Archives for category: Play

The title of this post may sound absurd. Of course, children should play; it need not be a “right,” as defined in law, but it should be common sense. Play is an essential part of childhood. Most of us remember the games we made up, the pots and pans that we turned into playthings, the music we created on our own. But children today have been denied the fundamental time needed for unstructured play at school. The enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002 prioritized academic skills and caused many schools to eliminate recess as a “frill.”

Today, happily, there is a movement to bring back recess. Whereas schools used to provide recess once, or twice, or three times a day, it is now legislatures that are mandating recess. Crazy, no? When I attended Montrose Elementary School in Houston, we had recess twice a day, without benefit of a state law.

Today there are several states that mandate recess, which seems to be the only way to guarantee that it is provided.

Parent activists in Illinois just won a victory in the Illinois legislature, with the passage of a bill that requires 30 minutes of recess daily and guarantees that children cannot be punished by withholding recess.

In Texas, where the state legislature spends most of its time figuring out how to increase the number of charters and how to pass vouchers, some districts have taken the initiative to make play available.

Others have decided to rethink recess at the school or district level. A program called LiiNK—Let’s Inspire Innovation ’N Kids—in several Texas school districts sends kids outside for four 15-minute recess periods daily.

Debbie Rhea, a professor and associate dean at Texas Christian University, launched the initiative after seeing a similar practice in Finland. It reminded her of her own elementary school years.

“We have forgotten what childhood should be,” said Rhea, who was a physical education teacher before going into academia. “And if we remember back to before testing—which would be back in the ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s—if we remember back to that, children were allowed to be children.”

LiiNK was a big change for the Eagle Mountain Saginaw Independent School District, where schools saw their recess time quadruple after implementing the program four years ago.

“We’ve seen some amazing changes in our students,” said district LiiNK coordinator Candice Williams-Martin. “Their creative writing has improved. Their fine motor skills have improved, their [body mass index] has improved. Attention in the classroom has improved.”

Some educators claim that play increases test scores, but that’s a shaky foundation for supporting one of the most important building blocks of childhood. Everyone needs time to play, even adults.

Nicholas Tampio, a professor of political science at Fordham University, wrote recently in the Washington Post that children need a break, not academic pressure, this summer. But the federal government seems to have swallowed whole the claims that children are suffering from “learning loss.” He disagrees. Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle have repeatedly urged policymakers to acknowledge the importance of play in child development; they wrote a wonderful, research-based book about it called Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive. What Tampio and others argue is that the children have had a horrible year and need time to be children. We don’t need to press their little noses to the academic grindstone.


The global pandemic has taken its toll on families and children. Children have not been able to engage in their normal routines, sit in a classroom with friends and teachers, visit extended family or participate in social activities without a mask. Most parents are more concerned about their children’s emotional well-being than they were before the pandemic, a Pew Research Center survey in the fall found. And that situation may have grown more dire, as children have spent much of the school year online and maintaining social distance from other people.

Facing this year of loss, Democrats in Congress have framed the problem as primarily one of lower projected test scores; their solution is to make kids in high-poverty schools spend the summer inside preparing for standardized tests. This is exactly the wrong approach to the sadness and loss of the covid era: This summer, children need to do self-initiated activities that are rewarding for their own sake. This will create happier children now and, as research has shown, lead to improved physical, cognitive, social, emotional and creative outcomes later in life.

At the end of 2020, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, explained how he wanted to address the learning loss caused by the pandemic: “You can’t just tell cash-strapped states and localities that they’ve got to cancel summer vacation. For the federal government, if we’re going to suggest that, we’ve got to help pay for it.”

So early this year, Scott introduced the Learning Recovery Act of 2021 to establish a grant program; the bill could become law by mid-March. It would authorize $75 billion over the next two years to address learning loss in Title I schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students by funding school extension programs — including longer school days, an extended school year and summer school. It’s a lot of money: Congress allocated about $16 billion for Title I schools in 2019.

The money has strings attached. The bill stipulates that state educational agencies shall support school districts “to effectively use data and evidence-based strategies to address learning recovery needs for students.” To collect this data, a school district may administer “high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable to accurately assess students’ academic progress.” The bill also authorizes funding for the Institute of Education Sciences to study what interventions and strategies best address learning recovery, that is, raise test scores. The supporters of the bill are not interested in paying for kids to play this summer.

That’s a shame — because pediatricians have been making a powerful case for the immediate and long-term benefits of play.

2018 article in the journal Pediatrics called “The Power of Play” defines play as “an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery.”

Childhood play develops foundational motor skills, leads to an active lifestyle and prevents obesity. Climbing rocks gives children a chance to build confidence that will serve them well later in life. Rough-and-tumble play teaches children verbal skills, as they have to negotiate when things threaten to get out of hand. Taking risks on the playground hones executive functioning skills such as concentrating, problem solving and regulating one’s emotions. Recess gives children of different backgrounds an opportunity to become friends.

“Play is part of our evolutionary heritage,” the authors explain, “and gives us opportunities to practice and hone the skills needed to live in a complex world.”

And what happens when children do not have a chance to play? They don’t have a safe way to release toxic stress and may lash out with antisocial behavior. By focusing on academic achievement rather than play, young people often develop anxiety, depression and a lack of creativity. “Play may be an effective antidote to the changes in amygdala size, impulsivity, aggression, and uncontrolled emotion that result from significant childhood adversity and toxic stress,” the article argues.

Even more than usual, it would seem, children in the pandemic era need a chance to play before they resume their formal education in the fall. In England, experts in childhood development have called for a “summer filled with play” to recover from the pandemic. According to Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, “children need time to reconnect and play with their friends, they need to be reminded how good it feels to be outdoors after so long inside and they need to get physically active again…”

Think of all the rewarding things that children could do this summer. Day camps with arts and crafts, sports, theater, and activities like podcasting and three-dimensional printing. Visiting family in other parts of the country. Swimming at the pool. Riding bikes with friends. Performing in a band. As scholars such as Yong Zhao and Christopher Tienken have been arguing for years, these kinds of unstructured activities give young people a chance to invent new things, create works of art, start businesses and develop their own talents.

Kids would be better off if Congress votes down legislation that would keep children in high-poverty schools inside this summer. Those kids — including ones living in shelters, with food insecurity or in dangerous neighborhoods — deserve to play just as surely as do those children whose parents send them to sleep-away camp. And governments, civil society and families should look for ways to give children a chance to do activities that are voluntary, joyful and imaginative: that is, to play.

Nancy Bailey is hopeful that 2021 will bring a new agenda for public schools and their students and teachers.

All are worried about the pandemic and whether there will be the resources to protect students and staff.

There will surely be a teacher shortage due to the numbers of teachers who felt threatened by returning to school when it was not safe, as well as the necessity to reduce class sizes to make social distancing a reality.

The need for social justice should be high on the agenda, and it has nothing to do with vouchers and school choice.

Students with disabilities have been seriously affected by the pandemic and need extra instruction and resources.

The pandemic threw a harsh light on the condition of school infrastructure. Many states have not invested in school facilities. Will they?

The arts were dropped in many schools during the disastrous reign of NCLB and Race to the Top. Today they are needed more than ever.

What will become of assessment? Will the new Secretary follow those who think that testing produces equity? Or will he listen to teachers and parents? Twenty years of federally mandated testing produced a static status quo, locking the neediest students into their place in the social hierarchy and denying them equality of educational opportunity.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, followed the debate about what to do “after COVID,” and he shares his wisdom here.


I’ve been wrestling with two quandaries regarding post-COVID schools. Yes, in the short-run, the tactical use of digital technology has been prioritized, but the longer term priority must be human-to-human relationships. The last thing we want are 21th century schools driven by screen time. So, what can we do to recover from the pandemic which came on the heels of the corporate school reform disaster that was imposed on teachers and students?

Last spring, I timidly made suggestions but I knew that educators were overwhelmed, and it wasn’t time to be pushy about future visions of schooling. It’s unlikely that many of today’s teachers would be allowed to do so, but I used to start my inner city high school classes’ orientation week with music, poetry, and film clips like Amiri Baraka’s “The X is Black,” Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin,” and Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom, playing Steve Biko, explaining colonialism.

So, if I were still teaching high school, I’d have used much of the spring semester for one-on-one digital and telephone conversations, discussing what each student loves and what each one would love, and get each kid hooked on a genre, artist, musician, or whatever. Surely, it would be easy to sell many kids on great Nature programs, such as the Smithsonian’s new David Attenborough series, or PBS documentaries about the race to the Moon. I’d then focus on each kid learning in depth about the things that enthralled them.

I’d have also started by showing and discussing, and borrowing from great musical and artistic events. I’ve been stunned, and often been left in tears by “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” which also featured President Barack Obama; Jason Alexander’s Passover Seder; One World: Together at Home; and 300 singers from 15 countries singing You’ll Never Walk Alone

We also should have learned from Jill Lepore’s history of education during the Great Depression in the New Yorker. Lepore’s “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” described School Superintendent John Studebaker’s “ambitious plan to get Americans to show up in the same room and argue with one another in the nineteen-thirties.” Starting in Des Moines, Iowa, his idea spread to schools across the nation. We saw what works in our democracy; discussions where “the people of the community of every political affiliation, creed, and economic view have an opportunity to participate freely.”

I’ve also agreed with Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel about the need for outdoor learning. Moreover, we need a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps where kids learn about global warming, and solutions and career options for battling it.

Similarly, early in the pandemic, John Merrow reminded us, “Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take the support of the village to open its public schools.” Merrow recommended two priorities that could not be compromised or negotiated: 1) Keep everyone safe, with frequent testing, social distancing, and adequate PPE; and 2) Create genuine learning opportunities, rather than simply replicating semesters, work sheets, 50-minute periods, and everything else that schools routinely do. He also urged innovation in terms of developing new, safer, and more educationally beneficial learning spaces. Sadly, those conversations, and the timely reopening of in-person instruction were undermined as the reopening of schools was politicized, first by Trumpism, and then by smart and sincere public health experts and journalists who knew little about actual schools. I must emphasize that the overwhelming harm was done by Trump, politicians like Oklahoma’s Gov. Kevin Stitt, and their COVID denialism, mixed with Social Darwinism. But the demand that in-person learning be quickly restored in urban schools also bore a sad resemblance to the corporate school reforms wars. Both were launched by rightwingers seeking to demonize unions and educators. And just as the attacks on public education worsened after Big Data scholars joined the fray, recently attacks on educators for being too cautious in reopening schools haven’t been helpful.

Researchers working for the Billionaires Boys Club often claimed that their statistical models showed that top-down mandates on teachers can improve student performance while, today, some public health experts argued that their data shows that schools can be reopened safely. The question, then and now, is what will likely happen if schools hurriedly follow their advice.

Below are just two examples. An October New York Times report by Apoorva Mandavilli may or may not have been tilted towards a less cautious approach to reopenings. It led with the fact that “so far there is little evidence” community transmission was high. But, the article distinguished between the evidence that in-person instruction of young students can be safe, and the greater possible dangers regarding high school, citing super-spreads in American and Israeli high schools. And the public health expert the Times quoted, Dr. David Rubin, advised, “Rather than closing schools where community transmission is high, businesses like restaurants, bars or other indoor spaces where adults congregate should be shuttered.” But he didn’t take a stand on the question of what schools could safely do in cities where that public health wisdom was ignored.

The real problem was with the article’s title and subtitle which went far beyond the evidence in it presented:

Schoolchildren Seem Unlikely to Fuel Coronavirus Surges, Scientists Say:

Researchers once feared that school reopenings might spread the virus through communities. But so far there is little evidence that it’s happening.

After those sorts of optimistic assertions before Thanksgiving, it would have been nice if experts and newspapers would have acknowledged how much the situations have changed as holidays dramatically increased the super-spread. I also believe educators deserved an apology for those over-simplified commentaries. If anything, however, many commentators have doubled down on their criticisms of urban educators’ caution.

For instance, I respect Nick Kristof, and I loved Tightrope, which he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn recently published. And he no longer claims to be “infatuated” with Bill Gates, and to trust the teacher bashing “quick fixes” pushed by edu-philanthropists and their data-driven researchers. But Kristof went from his recommendation in May that we “cautiously open some schools” to arguing that we have been “too willing to close schools” in an article entitled, “When Trump Was Right and Many Democrats Wrong.”

So, now we may need to be more blunt in presenting the educators’ case, as Erika Christakes was in her Atlantic article, “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either.” (I must emphasize that she isn’t making the Nation at Risk or No Child Left Behind case that schools are broken; on the contrary, she wants to fix the damage done by those “Reforms.”)

Christakes begins with the truth that I haven’t wanted to bring up, “Yes, remote schooling has been a misery—but it’s offering a rare chance to rethink early education entirely.”

She writes:

All of the challenges of educating young children that we have minimized for years have suddenly appeared like flotsam on a beach at low tide, reeking and impossible to ignore.” But, she reminds us that beginning with No Child Left Behind, Schools have—quite irrationally—abandoned this breadth [holistic instruction] in favor of stripped-down programs focused on narrow testing metrics.

So, Christakes writes:

A good start would be to include a broader and deeper curriculum with more chances for children to explore, play, and build relationships with peers and teachers. Schools should also be in the business of fostering curiosity and a love of learning in all children, or at a minimum not impeding the development of those traits. This is a low educational bar but one that is too often not cleared, as the millions of American adults who are functionally illiterate might suggest.

Like Emanuel and Merrow implied, Christakes says, “The most obvious demand should be for more time outside.” She draws on the history of the early 20th century, when “tuberculosis outbreaks led many American schools to successfully adopt outdoor teaching.”

As we should have realized before winter, outdoor transmission of COVID‑19 is far less likely than indoor spread, and it offers an alternative to the drill-and-kill that corporate reforms revitalized. Moreover, “Years of accumulating evidence reveal concretely measurable benefits of nature-based learning and outdoor time for young children.” It can be more effective than instruction in the classroom, and it builds on what “we know about nature’s positive impact on mental health, attention span, academic outcomes, physical fitness, and self-regulation.

And that leads to Merrow’s recent advice to “please please please, do not try to ‘get back to normal.’” He suggests the making of “institution more democratic (small d),” and giving students “more agency over their own learning.” Since “social and emotional learning may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months,” we must “give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months,” as well as “lots of free play.” Merrow would also move away from age segregation and group children instead according to the interests and their level of accomplishment, and “Finally, NO hand-wringing about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.”

As 2021 begins, I hope the Biden administration can foster the unity that our schools need. I hope we won’t see the revival of corporate reformers’ “blame game.” Regardless, we need a more humane vision of post-pandemic schools and, I’m afraid, we may need to fight for it once again.

William Doyle and Pasi Sahlberg have a proposal for what children should do after the pandemic: Play.

They write at CNN.com:

When the novel coronavirus is no longer as great a threat and schools finally reopen, we should give children the one thing they will need most after enduring months of isolation, stress, physical restraint and woefully inadequate, screen-based remote learning. We should give them playtime — and lots of it.William Doyle William Doyle Pasi SahlbergPasi SahlbergAs in-person classes begin, education administrators will presumably follow the safety guidelines of health authorities for smaller classes, staggered schedules, closing or regularly cleaning communal spaces with shared equipment, regular health checks and other precautions. But despite the limitations this may place on the students’ physical environment, schools should look for safe ways to supercharge children’s learning and well-being.We propose that schools adopt a 90-day “golden age of play,” our term for a transitional period when traditional academic education.

Play gives children a wide range of critical cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics, representing the nation’s 67,000 children’s doctors, stated in a 2012 clinical report that “play, in all its forms, needs to be considered as the ideal educational and developmental milieu for children,” including for children in poverty, and noted that “the lifelong success of children is based on their ability to be creative and to apply the lessons learned from playing.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also reported “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement,” and “can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior,” including concentration and attention. Regular physical activity like recess and physical education, the CDC researchers noted, also “improves self-esteem, and reduces stress and anxiety.”

This is especially relevant for a student population that may face a tidal wave of mental health challenges in the wake of the pandemic. Data from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report detailed that, as of 2016, 1 in 6 children ages 2 to 8 years of age had a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. And a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology revealed that from 2009 to 2017, depression surged 69% among 16- to 17-year-olds.

A 90-day “golden age of play” school re-entry period would help ease children back into the school setting, while providing physical and creative outlets to allow them to calm their stress and thrive with their peers and teachers. But what exactly would this program look like?It should look like a child’s dreams. A time of joy, movement, discovery and experimentation without fear of failure; a time when every student should enjoy comfort, safety, and socialization with peers and warm, caring adults.

Open the link and read the rest.

The first snow storm of the season raged up the Eastern seaboard! Students thought they might have a snow day, but in some districts, the leadership said “No!”

This will upset those “reformers” who think it is time to get tough on the kids, time to get ready for the next test, time to squelch any sign of happiness, but:

In West Virginia, a school superintendent said a loud “Yes!”

In a letter to the school community on Tuesday, Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson said she was canceling classes so that students and faculty could take a much-needed break during a very hard year.

“For generations, families have greeted the first snow day of the year with joy,” Gibson’s letter states. “It is a time of renewed wonder at all the beautiful things that each season holds. A reminder of how fleeting a childhood can be. An opportunity to make some memories with your family that you hold on to for life.”

“For all of these reasons and many more, Jefferson County Schools will be completely closed for tomorrow, Dec. 16, in honor of the 1st snow day of the year,” the letter continues. “Closed for students … closed for virtual … closed for staff.”

Gibson said she hoped the snow day would provide the kind of joy, rest, and celebration that has been so rare during the pandemic.

“It has been a year of seemingly endless loss and the stress of trying to make up for that loss,” she said. “For just a moment, we can all let go of the worry of making up for the many things we missed by making sure this is one thing our kids won’t lose this year.”

“So please, enjoy a day of sledding and hot chocolate and cozy fires,” she said. “Take pictures of your kids in snow hats they will outgrow by next year and read books that you have wanted to lose yourself in, but haven’t had the time.”

“We will return to the serious and urgent business of growing up on Thursday, but for tomorrow,” the letter concludes, “go build a snowman.”

Nancy Bailey writes here about the stress on children that is contributing to alarming rates of stress, anxiety and depression.

Certainly the anxiety caused by the pandemic causes stress. And many children have experienced deaths among those in their family or among friends.

But there are longer term causes of the mental health problems among children, such as the absurd pressure to get ever higher test scores and the withdrawal of time for recess and play.

A group of New York City teachers argue in The New York Daily News that the best way to restart the schools, especially for young children, is to hold classes outdoors. They do not address the problems of rain and freezing weather.

Liat Olenick, Darcy Whittwmore, and Heather Costanza see many virtues in outdoor learning.

Holding classes indoors in a city with over one million students, they write, will create dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Why not grab this opportunity for creative solutions?

Move the younger children outdoors, they say, while keeping high school students online.

Outdoor learning is a tried and tested fit for early childhood. There are all-day outdoor kindergartens in wintery Maine and Vermont, in which children dress for the weather and learn outside nearly every day. Vaunted models of early childhood education like Reggio-Emilia emphasize outdoor exploration because ages 4-8 comprise the crucial stage in which multisensory, interactive learning is essential for children’s cognitive growth. Outdoor learning offers children authentic, stimulating experiences that foster skills like creative problem solving, independence, flexibility and resiliency as they form a deep connection to the natural world. Learning outdoors also offers possibilities for culturally responsive, place-based learning, giving students hands-on, meaningful opportunities to engage and connect with their communities.

In the context of COVID, outdoor learning becomes even more appealing. Elementary students are more likely to live near school, making finding a space that works for families without needing public transit more feasible.

And per current guidelines, the requirements of indoor learning — sitting six feet apart, no contact, no sharing materials, and staying in one enclosed space for hours on end — are not developmentally appropriate for young children.

If we move outdoors, kids will have room to be kids without fear of punishment or infecting someone they love. Given the ongoing criminalization of students of color in schools, we fear the consequences of imposing new, high stakes social-distancing rules on all, but particularly on our youngest students.

We have the space to make outdoor learning work. New York City is home to 28,000 acres of public parkland, more than 1,100 school and community gardens, plus schoolyards, rooftops, cemeteries, beaches, private outdoor space and even parking lots or closeable neighborhood streets which could be spruced up with benches and planters.

These investments in public space might even foster greater equity in our city; experiences in nature are essential for children’s mental health, but green space is often concentrated in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

Transforming our streets and playgrounds into possibility-rich outdoor classrooms could be a way to equalize access to nature at a time when many outdoor programs serving children of color have been shuttered.

Outdoor learning will not be perfect. It will require support from schools, parks, neighborhood institutions and families to plan for site-specific challenges. But compare that with our other two options: Fully remote learning, which means zero childcare for caregivers and especially fails our young students, or a blended, classroom model for 1.1 million students that is likely to put our most vulnerable communities in grave danger.

This is our clarion call. We hope it spurs intrepid leaders to consider outdoor learning as a viable option for all of our youngest students during COVID and beyond. Organizations around the country, including New York private schools, are already developing proposals to take learning outside. With a little imagination and support from our city, we could make it happen here — not just for the privileged few, but for all.

Olenick, Whittemore and Costanza are public elementary school teachers in Brooklyn.

William Doyle and Pasi Sahlberg have reimagined the school: Let the children play!

They are the authors of a new book with that title.

They write in an article for CNN:

When the novel coronavirus is no longer as great a threat and schools finally reopen, we should give children the one thing they will need most after enduring months of isolation, stress, physical restraint and woefully inadequate, screen-based remote learning. We should give them playtime — and lots of it.

As in-person classes begin, education administrators will presumably follow the safety guidelines of health authorities for smaller classes, staggered schedules, closing or regularly cleaning communal spaces with shared equipment, regular health checks and other precautions. But despite the limitations this may place on the students’ physical environment, schools should look for safe ways to supercharge children’s learning and well-being.

We propose that schools adopt a 90-day “golden age of play,” our term for a transitional period when traditional academic education should be balanced as much as possible with learning through play, physical and creative outlets and mental health counseling to provide support for children who will need it.

Play gives children a wide range of critical cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics, representing the nation’s 67,000 children’s doctors, stated in a 2012 clinical report that “play, in all its forms, needs to be considered as the ideal educational and developmental milieu for children,” including for children in poverty, and noted that “the lifelong success of children is based on their ability to be creative and to apply the lessons learned from playing.”

David Berliner, one of our nation’s most eminent researchers, advises parents not to worry that their children are “falling behind.” School is important. Instruction is important. But “soft skills” and non—cognitive skills matter more in the long term than academic skills. Relax.

He sent this advice to the blog:

Worried About Those “Big” Losses on School Tests Because Of Extended Stays At Home? They May Not Even Happen,
And If They Do, They May Not Matter Much At All!

David C. Berliner
Regents Professor Emeritus
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ.

Although my mother passed away many years ago, I need now to make a public confession about a crime she committed year in and year out. When I was young, she prevented me from obtaining one year of public schooling. Surely that must be a crime!

Let me explain. Every year my mother took me out of school for three full weeks following the Memorial Day weekend. Thus, every single year, from K through 9th grade, I was absent from school for 3 weeks. Over time I lost about 30 weeks of schooling. With tonsil removal, recurring Mastoiditis, broken bones, and more than the average ordinary childhood illnesses, I missed a good deal of elementary schooling.
How did missing that much schooling hurt me? Not at all!

First, I must explain why my mother would break the law. In part it was to get me out of New York City as the polio epidemic hit U.S. cities from June through the summer months. For each of those summers, my family rented one room for the whole family in a rooming house filled with working class families at a beach called Rockaway. It was outside the urban area, but actually still within NYC limits.

I spent the time swimming every day, playing ball and pinochle with friends, and reading. And then, I read some more. Believe it or not, for kids like me, leaving school probably enhanced my growth! I was loved, I had great adventures, I conversed with adults in the rooming house, I saw many movies, I read classic comics, and even some “real” literature. I read series after series written for young people: Don Sturdy, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, as well as books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexander Dumas.

So now, with so many children out of school, and based on all the time I supposedly lost, I will make a prediction: every child who likes to read, every child with an interest in building computers or in building model bridges, planes, skyscrapers, autos, or anything else complex, or who plays a lot of “Fortnite,” or “Minecraft,” or plays non-computer but highly complex games such as “Magic,” or “Ticket to Ride,” or “Codenames” will not lose anything measurable by staying home. If children are cared for emotionally, have interesting stuff to play with, and read stories that engage them, I predict no deficiencies in school learning will be detectable six to nine months down the road.
It is the kids, rich or poor, without the magic ingredients of love and safety in their family, books to engage them, and interesting mind-engaging games to play, who may lose a few points on the tests we use to measure school learning. There are many of those kinds of children in the nation, and it is sad to contemplate that.

But then, what if they do lose a few points on the achievement tests currently in use in our nation and in each of our states? None of those tests predict with enough confidence much about the future life those kids will live. That is because it is not just the grades that kids get in school, nor their scores on tests of school knowledge, that predict success in college and in life. Soft skills, which develop as well during their hiatus from school as they do when they are in school, are excellent predictors of a child’s future success in life.

Really? Deke and Haimson (2006), working for Mathmatica, the highly respected social science research organization, studied the relationship between academic competence and some “soft” skills on some of the important outcomes in life after high school. They used high school math test scores as a proxy for academic competency, since math scores typically correlate well with most other academic indices. The soft skills they examined were a composite score from high school data that described each students’ work habits, measurement of sports related competence, a pro-social measure, a measure of leadership, and a measure of locus of control.

The researchers’ question, just as is every teacher’s and school counselor’s question, was this: If I worked on improving one of these academic or soft skills, which would give that student the biggest bang for the buck as they move on with their lives?

Let me quote their results (emphasis by me)
Increasing math test scores had the largest effect on earnings for a plurality of the students, but most students benefited more from improving one of the nonacademic competencies. For example, with respect to earnings eight years after high school, increasing math test scores would have been most effective for just 33 percent of students, but 67 percent would have benefited more from improving a nonacademic competency. Many students would have secured the largest earnings benefit from improvements in locus of control (taking personal responsibility) (30 percent) and sports-related competencies (20 percent). Similarly, for most students, improving one of the nonacademic competencies would have had a larger effect than better math scores on their chances of enrolling in and completing a postsecondary program.

​This was not new. Almost 50 years ago, Bowles and Gintis (1976), on the political left, pointed out that an individual’s noncognitive behaviors were perhaps more important than their cognitive skills in determining the kinds of outcomes the middle and upper middle classes expect from their children. Shortly after Bowles and Gintis’s treatise, Jencks and his colleagues (1979), closer to the political right, found little evidence that cognitive skills, such as those taught in school, played a big role in occupational success.

Employment usually depends on certificates or licenses—a high school degree, an Associate’s degree, a 4-year college degree or perhaps an advanced degree. Social class certainly affects those achievements. But Jenks and his colleagues also found that industriousness, leadership, and good study habits in high school were positively associated with higher occupational attainment and earnings, even after controlling for social class. It’s not all about grades, test scores, and social class background: Soft skills matter a lot!

Lleras (2008), 10 years after she studied a group of 10th grade students, found that those students with better social skills, work habits, and who also participated in extracurricular activities in high school had higher educational attainment and earnings, even after controlling for cognitive skills! Student work habits and conscientiousness were positively related to educational attainment and this in turn, results in higher earnings.

It is pretty simple: students who have better work habits have higher earnings in the labor market because they are able to complete more years of schooling and their bosses like them. In addition, Lleras’s study and others point to the persistent importance of motivation in predicting earnings, even after taking into account education. The Lleras study supports the conclusions reached by Jencks and his colleagues (1979), that noncognitive behaviors of secondary students were as important as cognitive skills in predicting later earnings.
So, what shall we make of all this? I think poor and wealthy parents, educated and uneducated parents, immigrant or native-born parents, all have the skills to help their children succeed in life. They just need to worry less about their child’s test scores and more about promoting reading and stimulating their children’s minds through interesting games – something more than killing monsters and bad guys. Parents who promote hobbies and building projects are doing the right thing. So are parents who have their kids tell them what they learned from watching a PBS nature special or from watching a video tour of a museum. Parents also do the right thing when they ask, after their child helps a neighbor, how the doing of kind acts makes their child feel. This is the “stuff” in early life that influences a child’s success later in life even more powerfully than do their test scores.

So, repeat after me all you test concerned parents: non-academic skills are more powerful than academic skills in life outcomes. This is not to gainsay for a minute the power of instruction in literacy and numeracy at our schools, nor the need for history and science courses. Intelligent citizenship and the world of work require subject matter knowledge. But I hasten to remind us all that success in many areas of life is not going to depend on a few points lost on state tests that predict so little. If a child’s stay at home during this pandemic is met with love and a chance to do something interesting, I have little concern about that child’s, or our nation’s, future.

Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in Capitalist America. New York: Basic Books.

Deke, J. & Haimson, J. (2006, September). Expanding beyond academics: Who benefits and how? Princeton NJ: Issue briefs #2, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. Retrieved May 20, 2009 from:http://www.eric.ed.gov:80/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/28/09/9f.pdfMatematicapolicy research Inc.

Lleras, C. (2008). Do skills and behaviors in high school matter? The contribution of noncognitive factors in explaining differences in educational attainment and earnings. Social Science Research, 37, 888–902.

Jencks, C., Bartlett, S., Corcoran, M., Crouse, J., Eaglesfield, D., Jackson, G., McCelland, K., Mueser, P., Olneck, M., Schwartz, J., Ward, S., and Williams, J. (1979). Who Gets Ahead?: The Determinants of Economic Success in America. New York: Basic Books.