What I Wish For My Grandchildren

I have been an educator for over 35 years.

This past June, 2014, I retired from my position as Principal and Head of School from an institution that I co-founded in 1996.

I had been in the enviable position of working with dedicated staff, wonderful children and a committed parent group.

Along the way I’ve learned some things!

When I first began as a classroom teacher in 1977, I was working with a very different child than the one I saw in 2014.

Three decades ago, we had time to play and time to nurture the curiosities of our students. Perhaps we weren’t as strong academically and our understanding of intelligence and ways of thinking were certainly not as well developed. We did not have the benefit of our current research in neuroscience and brain development. Very few people were even thinking about multiple intelligences and brain plasticity, something that students in 2014 have certainly benefitted from.

In the 1970’s, the so called “self-esteem” movement was just getting started. We were taught that the best way to encourage academic success and motivation was to continuously praise the child. If Johnny hung up his coat as expected, we heaped on the accolades. If Mary tried 2 out of 10 literacy questions we were wowed because she tried.

While these are just a couple of examples, the results were profound.

What we saw over the years were students who were less resilient, more anxious and because of the implosion of screen time, less able to accomplish learning without external controls. Today, even our youngest children are being externally controlled by loud noises, flashing lights and rapidly changing games and activities. We are in fact encouraging impulsivity. I recently watched a group of 5 year olds in a middle class neighbourhood school struggle with play. They had difficulty agreeing on a scenario and staying with it. Their play direction kept shifting and there were plenty of tears as many left the play center. Something else that I noticed was that a lot of the children’s play was pre scripted and based on the current popular DVD that the children were watching. If we understand that to be a successful citizen of the 21st century, students have to develop critical, creative and collaborative thinking then surely it starts with play in the kindergarten. All of the well regarded child development experts agree that play develops cognitive, emotional and social skills.

Walking into a well known toy store, I couldn’t help but notice the gendered aisles where the “boy” toys were often the building toys and the “girl” toys were those that encouraged more passive play such as basic crafts. What was even more concerning was that toys were predominately based on the latest movie and left little room for ingenuity and imagination.

So, what do I wish for my grandchildren and all children? I wish for time and space. I hope that the adults in their lives are not so harried and stressed; that they have time to build significant relationships with the children and that children are given time to grow and develop based on their own trajectory and not some artificial standardized test score. I wish that all who are responsible for raising and educating them take the time to realize that no form of technology or internet connection can ever replace the human connection needed for healthy development. This means being able to tune in to the emotional and academic lives of our children. I wish that the children have the space to play and develop; that they have the space to understand who they are and that this space nurtures their essence. I wish that as they play and develop, their caregivers realize the importance of “green” space and the calming effect it can have on all age groups. When we take the time to take a breath and notice our surroundings, whether it be the changing colours of leaves or listening to the different sounds of birds, we slowly begin to introduce a sense of awe and wonder to our children.

Our school has a very large organic garden. The children, whether 4 or 14, take responsibility for some aspect of nurturing the plants, vegetables and flowers. Even the youngest students are very serious in their pursuits because they know that their actions and behaviour will have an impact on the growth and development of the vegetation. Many parents have told me that their children will now eat vegetables because of first tasting the ones that they grew themselves in the school garden.

I wish for my grandchildren and all children that they have the opportunity to develop empathy even as they are saturated with violence in the media and on their screens. I wish and hope that they learn peaceful conflict resolutions and that their self esteem is strengthened, not by power differentials but by authentic success.

Gail Baker has been a teacher, workshop leader, and innovator. She recently retired as Head of The Toronto Heschel School, which she co-founded in 1996. She is a regular contributor to “think” magazine, the Journal of the Lola Stein Institute. Gail and her husband recently became grandparents.

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