I have yet to meet an adult who reports suffering from an excess of vitality. When I think about what gives me vitality it comes down to three things: sleep, exercise, and food. No surprises there. Yet, if it is as simple as focusing on those three things, why do we often feel a lack of vitality?
The basics of sleep hygiene are easy to practice and low cost. Ditto for exercise. The vitality of our food is a bit different. It does cost more to eat high-vitality food, which is to say local food, high quality, and, in some cases, organic.
Vital food also requires more deliberate choice to find and prepare. I feel lucky to have a partnership with a local CSA, West End Farm, to bring us food grown on our campus at great prices. We also have allies in bringing it to our table.
That last link of the three, food, is the one that takes the most time for me to feel directly. I know when I’ve worked out and slept well. And now, several months into our CSA partnership, I’m glad to say that I’m feeling that vitality working for my brain and body. I’m glad our students and staff get to eat this well, and have to believe it’s helping our learning.
In this time of year, this tops my list of what I’m feeling thankful for.
Many learning environments, particularly those in some boarding schools, are fairly rigid and methodical when it comes to allocating a student’s time. Classes, assignments, athletics, meals, and extracurricular activities are all scheduled according to blocks that begin and end at specific points. Although students do have free blocks, that time is often used for study or the fulfillment of other commitments.
But what is the value of salutary neglect (to borrow a term from American history); of ensuring that students have meaningful chunks of time in which do nothing but what they want to do?
There is a rising tide of evidence to support free time as a critical part of brain development (executive function in particular), something that plays to Progressive schools’ strengths. Consider work by Peter Gray in Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Ellen Wexler in Education Week Teacher (July 2, 2014). Or read a more polemic article from a recent Atlantic magazine.
Although we know that growth and learning emanate from a well-structured environment, something that certainly holds true at Darrow, it is also evident that the invaluable skill of executive functioning derives from actually having—and, maybe even wasting—free time. (After all, how can students hone proficiency in delaying the gratification of free time if they never have any free time to delay?)
Free time is something that makes many parents and educators nervous, inducing much hand wringing and gnashing of teeth. What if the students don’t use the time well? (Code for “What if they don’t spend their free time in the way that we would?”) What if they make bad choices with, or because of, the free time? (A real concern, for sure.) How much of their time should be scheduled? What if they aren’t being pushed enough? Will a lack of extracurricular richness put them at a developmental disadvantage?
These are fair and right questions; questions that are, sadly, often answered with ludicrous over-scheduling. Free time is bedeviling because its value isn’t immediately apparent and totally defies quantification. Structured time, on the other hand, is beguiling because it can be easily calibrated and evaluated. I can clearly demonstrate to any parent the definitive value in structured activity.
Ultimately, the question boils down to balance: How much free time? When? In chunks of what size? At what point does a good thing become too much of a good thing?
Perhaps the best method of gauging the outcome of salutary neglect is developing an ability to see the “work” that kids and teens are doing in their so-called free time. Watch a group of eight-year-olds playing in an open field and you’ll see work; arguments over rules, over fairness, and other important skills of adult life. Sit near a pack of teens on screens (even if the teen:screen ratio is 1:1) and you’ll probably hear something similar; testing ideas, discerning common themes, sharing judgments about behaviors and other things they’ll need to do as adults.
Listen like an anthropologist. Observe the evidence. Then think about what’s actually being learned before you sign up for another music lesson.