Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Immortal Childhood

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
    The earth, and every common sight, 
            To me did seem 
    Apparell'd in celestial light, 
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

The lines above are the opening of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  I thought of them after reading
"Bringing Back Childhood" by Vicki Davis, an article tweeted by Josh Stumpenhorst, 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year.  In that article, Davis observes the darkness of contemporary childhood activities and argues for a return to more wholesome pursuits, those that involve nature and few graphic depictions of horror and death.

Davis is not arguing for a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, something laughably unattainable in the modern age.  I know.  I am a parent who can testify that a rich, meaningful childhood is still possible.  Like Davis, I will also promote its value.

Our son is 13 and our daughter is 8.  She likes Hello Kitty and Frozen.  He likes The Avengers and Legos.  She loves to swim and play tennis, and if it were not for my flagrant cheating, I would not be able to beat him at basketball.  After nearly a quarter century teaching everything from elementary to undergraduate students, I can objectively say they are normal, average children.

If there is anything that sets them apart from some of their peers, it is what Davis lauds, a love for playing outside.  Since before Kindergarten, our son has enjoyed running around our yard, battling friends or me with wooden swords and spears.  We have been knights.  We have been Hector and Achilles.  We have brought out cap guns and Nerf guns and water guns.  Our daughter loves planting and running and climbing trees.  Winter, spring, summer, or fall, they want to be outside.  They have two swings in the tree in our front yard.  They have climbed the trees in our backyard and made secret areas in the small woods behind our home.  They love to ride their bikes through the neighborhood or with my wife and me across town.  We laid out a golf course in our yard with nine different approaches to one hole.  They both like to shoot baskets on the goal in the driveway.  They throw Frisbees, play tag, and shoot their bows at a large target.

We are a hiking family and love the Indiana state parks.  We have hiked in the cool and in the blazing heat, in the snow, when flowers were just springing forth, and across the crunch of autumn leaves.  Yes, they have enjoyed Disney World and other amusement parks, but ask them where they want to go, and they will almost always say to an inn or cabin or tent at a state park.

They love to swim, again at the state parks, but also whenever we are at a hotel.  A large community pool, complete with water park and water slide, is a huge favorite in the summer.

They draw, they build with Legos, and create things.  Oh, my, do they create things!  They both love to work in the garage when I am there indulging in my hobby of woodworking.  Each is learning to use power tools and hand tools.  They build with wood or create with paper and glue.  They color and paint.

From my perspective as both a teacher and a parent, these are good things.  I love to listen to their play.  It is always so imaginative!  Many years ago my homeroom students were taking a standardized test.  The writing portion included a prompt to write about an imagined field trip.  One of the students raised his hand and quietly confessed, "I didn't go on that trip."  By grace I recovered quickly from my stunned reaction and said, "Oh, that's okay.  You just have to pretend."  He nodded and went back to his attempt to write, and then I noticed the ankle bracelet he wore as part of his house arrest.  For the rest of that testing session, I was wrecked inside.  This young man seemed devoid of any imagination.

Those who do not live and die by modern technology feel compelled to offer disclaimers, so here is mine.  I do not hate technology.  We are not Luddites.  You are reading this on my blog, after all.  I am on my iPhone far too much checking Facebook and Twitter.  Still, games and screen time do not rule our family's life or the lives of our family members.  Yes, we watch movies and television, but my wife and I also hit the mute button or change the channel or shout "turn away" when something inappropriate comes on.  There are things that are right for children to see and hear, and things that are not.  There are activities that are beneficial and stimulate their imagination and those that warp and stunt it.  It is entirely possible for children to experience a rich, meaningful childhood, and the responsibility to see that they do rests squarely with the adults in their lives who can make that happen.

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