Testing vs. Playtime

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Earlier this year, astoryinThe Washington Posttitled "What do I expect from my children's elementary school? Certainly not this" made the rounds on social media. The gist of the piece was that there's too much of an emphasis on testing and not enough time spent on play-based learning in today's elementary schools.

Which makes sense. If there's one thing most parents can agree on, it's that in public schools today, the amount of testing feels out of hand. And prepping for those tests can create even more problems.

But I feel the need to rein in some of the hyperbole. "The children that I get off of the bus are exhausted," theWashington Postmom writes. "They are frustrated. They are overworked. They are burned out. I feel as if I should make them a weak whiskey on the rocks, hand them their pipe and slippers and leave them alone for an hour to decompress."

My kids look like that some days. Sometimes I feel that way, too. You know why? Because life is not a party, and if we instill in our kids the idea that it is, we're setting them up for a lifetime of disappointment.

Let's not also assume there aren't ways to inject more play into a traditional classroom. In my son's second-grade, public-school class, the teacher sprinkles physical activities and playtime throughout the schoolday - yoga, impromptu dance parties. Anything to get their bodies moving.

The other night at the dinner table, my kids told me about their daily routines, and the most striking part was how often they changed from one activity to another. Their days are active. The settings change.

For the past two years, our public elementary school has also created "interest groups" for these interminable Ohio winters. For one hour, once a week, the kids choose among several groups, many of which involve physical activity and/or guided play. My kids both made their own board games this year. I saw other kids sledding outside.

All that to say, I find these nightmarish visions of kids with bloodshot eyes chained to desks all day more inciting than insightful. Teachers aren't stupid. Many find ways to be creative with play, even within the confines of (gasp) public schools.

For the sake of argument, let's imagineyourkid'sentire dayissomehow filled with play. Even then, plenty of things can go wrong. Recently my kid's day was nearly ruined because he temporarily lost his lunchbox. Not because of testing. In fact, so far, my kids have been excited to tell me about the standardized tests they take. My first-grader began asking me about fractions, because she hadn't dealt with them until a recent test, and she was curious to learn more about how they work.

"Standards-based learning and 'rigorous' testing are not going to be successful in elementary school, unless your goal is to get children to hate education at a very early age," this article states. And yet, every weekday at my kids' elementary school, which is necessarily steeped in standards-based learning, I don't see children hating their education. I see kids who have good days and bad days, like anyone.

Most worrisome to me in theWashington Postarticleis the summation."Above all," this mom writes, "when I see their sweet little faces get off of the bus, and I ask them how their day was, I want to hear, 'My day was great!' "

Is that really what our end goal should be for our kids? To make sure that no matter what, they get off the bus talking about what a great day they had? What about equipping them for real life? Are those skills we want to wait until middle school or high school to introduce, when weighty tests like the SAT and ACT and driver's license exams come into play? Or should we start working on those skills at a younger age?

Yes, elementary school is different from high school, and what we expect from our kids should reflect that. But there has to be a happy medium between pushing for education reform and pretending that more playtime can ensure our little angels are shiny, happy people.

Every student's experience is unique, and not all elementary schools are created equal. If your kids are exhausted and frustrated every single day, then yeah, something is probably wrong. Butall is not lost, parents. Resist the temptation to despair. Revel in the good days, grapple with the bad ones and be cautious of overly simplistic explanations for that good-bad ratio.

Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer who went to public and private schools and was also homeschooled. Surprise - there are pluses and minuses to each!