Harris writes of this that:
Once again, we’re confronted with the conflict between what nearly everyone will recognize as a social problem (‘too many kids are being medicated to improve their academic performance’) and the very material considerations that weigh on any particular decision (“but my kid is having a really hard time focusing, and the PSAT is only a year away.’)
Speaking of sports, Harris is also no fan of how lighthearted childhood play has been professionalized, becoming just another tool for application-building: “Organized sports have taken the place of self-organized play, and though league games count for their college applications in a way that sandlot ball doesn’t, kids are missing out on the important experience of following and enforcing their own rules.” He also wryly observes that “in the age of rationalized training regimens, autonomy gets in the way of labor development.”
By the time we get to Harris’ review of the research on mental health, we as readers already know the picture will be bleak. Even anticipation, however, can’t soften the blow of a sentence like this: researcher Jean Twenge’s “meta-analysis suggests that depression has increased 1,000 percent over the past century, with around half of that growth occurring since the late 1980s.” We likely all have our own anecdotes about the young people in our lives who struggle with mental health: the jarring thing is to recognize the pervasiveness of this phenomenon and to connect it to the context which arguably creates or at least contributes to poor mental health.
Reflecting on Kids These Days
Harris’ book is, itself, rather depressing, in case you hadn’t noticed, haha. I want to briefly reflect on why I have less of a fatalistic perspective than he does. Unlike Harris, I don’t think we’re doomed to just suffer under the system as it is: we have agency and our choices are meaningful.
As a homeschooler, my childhood was much freer and playful than that of so many of my peers. I spent hours playing outside (remember when kids did that??) or reading novels of my own choosing. Looking back, I can see how privileged my childhood really was. I know that homeschooling isn’t an option for every family – but I think Harris’ book is a good reason to at least consider it. Of course, with the school choice movement, we are also seeing other education alternatives being made more widely available and accessible, choices that challenge the status quo. For example, public charters designed for creativity and the arts, Waldorf schools that seek to nurture the social lives of kids as much as their academic abilities, etc.
Regardless of what schooling option you choose for your kids, I only ask that you give them as much time and permission for unstructured play as possible. Seriously. The System is sucking the life out of kids: fight back with every breath. (I say unstructured because structured play easily lends itself to the taxing schedule of dance on Monday, piano on Tuesday, playdate on Wednesday, etc., and no time for genuine play.) And let that play be filled with risk: the stakes in the real world are high, and risky play is not only more fun (generally speaking), it’s also good, organic preparation for life in general.
The other reason I am less fatalistic is because my college experience has been rooted in the formative liberal arts tradition. I think that choosing to study the liberal arts (English and History in my case) is a subversive act of cultural rebellion. In a society that says education, at all levels, is all about becoming a productive worker, my professors have helped me see time and time again that career preparation is a secondary purpose: the primary purpose of education, like the primary purpose of the family, is to cultivate and form us as human persons, preparing us to live lives of virtue, love, imagination, and service. And don’t worry: my college education has left me well-prepared for work: I’ve helped do research for a published book on mass incarceration, helped teach grade-school and high school students, organized and led summer programming at my local library, and am now working in a salaried marketing job. But even if I were struggling to find gainful employment, I think choosing the liberal arts would still be worth it, just for the chance to remember that the 9-to-5 and the 401k are not all there is to life, that human flourishing is found in relationships and experiences that exist in a realm outside materialistic metrics and managed markets. In short, Harris’ book might tempt you to dissuade your student from studying open-ended subjects that don’t track them into specific careers: I think such efforts would be a huge mistake. Now is certainly not the time to conform. We gotta fight the system!
(content note: Harris’ frustration is often palpable, and consequently his book contains a sprinkling of profanity. I should probably also mention that Harris’ political disposition, inasmuch as it bleed through on occasion, might best be characterized as…revolutionary?)
The Design of Childhood is the kind of book that brings sunshine to your heart on rainy day. The author, Alexandra Lange, is an architecture and design critic, a historian, and a mother. In her book, she draws from each of these core aspects of herself in an illuminating exploration of the material world that children inhabit.
As she writes in the first few pages of the book, “to have a child is to be thrown suddenly, and I found rather miraculously, back into the world of stuff. Dirty stuff, clean stuff, sleepy stuff, heavy stuff.” Lange is the kind of adult who pays close attention to children and who takes children seriously as persons and citizens. You can see this attentiveness present even in Lange’s description of how the book developed: “I studied the landmarks of my son’s territory as it grew from rug to house, school to playground to the whole city (under my supervision).”
The Opportunity of Play
Loving attention toward a child engaged with the material world is the origin and bedrock of education, according to Lange. (Here I am reminded of that stunning line from the philosopher Simone Weil that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”) Lange writes that “Progressive education in the United States and Europe – education not based on the primer and the lash – begins when a teacher places a block before a child and watches what happens.”
Lange explains the significance of the child playing with blocks, calling this play an opportunity to learn the “elements in the grammar of nature,” elements that need to be “touched, stacked, dangled, and rearranged in order to learn about geometry, gravity, time, and symmetry.” Lange quotes Ann Hulbert, literary editor, who describes the child as “an independent experimenter investigating a world of objects, solving the epistemological problems of space, time, causality, and categorizing,” which is as great a description of the child as budding philosopher as I’ve encountered.
Imagination & Creativity
One of the reasons that Lange is such a fan of kids playing with blocks is that this kind of play provides opportunity for imagination and creativity. In lovely prose, she explains that “many of our longest-serving toys have no baked-in narrative. Simple shapes and sturdy materials encourage free play and meet the child at her level. She may get in the box, color the box, cut the box, stack her box with a friend’s.” I really like this language of toys that do not stifle the imagination with baked-in narratives. I get the sense that when parents bemoan “electronics” what they are really rebelling against is the (very wrong) idea that kids can only entertain themselves when the toys they are playing with give them explicit parameters for that play.
Treat Children as Citizens
Likewise, Lange warns that “our built environment is making kids less healthy, less independent, and less imaginative. Instead of toys that tell kids what to do with them, Lange says that “what those hungry brains require is freedom,” and that requires the rest of us to treat children “as citizens, rather than as consumers.” To treat children as citizens means to make available to them “elements children can pick up and transform into environments themselves” with the understanding that “children are the designers here.”
As a brief aside, it’s worth mentioning that the critique of electronic toys and overly built play environments also has implications for social class structures. Throughout Lange’s book, she sneaks in commentary on how parenting fads, which often involve increased expenditure on kids, tend to originate in upper classes before becoming normative for everyone else. The downside to this, of course, is that families which can’t afford to ‘keep up with the Jones’ can feel guilty, as though they are failing their kids. Lange’s book should help to assuage that unnecessary guilt. And if her book isn’t enough, consider this statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ report “The Power of Play” “children’s creativity and play is enhanced by many inexpensive toys (eg, wooden spoons, blocks, balls, puzzles, crayons, boxes, and simple available household objects) and by parents who engage with their children by reading, watching, playing alongside their children, and talking with and listening to their children. It is parents’ and caregivers’ presence and attention that enrich children, not elaborate electronic gadgets.”
Is There Worth in Video Games?
Nevertheless, while the above paragraphs might suggest that Lange is opposed to digital games, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Lange sees games like Minecraft, which is literally a block-building game, as being analogous to physical block play. For example, she writes:
Today the sandbox is as likely to be the rectangular space of the computer screen, where digital sand, in the form of Minecraft cubes or Scratch block commands, are used to explore building, civilizations, and geography. [. . .] video games played in sandbox mode, or purpose-built sandbox games, allow the player access to the whole world (the box) at once, and allow her to change that world at will (the sand). There is no preset narrative to force the player to run, hide, or shoot, and no marauders to destroy what she has built. Time is her own. The pleasure is in the creation. [. . .] just as you shouldn’t assume all blocks are the same, you can’t assume all digital games are the same. [. . .] the material is only one aspect of a larger play experience, which may or may not be moderated, scaffolded, or undermined by adults.
Here’s the advice Lange gives on evaluating all play, digital or physical: “To understand the roots of a toy – wood, plastic, pixels, or a hybrid thereof – you have to see its potential in a child’s hands. To understand what children can do, you need to give them tools and experiences that are open-ended, fungible: worlds of their own making.” In addition to Minecraft, another series of digital games that arguably fit Lange’s description are the SimCity games which allow players to design and build cities from scratch. (Here’s a really cool article on what happens when a real city planner plays the game and innovates using his math skills.)
Building Toy Recommendations
At the end of her chapter on blocks, Lange mentions that when she was researching for the book, people often asked her recommendations for building toys. She writes:
“my short list includes Duplo, LEGO’s younger sibling…Tubation, a set of straight, L-, T-, and X-shaped tubes that can be connected into marble runs, musical instruments, and animal skeletons; Magna-Tiles; and Zoob.”
My student is telling me that the Math-U-See curriculum is too repetitive; I’m not sure what to do.
A key component to mastering any new skill or concept is sufficient amounts of practice. But often practice can feel dull and unexciting when there are all sorts of new things out there waiting to be learned. Fortunately, even small tweaks to a routine can help make math feel fresh and exciting again.
Here are three quick tips to keep math engaging.
1) Skip Lesson Practice Sheets
The goal of using Math-U-See is mastery not drudgery. If your student can demonstrate mastery of a new concept, you can adjust the number of problems you assign or skip any or even all of the Lesson Practice worksheets for that lesson. We do still highly recommend doing at least one Systematic Review sheet in order to apply new concepts in the context of previously learned material and to keep skills sharp.
2) Let an Older Sibling Tutor
In addition to this being a fun opportunity for sibling interaction, research suggests it can also be a great way for your students to sharpen their math skills! When students engage in peer tutoring they organize their knowledge improving their own understanding of the material. As a result, they recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively.
3) Supplement with Activities
Instead of doing a worksheet on a particular day, have your student help you bake a cake and have them double a recipe to sneak the math skills in.
I’m considering switching to the Math-U-See program, but I’m worried that your curriculum’s unique sequence will prevent student from having a smooth transition. Can you help?
Depending on what skills your student has developed, this may or may not be a concern. As a first step, we have a free placement tool that will help you determine the most appropriate level for your student.
If there are a few gaps (missing skills or concepts) prohibiting a seamless transition into that level, our customer service team would love to help you figure out how to address that obstacle. They are trained to provide resources and strategies for helping your student get ready for the level that best fits their need.
You can contact them here via email, phone, or live chat.
I don’t understand why the Math-U-See curriculum teaches concepts in the sequence that it does. Can you explain the value of your approach?
The short answer to this is that we want your student to develop a robust foundation of conceptual understanding of basic skills and problem solving first in order to prepare them for the challenges of higher-level math like Algebra 1 and Algebra 2.
For example, we’ve heard countless stories from parents who say that when their student revisited conceptual skills, they were able to master the algebra that had been so difficult for them before.
My student is telling me that Math-U-See is boring! I’m not sure what to do! Can you help?
There are a number of reasons your student might be feeling bored. As a first step, try and see if you and your student can pinpoint what is causing that boredom. Is the work too easy? Does your student feel that there is no clear purpose or application to the math being studied? Identifying what the problem is will help you find a solution.
3 Tips for Removing Boredom
1) Show the Importance of Math
Let your student work at the pace that’s best for them. We’ve heard many stories of students going through a level and a half or even two levels in one year! Of course, it’s perfectly fine to spend multiple years on one level, and we’ve known many successful students who have benefited from doing so. If the problem seems to be more that the math seems disconnected from real world application, highlight how you use math in your daily life.
For example, when eating at a restaurant, have your student calculate the tip: “what if we wanted to tip 15%? What about 20%?”
2) Play a Math Game
Homeschool mom Janelle Knutson notes that, “Sometimes playing with the blocks and working along side the parent on a white board reaps more rewards than trudging through one worksheet after another.”
3) Add Color or Music
To add color to the page, Janelle Knutson recommends using erasable pens. You can also let your student doodle on the page or decorate it with stickers as a reward for finishing the worksheet. In addition, consider letting your student choose instrumental music to play quietly in the background as they work. While some students might find music distracting, other students may find that it helps them stay engaged with their work.
When my brother and I were kids, we invented a variety of playground games which involved using equipment in ways they weren’t exactly intended for. These games included:
1. Swing-jumping: we would push an empty swing, then sprint toward it and attempt to jump over the seat and through the metal chains.
2. Monkey bar leg wrestling: we would each swing out to the middle of the jungle gym, and then attempt to pull the other down using only our legs.
3. King of the Hill on metal bars protruding from the ground: this game was promptly ended (by us) after one of our friends slipped and landed with the bar straddled between his legs.
As I think about the number of stupid things we did as kids as part of our play – including swinging wooden swords at each others’ head, sticking paper clips in electric outlets, and spraying fire with a can of spray deodorant and a lighter – I am amazed that we grew up with no serious injuries to speak of. I’m sure we are the direct cause of several of my mother’s gray hairs! Looking back on my childhood, I am grateful that despite the dangers of our imaginative play, our parents allowed us the opportunities needed to learn to navigate risk. Their willingness to step back, watch with worry (or not watch at all), and choose not to always intervene, was essential part of my development into a healthy adult.
How Risk Can Be Beneficial to the Soul
The 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil describes risk as a need of the soul. In her book The Need for Roots, which explores counter-balancing needs of the soul, she writes:
The human soul has need of security and also of risk. The fear of violence or of hunger or of any other extreme evil is a sickness of the soul. The boredom produced by a complete absence of risk is also a sickness of the soul.
While it might seem counter-intuitive that risk is necessary for our flourishing, Weil strengthens her argument by noting that “the absence of risk weakens courage to the point of leaving the soul.” Too much risk and too little security renders us fearful and anxious and leaves us disempowered. But a moderate amount of risk is a healthy component of life, and it lets us develop fortitude, courage, and an awareness that we can tackle challenges.
I was reminded of Weil’s insight recently when I read an article in CityLab about the return of risky playgrounds. The article laments how, in the last decade or so, our playgrounds have “become mind-numbingly standard-issue—with the same type of plastic swing sets and slides—designed to minimize harm, rather than maximize enjoyment.”
The article then highlights adventure playgrounds, spaces that “look like scrap yards, with loose tires, blocks of wood, rope, and tools like hammers and nails, where children are free to build and destroy their surroundings as they choose. They can even set fires.”
This description of the playground had me grinning: the inner child is still inside me!
I’m not a parent, and I can’t imagine the amount of anxiety that is created by parenthood. Being responsible for reckless boys and girls with a surplus of energy sounds terrifying! Now that I’m older, I can really appreciate the times, for example, my parents forced me to wear a helmet when skateboarding (but I wanna look cool, Mom!). But I worry about current trends in parenting that attempt to remove all risk from kids’ lives and that don’t give them space for unstructured play.
I can’t help but wonder if there is more than just a correlation between the helicopter parent phenomenon and the rise of anxiety in today’s kids whose heavily structured and monitored lives don’t allow them opportunities to fail, to get injured, to make mistakes, and to develop grit.
I’m not alone in these concerns: the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report entitled “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” In the report, the Academy recommends that pediatricians “write a prescription for play,” and specifically of unstructured and perhaps slightly risky play.
The Academy writes: “Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”
In addition the Academy warns that without play, “toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior.” On the other hand, play can help kids regulate their stress:
Play, especially when accompanied by nurturing caregiving, may indirectly affect brain functioning by modulating or buffering adversity and by reducing toxic stress to levels that are more compatible with coping and resilience.
I think the key is found somewhere in the balance of unstructured play and attentive caregiving.
Anyone who has read the classic novel The Lord of The Flies knows that leaving kids to their own devices for prolonged periods of time results in anarchy and destructiveness. But anyone who has read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer knows that kids thrive when they can pursue adventures! Ultimately, I think what my parents did so well was to let me as a kid learn to assess risk, while they themselves assessed my ability to do that, and intervened in situations where serious danger was imminent and I was oblivious. There’s no scientific formula for all of this but speaking as someone who has spent more years so far as a kid than as an adult, I am confident that kids are resilient.
After all, there are worse things in life than face-planting in the dirt when your foot gets caught on the seat as you attempt to jump through that swing!
Sarah Mackenzie is the beloved host of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast. Her new book, The Read-Aloud Family, is a great resource for every family. Mackenzie mixes personal anecdotes with relevant research on why reading aloud is so beneficial. There’s practical advice on how to grow as a read-aloud family, and common myths like “my kids should be sitting still while I read to them” are debunked. At the end of the book, recommended booklists are featured for every age group from 0-3 all the way through the teenage years.
Early in the book, Mackenzie writes that “the stories we read together act as a bridge when we can’t seem to find another way to connect.” She calls these stories “our currency, our language, our family culture” and notes that they “become a part of our family identity.” As an example, she writes that in her house “whenever anyone says the word fascinating, someone else will interject (in the nerdiest voice they can muster), ‘Fascinating! Simply fascinating!”” Mackenzie explains that this inside joke comes from Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series. Mackenzie writes, “I hope when my kids are grown, they’ll hear the word fascinating and that fond memory will rise to the surface to warm them, wherever they may be.”
In addition to helping bring the family closer together, reading aloud also helps prepare kids for real life. It is well-known that fiction helps build empathy, because it lets us enter into the thoughts and experiences of characters, who are different than us. A less noticeable, but still important benefit, is that fiction gives us the opportunity to deal with conflict vicariously, which helps us feel more equipped to deal with difficulties in our own life. Mackenzie writes:
By reading aloud with them, we help our kids understand that life will be difficult, perhaps more difficult than they can yet imagine, but that they – just like the heroes in the tales from their childhood – are capable of facing unimaginable hardship with heroic virtue.
Mackenzie also highlights the academic benefits to reading aloud, which include helping kids develop an “excellent vocabulary and highly sophisticated language patterns,” as well as giving them “practice at making connections and thinking well.” But Mackenzie cautions us, lest we drive away the intrinsic joy of reading. She warns that we often “school the love of reading right out of our kids, and then we worry because they aren’t taken up with a voracious love of literature and a burning desire to enjoy reading for pleasure.” Mackenzie points out that “the adults I know who read for pleasure do not make dioramas, take comprehension quizzes, or write five-paragraph essays on a story’s main conflict or theme” and suggests that what is true of adults is likely true for children as well. Knowing how to diagram a sentence can help strengthen grammar skills, but the heart of the reading experience is the joy found in, well, reading! She notes that “we want our homes to be more like a cozy book club environment and less like a formal classroom experience.” One practical way to help keep the delight in read-aloud time is to include yummy snacks: “food is comfort, and comfort is a wonderful thing to associate with read-aloud time.”
My favorite insight in this book is that we don’t need to stress out when kids “gravitate toward the lighter, fluffier books” because these books “have their own special part to play in the growth and development of young readers.” Mackenzie states this point emphatically: “Light books count. Hard books count. Current bestsellers count. Classics count. They all have their place in the tapestry of a child’s reading life.” What matters most is how we engage kids in conversation about the books they are reading or that we are reading to them. Mackenzie recommends asking open-ended questions with no specific answers. Questions like “how is X like Y?” and “what does this story remind you of?” can lead to a organic conversation that gets to the heart of the text. She explains that “the art of conversation within relationships means circling ‘round ideas – considering, weighing, and comparing one idea with another.”
In the end, Mackenzie says her goal in reading aloud is to cultivate a sense of wonder in her children. She writes:
I hope that some of the best memories will be the times we were astonished at what we saw, what we read, and who we met. Astonished at the magic we experienced. Astonished at the big, beautiful world and the amazing people we share it with. Astonished.
Related Blog Post:
5 Library Tips From Sarah Mackenzie
Demme Learning was not paid to review this book; we just like to read.
In Pixar’s long-awaited movie, Incredibles 2, Mr. Incredible finds himself navigating the challenges of being a stay-at-home dad. One of those challenges is helping his son Dash with his math homework.
In this hilarious scene, Dash says:
“That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it, Dad. They want us to do it this way.”
Mr. Incredible, speaking for every parent ever, responds:
“I don’t know that way. Why would they change math? Math is math. Math is math!”
At Demme Learning, we trust parents to teach math to their children. We know that math education can be intimidating but we also believe that equipping parents with video and textual resources can turn even the most math-shy parent into an “incredible” instructor. (See what we did there?)
The Math-U-See approach asks the parent/instructor to watch the video for each lesson and read the accompanying chapter in the Instruction Manual; this allows the parent to see each concept demonstrated and shows how to use the math manipulatives to aid in the learning process. Not only does this approach bolster parental confidence, but we often hear from parents that Math-U-See has aided their own understanding of math.
As our marketing coordinator Dani explains in this blog post:
Many parents find this approach beneficial for themselves. They get to relearn a concept, or see a problem solved through a new lens. Some even learn concepts for the first time, or finally have that lightbulb moment in their own mind.
In an blog entitled Family Engagement Matters in Early Math Learning, our CEO Ethan Demme highlights an e-newsletter from the Harvard Family Research Project which has insights, tips, and resources for parental engagement in teaching math. The e-newsletter reminds us that “math education, like all education, develops anywhere, anytime, starting at birth.”
If you’re looking for more resources, check out this curated list of blog posts on math activities that are fun for the whole family.