This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 20, 1999

January 20, 1999 - Let Kids Play

About a hundred years ago in some rural, illiterate areas of Russia, folks had an odd way of insuring that important events were remembered.

Let's say an emissary of the Czar visited. The leader of the village would choose a 4 or 5 year old child, then box his ears. When the child would cower, cry, and protest, the leader would repeat, "In 1889 the czar's emissary visited our village!"

You shake your head. But trauma works. All his life, the boy would remember what he was supposed to remember.

This same principle is behind what we call "public education." (No, I'm kidding. I think.)

But speaking of education and child abuse, according to a study by the University of Michigan, children from the ages of 3 to 8 spent three times as many minutes on homework in 1997 than they did in 1981.

There are at least two ways to look at this. One of them is that the jump isn't that big: 24 minutes a week for the 3 to 5 year olds; about an hour and quarter per week for the 6-8 year olds. Many parents would tell you that if this modest investment of time improves the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, it's time well spent.

Another view is that parenting styles are changing. Exhibit A: the word "parenting." Grown-ups used to say that they were "raising a family" or "raising kids." Now we're "parenting." Isn't it interesting how that moves the focus from the child to the parent?

Exhibit B: all day kindergarten. Add to that a gaggle of prestigious, academically-oriented preschools with long waiting lists. (Pregnant? Sign up now!)

Exhibit C: soccer, girl's basketball, and a host of other organized sports for children.

It happens that my daughter played soccer and now plays basketball. On the whole, it's probably been good for her, too, even when it's been hard on us. (I'm thinking of a frosty soccer field at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.) But I can't help but notice a distinct pattern lately: Baby Boom parents are programming our kids' time far more than we were programmed.

So by way of contrast, consider a January, 1999 article in "The Futurist" magazine titled, "Career advice for kids: play more." According to the abstract: "Career experts agree that parents should allow their children to play more rather than force them to study or make career decisions at an early age. Free play .... enables children to discover how the real world operates and improve their personality and emotional health."

And consider this from an article called "Play and the arts: the importance of the 'unimportant'" ("Childhood Education," mid- winter, 1997): "Perhaps an adult's most important contribution to children's play is to create enough time and protected space .... Children need undisturbed time to explore the world of play."

I'm not sentimental about my childhood. But I find that the moments I treasure were utterly unstructured: conversations with my grandmother, time spent sitting in trees, books I read sitting in window wells and staircases ... and libraries.

When I was a kid, the school and public libraries were places where grown-ups left me alone. As long as I was reading, I was free to dream, to imagine, to "play." Nobody told me what to read, how quickly to turn the pages, or what I was supposed to learn from the books I loved.

On behalf of the children tired of having their figurative ears boxed to remember things that otherwise wouldn't matter to them: let's remember to leave them a little time in the day to just be kids.

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