Coronavirus School Closures: An Educational Opportunity

Education is much more than what is taught in school. Take advantage.

A pandemic is never a good thing.  It’s a terrible thing.  But maybe some good can come from it.  Anything that disrupts our usual ways of being can lead us to try new ways of being, ways that might in the long run be improvements or guide us to improvements.  Here I want to discuss the potential benefits of the coronavirus-induced shutdown of schools and cancelation of afterschool adult-directed activities that have consumed so much of our children’s time.

It is no secret that school-aged children have been suffering in recent times from overscheduled lives. They are spending more time in school and at schoolwork at home than ever before, and many are occupied with adult-directed activities during much of the rest of their waking hours.  They have been deprived of freedom to discover and pursue their own interests and to develop the confidence and sense of independence that comes from creating their own activities and solving their own problems.  Among the results are record levels of anxiety, depression, and even suicide and large declines in creativity and internal locus of control (sense of being in control of one’s own life) among children and young adults.  When children’s lives are programmed by others, they do not learn how to program their own lives.  When children are constantly doing what adults tell them to do, they have little opportunity to discover and pursue what they themselves like to do—that is, to discover their passions.

As a society we seem to believe that all this schooling and adult direction is good for children’s education, but it is not. Education, properly considered, is much more than memorizing facts and learning the academic skills taught in school.  To become educated is to learn who you are and what you love to do, to find your place in the world, and to learn how to take charge of your own life and solve your own problems.  All of this requires freedom to play and explore, unfettered by adult control, the kind of freedom that most children had in quantity decades ago but not today. Now, thanks to all these shutdowns, children have an opportunity to experiment with freedom, if we allow it. Admittedly, it’s not the full freedom that would be ideal.  As long as the virus is out there, children are not free to congregate and play physically closely with one another.  But still, children now suddenly have more free time to create and structure their own activities than most may have ever had before.

How can you, as a parent, help your child make good use of this freedom?  Here are some thoughts.

Don’t worry about your children “falling behind” academically.

Really, truly, very little is learned in a few months of school that is remembered over time.  There is even evidence that the skills schools are most concerned about—literacy and numeracy skills—are actually more deeply learned in out-of-school activities than in school.  Despite popular concern about the so-called “summer slide” in academic skills, research indicates that reading ability and mathematical reasoning skills may actually improve more rapidly during summer vacation from school than during school months (here).  When children are reading for fun or solving real-world problems that involve math, they acquire these skills more deeply, in ways that make sense and are remembered, than when they are doing them as school assignments.

I have for years been conducting research with young people involved in Self-Directed Education, that is, with young people who do not attend a curriculum-based school but are homeschooled by the method commonly called unschooling or who attend a school designed for Self-Directed Education. Such children become educated by playing, exploring, and generally pursuing their own interests, with no imposed curriculum.  Some of them, for various reasons, decide at some point to enroll in a typical public school. The usual result is that they have no difficulty fitting right in at whatever grade they would normally be in if they had attended all along.  If they are behind in anything, they quickly catch up.

If the school your children attend is somehow requiring students to do a certain amount of homework per day to submit online, then they should probably do it, so as not to suffer immediate repercussions. Most likely, however, they can complete that work in far less time than a typical school day requires, so they’ll still have plenty of free time.

Allow your child to take on new responsibilities and challenges.

Through the Let Grow nonprofit, my colleague Lenore Skenazy and I have learned that many school children would love to take on major chores at home that they have not been trusted to do.  For example, some children have expressed a desire to cook a full meal for their family, all by themselves, but have not had the opportunity because of parents’ fears that they would hurt themselves or do it poorly.  If that’s true in your family, here’s a chance for both you and your child to learn something valuable.  You can learn to relax and stop being a perfectionist, and your child can have the thrill of learning to take charge of preparing a meal.  My advice is to let the child do it in his or her own way, offering guidance only as truly needed for safety or when the child asks for help.  There’s a lot of learning, even involving math and reading, in cooking. And if the meal flops, the lesson is that failure is nothing to fear; it is our best teacher. Try again.

Here’s an even bolder possibility.  Depending on your child’s age, you might ask if they would like to paint their own room—whatever color they choose!  Again, give up your perfectionism and need for control, and allow your child to learn how to take control. I remember well the first time my parents allowed me to paint my own bedroom, when I was about ten years old. It was an experience that helped me grow up.  I grew five feet taller in confidence.  They gave me some pointers, but then left me alone (though they did talk me out of painting it all black with yellow stripes).

Many children, no surprise, would love to take new adventures in outdoor independence, but have been prevented by fearful parents.  For example, one child wanted to ride her bike around the block, alone, without a parent accompanying her. As part of a Let Grow project, she negotiated with her parents to ride her bike first just to the end of the block and back with a parent watching. When that was done successfully, the girl was allowed to go to the end of the block and back without the parent watching.  And then, finally, all the way around the bock.  In this example the parent overcame a fear in gradual steps, a process clinical psychologists call systematic desensitization, and the child grew greatly in confidence.

What adventures might you allow your child?  Of course, the virus limits some outdoor activities but by no means all.  In fact, as long as the child remains at least 6 feet away from people who might be carriers, outdoors is safer than indoors.  The virus is killed by sun and wind; it survives much longer indoors than out.

Maybe your child can even play with friends outdoors, by inventing a new game that requires them to stay at least 6 feet apart.  They might call it coronaball.  I’m envisioning, for example, a game in which the children are tied to one another with 9-foot long ropes and have to stay far enough apart that a rope never droops enough to touch the ground, as they perhaps kick a ball from one to another while racing across a field toward a goal.  Well, that’s just an idea to stimulate new, creative thought.  Let the children figure it out.  A lot of learning goes into creating a new game.

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