In the middle ages in Europe, animals were held accountable for human laws, and many animals were put on trial. The most common punishment was hanging, but there are records of more brutal versions of animal capital punishment. For example, the man who robbed a bank and was burned alive for the crime alongside his co-conspirator, the mule.

I thought of this medieval practice when I was reading about the new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because the doctors are talking about how important it is for kids to be outside. And even though kids are in school for the majority of their day, the doctors are telling parents to have kids spend more time playing outside.

Specifically, doctors are telling parents the kids need to be in nature. The research to show kids need to be in nature is very old; the pediatricians waited until this advice was mainstream and uncontroversial before they started giving it. Nature is far enough away from where most kids live that doctors are now using the Internet to find the closest park for the kids to play at, and writing the name of the park on the prescription.

I can’t help thinking the doctors trying to control time in nature is like medieval courts trying to reform feral pigs. In both cases, the government is letting down the citizens: the medieval courts would not want to go against the king, or they’d lose their power; the pediatricians would not want to go against schools or they’d lose power.

To me, the obvious thing for pediatricians to say is that kids should not spend eight hours a day in a school that has no connection to nature. Start with paved playgrounds and school rules against climbing  trees. Pediatricians could declare it a health hazard to bus kids away from nature near their house to a school that offers no access to nature.

In an effort to stay relevant, pediatricians don’t stop with nature. They also tell parents that kids need lots of time as self-directed learners. “What parents need to do is be there to help their children with scaffolding. That means you don’t control the play for your child, but when you see they’re ready to go to the next step, support that.”

The pediatricians go on to say this: “Playful learning means supporting young children’s intrinsic motivation to learn and discover instead of imposing extrinsic motivations like test scores.” So pediatricians are saying what’s going on in elementary schools is not okay.

But what pediatricians don’t do is encourage parents to take kids out of school. Clearly the pediatricians don’t think kids should be sitting in classrooms all day. But they are too cowardly to say that.

I am shocked by how little leadership the AAP shows given all the people who listen to them. The pediatricians are most able to protect kids from being pawns in a political game of school funding and politics. But pediatricians do not lead the way in the realm of the health of children.

Instead, politicians chip away at the medical profession, and pediatricians feel only precarious power in a world where health care costs are unpopular and doctors make a lot of money. More money than most people think they should make.

The result is that pediatricians are abandoning the kids in favor of their own self-interest. Doctors frequently have a conflict of interest when treating patients. And even the American Medical Association says, doctors “display a consistent preoccupation with their economic security.”

Doctors are in the best position to talk about the physical detriments of not letting kids run around at school. Doctors are in the best position to talk about the psychologically detrimental tactics adults have to use when there are 30 kids and one teacher. It’s not just nature. It’s everything. But doctors focus on issues they can put onto parents, because parents don’t fight back.

The AAP’s most recent announcement said, “a fundamental job in pediatric primary care is to strengthen the parent-child relationship.”  But more than that, I think the pediatricians are protecting their own relationship with the government, and the government is overly invested in school, so the pediatricians follow suit.

The thing is, if pediatricians are willing to tell parents they are responsible for making sure their kids have play time in nature and self-directed learning, then maybe it’s time for doctors to prescribe homeschooling.

 

10 replies
  1. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    Why can’t we just change schools? If we had the political/social will, we could fund public schools so that there were fantastic student/teacher ratios, and the kids went outside for hours every day (like “forest kindergartens” or “forest preschools” do all over Europe and increasingly in the US), and there was healthy food for kids to eat, and the curriculum could actually make sense for what we know about child development. Why is the solution that all parents take their kids OUT of school, rather than parents standing up and saying “school needs to change, and we need to change it now!”

    There’s going to need to be massive economic/social/political change before all parents are actually willing/able to homeschool, so why not create massive change to the public schools so that all parents don’t have to devote 24 hours a day to their kids? Can’t we do this in community? Aren’t humans designed to live and rear children and do all the other things that actually make us happy in larger communities? Isn’t the reason we are all so unhappy mostly because we’re trying to do everything on this new nuclear family model that actually doesn’t work at all?

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Because it is primarily a financial system serving the prior generation. A lot of things that are ‘good for kids’ do not make money nor have an economic model that serves multiple disciplines. When public money is used it has to be tracked and ‘for purpose’.
      The system is changing to an extent. Look at city budgets for ‘education’ and budgets for ‘social services’. Most of the time they are grouped together and you can view the increase allocation to social over education over the last 5 years.

    • Virginia
      Virginia says:

      Well said. In my county, the parents got involved and they increased recess for the electric schools.

  2. MBL
    MBL says:

    Don’t forget sleep and general autonomy over their bodies. God forbid a child should eat when they are hungry or go to the bathroom when they need to.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Right. So basic. And the pediatricians are totally silent. It’s incredible, really. And it’s incredible to me that I didn’t mention your examples in the post; I’ve normalized so much even as I work hard to de-school myself.

      Penelope

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    School is put together by committee. It’s a bizarre beast, public school, at least, and private schools that model themselves on public schools.

    The noisiest parts of the committee like to talk about test scores and is our children learning, but there’s also a social support function being performed by schools. There’s an idea of education and acculturation in there, surely, and a somewhat smaller idea of what’s good for the children, but the larger part of school’s function these days are the social function in terms of taking kids off their parents’ hands so they can work (or do whatever it is they do instead), and the welfare function in terms of feeding children.

    In about 62% of families with married parents and children, both parents work. If the kids didn’t have school, for the most part they couldn’t. So they need a place (or, probably, multiple places) to park their kids during the day while they work. I see even middle-class families in Boston choosing schools based on the convenience and cost of ‘after-school.’ Which, yeah, is probably on an asphalt playground, not in the woods.

    In this country also, many children are desperately poor (food insecurity is at 17.5% for children), and would have little or nothing to eat if they weren’t given food at school. In my city, a hundred schools stay open all summer just to provide breakfast and lunch to starving children. In my city, about 3,500 public school students are homeless. School may be the most reliable thing in their lives.

    I agree very much with this post. I think it’s great. I’d love it if schools would get with the program in terms of what pediatricians say children need. But I also think that, for many families, school is addressing things that are very far down Maslow’s pyramid from self-actualization.

    I remember the day I realized this was the day my son’s Kindergarten class went on a field trip to the Boston Nature Center. I chaperoned. Parents had been instructed to pack a lunch. It was an awkward moment when the lunches came out, because some kids didn’t have any. But teachers knew already to bring something extra because they’d seen that before. These kids didn’t have food at home for lunch, and if the school didn’t provide it they didn’t have any. Quite specifically, it’s hard for kids to appreciate nature on an empty stomach.

    I think that for schools to become places where children can work on self-actualization, their more basic needs must be met elsewhere. This is part of why some private schools can have a nature focus, or implement progressive educational philosophies so well: none of their kids are starving or homeless. Those problems really need to be solved first, and elsewhere, before public schools can change.

    • Isabelle
      Isabelle says:

      This is all totally right. The thing is, I don’t think we have the political will to create a whole new system is social support for poor kids— I think the best shot we have at actually taking care of them is to admit that this is the primary function of school, and make sure schools can do this easily and from Day 1 for kids who need it, and then ALSO fund and structure them so those kids can get a great education. A great education won’t be following the current models we are using, but many (if not most) teachers already realize these models (teaching to the test) don’t work and they hate them. They are still there, doing it, because they actually do care about the kids they are teaching and they are willing to do the best they can in a system that is broken on basically every level. Most people are willing to accept the status quo and just do their best within it, or at least many personality types seem willing to do this and teachers predominately fall into those personality types. (I’d love to be corrected on this personality type hypothesis if im wrong!)

      If public schools were set up to feed everyone, and be outside a large part of the day, and spend most of the “teaching” in younger years genuinely focusing on social/emotional skills, but then also let kids self-divide into groups to learn about what they’re interested in— it wouldn’t be perfect ideal unschooling, but it would also be good enough for everyone and AMAZINGLY BETTER for about 75% of kids. And it wouldn’t require setting up a whole new system of social help, just massively tweaking the one we have.

      I’m sure I’m biased, because I live in a small town and have a family of educators (from the school nurse to elementary teachers to college professors)— and I know I can homeschool my own kids and give them a great education, but shouldn’t I also care about the education my neighbors kids are getting? Shouldn’t my concern be primarily for my own kids but ALSO, importantly, for all the kids in our community? What would things look like if we all cared about everyone’s kids? Wouldn’t it be a lot better?

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        Isabelle, I like your vision, and I wish I shared your optimism. I think public schools could be set up like this, and I think it would work better for most of the kids public school serves. I don’t believe it’s going to happen, though. Public schools were once set up with military efficiency and now they’re set up with business efficiency, like widget factories, to deliver the education at the lowest unit cost while returning metrics to HQ for fine-tuning of the process. Just look at the new textbooks where a part of every page is a jargon-laden explanation of what the kids are supposed to be learning and where that fits in the curriculum committee’s rubric. How can that process be extended to ‘kids play nicely together in nature?’ Giving up the directive, prescriptive, universal standard of classroom education would be a major swing.

        The other thing that worries me is that if public schools come right out and say their number one priority is poor kids, then more middle-class families will say that’s not for them, it’s for the poor and they’re not poor. In my city a quarter of kids already don’t go to public school. I already feel uncomfortable enough with that, and if the rest of the middle class left public school, the political will to actually improve things there would dwindle. In the South you could see a rebirth of the Segregation Academies as a result.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      No, this is wrong. I usually agree with you but this is absolutely wrong.

      You’re not wrong that too many children in public schools are not getting their basic needs met at home, and you’re not wrong that the school is tasked with filling in the gaps. But why do you assume that students who don’t have lunch are unable to appreciate nature? Maslow’s model is not very good and has misled so many people. We can aspire to and attain the highest levels of appreciation for beauty, nature, intellect, spirituality, and purpose on an empty stomach, as we’ve seen throughout history. Children can learn and grow at school even when there is trouble at home, though of course those aren’t the ideal learning conditions.

      Yes, schools can and should provide for children’s basic needs when they aren’t met at home. There are Community Schools popping up everywhere that are doing this — http://www.communityschools.org. And these programs do (in theory and I think in practice) make it easier for children to learn. But that doesn’t mean that children who are struggling with basic needs are ineligible for the higher levels on Maslow’s triangle. Don’t sell kids short by assuming they aren’t capable of enjoying nature, learning, or having a life of meaning just because they’re poor. And don’t assume that public schools can’t have a progressive program (e.g., nature focus, etc) just because their students’ basic needs aren’t met at home. There are plenty of examples of Community Schools (for example) that also offer progressive curricula.

  4. Tom Randal
    Tom Randal says:

    School systems as they are today are not designed for maximum growth efficiency for learners but rather maximum cost efficiency. With little concern about the development of children in a public school set-up, I suspect we’ll be seeing problems as we move into the future. One such problem is dwindling levels of creativity… (which I feel is the foundation of a productive society). I hope more parents take up the challenge to home school, because I don’t think things are changing any time soon.

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