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A Little Bit of Structure Is Good

Guiding student autonomy in a pandemic

When we were shopping for houses, one must-have characteristic for the neighborhood was to hear laughter and children at play—happy to say we found it.

Now, when we go outside it’s rare for us to see another human, let alone a group of kids playing. 

One of the most beneficial and educational activities that children can engage in is unstructured play. But with the uncertainty of this pandemic, I find that I want to provide a lot of structure to my daughter’s day, which sometimes results in me structuring the “play” right out of her day. 

Let It Go

I grew up in a traditional household, with a traditional education. I followed the rules of my household, community, and school. Those rules provided me with a daily schedule, and, honestly, my days have been structured ever since. I was conditioned to become a creature of habit and routine, and … I get irritable when you disrupt the routine (can you relate?). 

When I started working from home, my wife and I began taking “daycare” shifts. Our vision? Two hours of uninterrupted work followed by two hours of playtime with our daughter. We were so naive!

Clara is three. Everything and everyone in her house is a plaything. She spends her time bouncing between singing songs, reenacting the Wizard of Oz, coloring, and playing dress up. Clara never spends more than 25 minutes engaged in any activity and she does what she wants to. Honestly, it can be a struggle to keep up!

After about a week of “lock-in,” my wife and I were losing our minds. I wanted my daughter to spend time outside each morning and afternoon. My wife wanted her to do crafts. We both wanted her to have daily social time. And we wanted to maintain the same meal times. 

Yes, we fell into the “schooling” trap and tried to schedule the entire day—it exploded in our faces. 

As a stay-at-home educator, you need to let go of things. Learning will occur with everything you and your children do. If they’re not interested, move on. Spend time cultivating a list of activities and options they love rather than trying to schedule every minute of the day.

Let your little one guide the activities that are occuring, and be ready to support her when she’s ready for the next activity.

Build Structure Where It Matters

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a local principal about scheduling a student’s day. It went something like this:

Me: So when you set up the schedule for your students, how did you determine where to start?

Principal: I started with “what are they going to do first,” then built a schedule chronologically. It made sense. But when I finished, I realized that half of my students didn’t have lunch, and the other half didn’t have recess.

Me: I’m guessing you started over?

Principal: Yep, and I started with the necessary things—snacks, lunch, and recess. The rest of the schedule can be moved around, but I kept set times for those important things. It was so much easier to schedule after that. 

That conversation reminds me of one of Stephen Covey’s philosophies: Fill your life with the big rocks—the most important things. The smaller rocks will fit around the larger ones.

When you look at your days at home, remember that your day was a success if everyone survived. Build the schedule for lunch, snacks, nap, bedtime, and playtime. If you do those things you’re on the right track, and your child can dictate what happens inside those larger chunks of time. 

These two tips seem straightforward—easy even. And, yes, I continue to struggle with them. 

I want my daughter to have great experiences and to be interested in the things that I want her to be interested in. I want her to have an exciting day full of adventure and learning. 

But at the end of the day, I’m grateful that my daughter is different from me. As parents and educators, let’s embrace the fact that our children are individuals, and we should challenge ourselves to give them the freedom to follow their interests. We best support them by releasing our “shoulds” and letting the kids “do.”

Give your children the space to learn and grow, even if what they learn is not what you expect.

Victor Fitzjarrald is the Vice President of Academic Services for Creative Learning Systems. Prior to going into school administration, Victor was a High School Math and Science Teacher and a SmartLab Facilitator in Denver. Victor holds a B.A. in Chemistry and Biology and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Colorado College.
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