By Barbara Robertson, Clonlara School Parent
At a recent conference in Philadelphia, I attended a session that suggested most neo-intensive care unit (NICU) environments are not developmentally appropriate for premature babies. That is not to say the care these units provide is not critical, but that in many cases the environment is not optimal to support premature babies’ brain development, which got me thinking about older children in traditional schools.
Babies born under 40 weeks gestation expect darkness, muffled noises, the mother’s heartbeat, constant warmth, constant global touch, and the deep sleep that is crucial for brain development; yet in most NICUs, they get bright lights, tremendous noise, little or assaultive touch related to receiving necessary medical procedures, and interrupted sleep. To minimize the stress of the NICU environment so that proper brain growth can be nurtured and encouraged, best practice now includes using low levels of light, trying to keep things quiet, and having families practice constant holding, also known as kangaroo care. Simple changes like these can help preterm babies’ brains develop appropriately, greatly reduce stress, and have positive long-term health benefits.
So what about traditional schooling? According to developmental psychologist Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn:
We have pushed children into an abnormal environment, where they are expected to spend ever greater portions of their day under adult direction, sitting at desks, listening to and reading about things that don’t interest them, and answering questions that are not their own and are not, to them, real questions. We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.
Gray further puts forth that the traditional school environment for students in much of the world is like prison. After all, we do call K–12 education “compulsory.” Among his arguments are that traditional schools deny liberty without cause or due process, interfere with the development of personal responsibility due to the lack of student involvement in decision-making, and view mistakes as failures rather than opportunities for growth.
Whether or not you share Gray’s view of the traditional school environment, I propose that this is not developmentally appropriate for supporting and nurturing growing brains. Because of research on the brain and learning, we know that
- Human brains continue to develop to about age 25 and are very plastic—meaning that even when they have finished growing, brains are always changing.
- Play is critical for brain development. In the 1930s, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued convincingly that free play with other children (PDF) is the primary means by which children learn to control their impulses and emotions.
- Being deeply engaged in an activity, making decisions, having choices, and learning how to cooperate with others helps brain development.
Yet, in traditional schooling, where are the opportunities for critical thinking, participating in a democratic process, and practicing all of those other skills needed to be part of society? And then there is the matter of homework. Many families feel burdened by the amount of homework assigned in traditional schools and question its relevance to their child’s learning. All of this homework takes away from students’ time to pursue their actual interests; be with their family, friends, and community; and get the appropriate amount of deep sleep that is crucial for brain development, which is why Clonlara School does not require homework.
Like the environment of most NICUs, these aspects of traditional schools can lead to very high levels of stress in students. Schools like Clonlara that have developmentally appropriate philosophies and practices are, sadly, few and far between. When you ask parents about the attributes that they want their children to have as grownups, they rarely say to “understand calculus” or “speak three languages.” Instead, they want them growing up to be happy, productive, creative, and kind. I believe a developmentally appropriate education—one that is organized around students’ interests and puts them at the center of the learning process—can create the best environment for learning and position children to grow, thrive, and be well equipped to do anything they want to do.
Whether in a school or home-based setting, what impact has the environment had on your child’s learning? Please share your thoughts.
About the Author: In addition to being the parent of a graduating Clonlara School student, Barbara Robertson has a background in progressive education and is the owner of the Breastfeeding Center of Ann Arbor, where she provides resources and training to support breastfeeding families.