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Let them play, help them learn

May 4, 2013

optisOrion Magazine has a timely article on the importance of letting children take some risks. It counters the notion that children inherently turn into savages, when away from adult eyes, and recounts when several boys from Tonga found themselves stranded on a desert island in 1977, they survived through mutual cooperation and organization. One wonders how many children today would manage so well. The article is timely, precisely because of political efforts to turn our schools into ever more tightly-controlled environments.

Polk County School District expelled 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot, whose chemistry play blew the cap off a water bottle. That could be seen as an example of zero-tolerance run amok. And also, the expulsion of Cupertino fifth-grader Braden Bandermann, who brought a Swiss army knife on a camping trip, and Princeton, North Carolina, senior David “Cole” Withrow, who drove his truck onto the school parking lot, forgetting that his skeet gun was locked inside. Here is how the Polk County School District explains its decision:

In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules.

This is worse than zero tolerance of misbehavior. In all three cases, these young people were engaged in learning, had no ill intent in their misadventures, caused no harm, and are being punished severely solely to enshrine the importance of safety rules. The schools are so focused on order and safety that they are letting those trump learning. When we make “safe and orderly” preeminent, the result is that we lock students away in near sterile environments for much of their childhood, model schools after prisons, give students a warped view of the larger world, fail to help students learn how to handle risk.

Worse, we teach them that learning is something different from play, that learning is something that takes place in a controlled environment. Learning means sometimes walking off the marked trail. Learning means getting your hands mucky. Yes, when you teach children chemistry, some will burn themselves or blow up equipment. When you take children into the field, to teach them biology or geology, some will encounter poison ivy, some will fall down a ravine, some will get lost. When you teach children to paddle a canoe, to ride a horse, or to shoot skeet, some will fall into the water, some will fall off the horse and break a bone, and some will suffer a lapse in safety rules.

Teachers and adults can set rules and procedures to make such endeavors safer. They never will be risk free. And when students, with innocent intent, make a lapse, the goal should be to correct them and to engage them and to teach them, not to treat them as criminals.

Kudos to principal Andrew Bott, who took over a failing and violence-plagued school in Roxbury, Massachusetts, fired the security guards that the NRA weenies want in all schools, and instead hired art and music teachers, turning the school around.

The photo shows some lucky children, allowed to learn and play in their Optimist prams. They were inside the marina when the photo was taken. But they go out in the bay.

Update June 8: It turns out David Withrow may have been more negligent than early reports suggested. Worse, for him, he has decided to attend a fake university.

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