Op/Ed: Let’s End the Race to Nowhere

by | Sep 25, 2014

By Catherine Rodgers

If you are like me and grew up prior to 1990, you probably remember long weekday afternoons riding your bike around the neighborhood in search of adventure. Or maybe you made mud pies and pretended to bake them in the sun. Every day in my Long Island neighborhood there was an impromptu kickball game in the street that didn’t end ‘Til The Streetlights Came On.

Sometimes at home I remember escaping to a tiny corner of my living room and instructing my stuffed animals about the finer points of reading, not realizing at the time that I was already preparing to be a middle school English teacher. In the world of my childhood, there was always something to explore or create, and the beauty of this play time was that it was unstructured and kid-directed.

Today’s culture offers so many wonderful enrichment opportunities that it is tempting for a parent to want to ensure that one’s child doesn’t miss out. East Greenwich boasts a wealth of clubs, sports, and activities, but it is less common these days that kids regularly get to experience the kind of play that allows them to learn by discovery, without rushing. Looking around our beautiful town, I can’t help but notice how few of our tree-lined streets and cul-de-sacs have kids whiling away the hours making up games and playing just for the fun of it. And it is rare to meet families that don’t feel busy and stressed out, driving from one commitment to another. Are these structured activities harmful? Of course not, in moderation. But I am afraid that in an effort to ensure our kids’ present and future success we sometimes steal their childhoods in the process.

For example, our elementary schools and middle school have fewer recess minutes than any school my children have attended, and as a Navy family we count Rhode Island as our fifth home in ten years. This phenomenon has become so pervasive that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a study explaining that “free and unstructured play is healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient” (http://www2.aap.org/pressroom/playFINAL.pdf). The AAP explains that many parents are afraid to step back from this hurried lifestyle for fear of falling behind the standard of the communities in which they live. Could East Greenwich be one such community?

Another area where undue stress is placed upon their young shoulders is the ever-increasing academic demands of homework that, for many young people, continue late into the evening, disrupting family dinners and togetherness. Add to that the pre-dawn hour that our middle and high schoolers must rise to start their school day, which begins at 7:33 a.m., and you have a recipe for anxiety, obesity, drug abuse, and automobile accidents. In fact, the AAP recently released a compelling statement recommending between 8.5 and 9.25 hours of sleep per night for teens. They state that 8:30 a.m. should be the earliest school start time for adolescents. Our excellent school system is led by committed professionals who have our students’ best interests at heart, but there is no question that the demands placed on teachers and administrators by high-stakes standardized testing places a heavy burden.

I recently had the enlightening experience of viewing the documentary Race to Nowhere, which poses the question of how we got to this point and how we can end the race before it is too late. Directed by San Francisco-area parent Vicki Abeles who saw the toll taken on her children due to the culture’s drive for success at any cost, the film features “the heartbreaking stories of students across the country who have been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing and the relentless pressure to achieve. Race to Nowhere points to a silent epidemic in our schools. Through the testimony of educators, parents and education experts, it reveals an education system in which cheating has become commonplace; students have become disengaged; stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant; and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.” (http://www.racetonowhere.com/about-film)

This Saturday at 4 p.m., I hope you will join me for a public showing of Race to Nowhere, what the New York Times called “a must-see film.” Named by TakePart.com as one of “10 Education Documentaries You Don’t Want to Miss,” Race to Nowhere will inspire you to become part of a grassroots effort to transform our schools and our community. Held at St. Luke’s Church, 99 Peirce St., East Greenwich, the screening is being sponsored by Start School Later-East Greenwich and the generosity of the Academy Foundation. Afterwards, a distinguished panel of experts will help frame our discussion: Bob Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich Drug Program; Dr. Patricia Flanagan, president of the R.I. chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Dr. Katherine Sharkey, professor of sleep medicine at Brown University; and Dr. Fortunado Procopio, director of URI Health Services. Admission is free, seating is limited, and content is suitable for teens through adults. Parental discretion is advised.

Catherine Rodgers lives in East Greenwich.

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