I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
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Suddenly it’s November. Over the past few months, my brain has been focused elsewhere than this blog. Mainly, navigating the new world of having a school age child. We watched our daughter get on the school bus for the first time and waited eagerly for her to come home that first day—and every day since. She seems happy, talks about friends and has settled into the new routine. The buzz has died down—and I finally have the room to think again. And I have A LOT of thoughts. Bear with me. And then please share your own.
First off, some context. Though I’m not comfortable sharing the name of my daughter’s school, it’s a large public elementary school in a relatively affluent suburban district close to the city. And though our district may not be exactly like yours, I still think we as parents can engage in a discussion about the nature of our schools in the region and the nation.
So here goes…
I’m shocked at how LITTLE I see my daughter. Our district has a full-day kindergarten and she is gone from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The mornings are a blur and by the time she gets home from school in the evenings, we have no more than a couple of hours to interact with her. Weekends feel sacred.
Naturally, we ask ourselves “What’s she doing?” during the many hours she spends away from us. And though it feels WRONG, I can’t really answer that question. However, based on the little information we get, I know she’s NOT doing enough of:
- Free play: shortly after my daughter started kindergarten, I read this article in the Atlantic by Tim Walker. Walker has spent considerable time studying the education system in Finland, where children don’t start learning to read until beyond kindergarten. Instead, they engage in hours of unstructured play per day. “Play is really the work of childhood,” said Fred Rogers, and I couldn’t agree with him more. I firmly believe that children learn best through play, even when they’re beyond kindergarten. So why is it generally perceived that play time detracts from learning time? Is it because the skills that kids learn through free play and exploration aren’t as easily testable? Sometimes I think so…
- Hands-on learning: I recently interviewed an educator at the Winchester Thurston North Hills campus. We discussed the curriculum for Little House on the Prairie, where students read the books in their English class, and then head out to the “Outdoor Classroom,” to learn how to build a log cabin like Pa using real tools. This sort of hands-on, cross-curricular learning has to be superior to worksheets and other traditional educational tools so prevalent in our schools. But why is this style of learning only accessible to families who can afford an expensive private school environment?
- Physical activity: I have had several discussions with friends who have school-age boys recently diagnosed with ADHD. “I don’t think there’s actually anything wrong with my son. He’s just not in the right school environment,” said one. In many cases, I must say I agree. I don’t think our kids are getting enough time to run around and be active. Concurrently, we have an ADHD and obesity epidemic. Could they be related? I think so…
I’m not pointing fingers at any particular district, school or teacher. I think we are all facing similar pressures. No matter what district you live in, there’s simply not enough money devoted to education. As a result, many of our public schools don’t have the room to think outside the box. Also, schools must deal with the weight of standardized testing and the Common Core. Student performance in these arenas directly impacts school district rankings, which can influence funding decisions and the very fabric of an area’s economy. People want to live in “good” school districts. And when they live somewhere, they spend money there.
These are true challenges. But–I don’t think–insurmountable. In this case, I think school districts are sitting on a gold mine—Mom and Dad.
The success of this blog has proven to me beyond a doubt that parents (and other caregivers) in our region are truly invested in the education of our kids. You have read about, shared and participated in many of the educational activities that I’ve highlighted in my weekend listings and my other articles. I am thoroughly convinced that parents universally dream of nurturing a well-rounded and happy child. And of course we do. There is no one who cares more about a child’s success than a parent. It’s evolutionary biology 101.
So, why can’t we take matters into our own hands? Partially, I think it’s because schools aren’t letting parents in. PA Clearances aside, I don’t think we’re told enough of what is going on in the everyday lives of our children in the classroom. What are they learning in Science? Math? Social Studies? How can parents effectively supplement this learning both in our homes (through books, hands-on projects, etc) and within the community (structured museum programs, events etc.).
If schools could help bridge this gap, I believe we could overcome some of the limitations of our educational system. Because, unlike teachers, parents can provide more individualized attention based on the specific interests of a child. Also, unlike teachers, parents can provide more opportunities for hands-on, play-based learning. Finally, unlike teachers, parents don’t need a paycheck. We just WANT THE BEST FOR OUR KIDS!
So I ask you—why can’t we find a way to efficiently integrate in-school and out-of-school learning so that parents can take a more active role in helping schools overcome their limitations?
And now, I’d like to hear from you because I know I’m not alone. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, send me a message on the Pittsburgh Mommy Page on Facebook or comment below. And if your child’s school is doing a particularly good job of involving parents, please let me know. I want to hear more!
Addendum: I received some feedback from this article that it was “anti-teacher.” I want to explicitly state that I do not believe that the problems I’ve mentioned above have anything to do with my own child’s teacher or any others. I wrote this article purely to start a conversation about the issues–and to determine a way that we can work together to advocate for our children’s interests.