Over the weekend my friends and I agreed that we all have had the same dream at one time or another. They all involved some form of needing to return to high school or college because we had not actually graduated. In my dreams, it’s usually because I need to take a math class or an English class taught by one of my former English teachers. The only thing she and I had in common was contempt for one another. My best friend, Beth, and I would sometimes skip class and go shopping instead. I have great memories of trying on prom dresses at Bloomingdales, hiking up the skirts and pretending to run down the beach, imitating an Elizabeth Hurley commercial that was out at the time. I’m sure the clerks loved us.
Since homework began for Rachael about a month ago, it has felt like I actually am back in school. Rachael generally doesn’t have difficulty with understanding the work. Although, when she does, I can’t help but feel like this is actually the pop quiz my teachers warned me about. I am relieved to find that Rachael doesn’t receive an inordinate amount of homework, like in the horror stories we all hear. Still, the small amount of work she does receive has caused a big change in how we spend the precious few hours between coming home from school and bedtime. The addition of an after-school Spanish class once a week has stolen more time and, seemingly, more energy from my little 6 year old. (Thankfully, she loves the Spanish class.) It seems, now, we are spending afternoons completing homework within the sludge of exhaustion, (both she and I.) Words on the pages of the books she reads become jumbled and blurry because of tired tears.
Mike and I have wondered what we can do to make everything easier on her. I let her take breaks when the frustrated screams burst out of her. I do my best to maintain patience and, what Mike calls, an “NPR voice”. Last week we had Rachael go to bed earlier and had her take some quiet resting time in her room. But this morning, I had a realization: Rachael isn’t getting enough play time during the week. Recess is a paltry 20 minutes and she only gets choice time on Fridays. She has PE, but we non-athletes know that PE is A) not free, imaginative play, and B) pretty stressful when you’re being forced to do things you don’t have the ability to do, (I’m looking at you, Presidential Fitness testing!) She no longer has time to play with friends after school. So she’s left with whatever she can squeeze in between homework, dinner, and bed.
Is it any wonder that she has become a little red-headed ball of cranky melancholy during the week? Not only is she not getting time to just be Rachael and have fun, she’s not getting a chance to have much of a cognitive dump during her waking hours. Free play allows kids to tap into different brain centers and let the others take a break. It gives them a chance to work out problems they encounter at school. Free play builds the bonds of friendship and teaches kids how to be empathetic. Most importantly, I think, is that it doesn’t require anything of them. They don’t necessarily have to be “good” boys and girls. They don’t have to be quiet, still, and focused. Rather than following instructions, they make the rules of their imaginary world or choice of play. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by all the information with which they are inundated, (as Rachael has expressed to me) they have a chance to exert control in their world.
So I think, this week, my homework will be to protect the sacredness of playtime. Now is the time that precedent and expectations are set. Rachael needs to know that, while education and hard work are important, so too are fun, creativity, and a chance to just be. The last thing I want to do is inadvertently communicate to her that this will be the rest of her life- work, stress, and no free time, with no time for things like reading for pleasure, playing games, and self-care. Perhaps if we all begin valuing play time a little more, it will infiltrate the “real world” and press a reset button for our priorities. Learning this has been infinitely more valuable than knowing the cosine of an angle or how to do a pull up while eeeeeeeeeeeverybody watches you. Seriously, Schwarzenegger, what the fuck?