This essay was written with William Doyle and originally published in Washington Post on April 8, 2020
The coronavirus crisis has shattered one of the most dysfunctional pillars of childhood education. On March 20, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suspended the federal requirement for the mass standardized testing of children, announcing “Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.” Other countries, including England and Australia, are doing the same. These decisions should be made permanent, and the job of assessing learning should be returned to classroom teachers, not politicians and for-profit testing companies.
More than 1.5 billion young people around the world have been affected by school closures due to the covid-19 pandemic. Our own young children are among them. Like countless other parents, we now have to home-school, remotely work, and keep our families safe in an atmosphere of uncertainty about the future.
Some day, hopefully in the not-too distant future, our schools will open their doors again. When they do, we should give our children a much better education system. To do this, we should build our schools upon a foundation of what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calls “the ideal educational and developmental milieu for children”: play, in all of its forms.
The evidence is clear. A wide range of research indicates that intellectual and physical play confers a host of cognitive, social, emotional and health benefits. Play is the learning language of children, and pediatricians know it has the power to supercharge more conventional, and equally necessary, forms of academic instruction.
Over the last 20 years, politicians in the United States and elsewhere and have tried to improve public schools with policies based on the high-pressure standardized testing of children. Instead of improving learning, these policies have demoralized teachers and students, pushed out the arts, recess and learning through play, and wasted billions of dollars for marginal gains, by doing little to relieve the inequities, segregation and student disengagement that plague many of our schools.
In the United States, for example, recess in public schools is widely restricted, and even denied as a punishment for wiggling in class or late homework — despite the scientific evidence that physical activity improves behavior and academic performance. Before the school shutdowns, millions of American children were already spending their days in cruel, unnatural conditions of forced physical restraint in our public schools. According to one report, 30 percent of American kindergartners have no recess anymore, due to academic pressure on 4-, 5- and 6 -year-olds.
Now, well over a billion children will be almost totally cooped up indoors at home, perhaps for months to come.
“We have to assume that the incidence of PTSD and anxiety disorders as a function of what we are as a society going through, for both parents and children, is going to be huge,” pediatrician Michael Yogman told us. “ … We need to think about how are we going to help children recover from the trauma of this experience.”
According to Yogman, principal author of the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 landmark report “The Power of Play,” a worst-case scenario would be for schools to say, “We missed four months of academic subjects and tests, so we’re going to compress it all into a month and catch up.” He considers this kind of thinking a terrible idea, since “it would just accentuate the stress children are already experiencing and undermine their capacity for productive learning.”
Representing the nation’s 67,000 children’s doctors, the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared that “the importance of playful learning for children cannot be overemphasized.” In fact, the doctors assert, “It could be argued that active play is so central to child development that it should be included in the very definition of childhood. Play offers more than cherished memories of growing up, it allows children to develop creativity and imagination while developing physical, cognitive and emotional strengths.”
In direct opposition to the prevailing wisdom of some American self-styled “education reformers” who have slashed recess and play in inner-city schools, the AAP has noted that for children in poverty, “play should be an integral component of school engagement.” According to the pediatricians, “the lifelong success of children is based on their ability to be creative and to apply the lessons learned from playing.”
Play is urgently relevant to the new education world that will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. “Play can mitigate stress,” Dr. Yogman tells us. “The executive function skills that kids develop through play can promote resilience, and play can restore safe and nurturing relationships with parents, teachers and other children, which also promotes resilience. That’s got to be our goal when kids get back to school. At every level, in our schools, homes, and communities, our social structures have to acknowledge the magnitude of stress all families, especially those with young children will experience, and design programs that mitigate that, including lots of physical activity and play.”
In these times of uncertainty, pain and fear, play can be a big part of the cure. During this crisis, parents should resist the temptation to overstress their children with excessive, often screen-based “remote at-home learning” in an attempt to “not fall behind.” In this bizarre, tragic chapter in world history, children need parental attention and love, comfort, safety, nondigital play, healthy routines, songs, books, blocks, basic art supplies, and, whenever possible, physical activity, much more than they need academic pressure, graded assignments and excessive screen time. We recently asked our own children, age 8 and 12, what they think their own weekday study schedule at home should look like during the crisis. They sketched out time for learning, practice and rest, and also blocked out slots of time through the day for recess, play and physical activity breaks — just as pediatricians recommend. We should listen carefully to both children and their doctors, who together represent qualified experts on childhood.
In this health emergency, government leaders around the world are urgently seeking the advice of medical and scientific experts. They should do the same when it comes to education. When the covid-19 pandemic passes and the world opens up again, we should redesign our schools using the best expert evidence, just as we are doing in response to the global health pandemic. We should give our children schools that follow doctor’s orders, by giving them lots of physical activity and play to energize learning and boost health and happiness.
The mission of childhood education can no longer be the generation of standardized test data, but learning powered by the physical, mental and emotional health and well being of every child and every teacher.
Schools should be the favorite place of every child. It’s time we made them so.