The “play” is the thing

I can't find any images of children at here is a picture of a goat.

I can’t find any images of children at play…so here is a picture of a goat eating dandelion leaves.

Though not an educator or a parent myself, like most adults (especially those adults who want to have kids sometime) I have Opinions about education and childhood.

I have Opinions about Kids These Days and What Are Teenagers Thinking?! and No One Respects Their Elders Anymore, etc. etc.

So when the idea of year-round school (essentially cutting out summer vacation and replacing it with one to two week holidays dispersed throughout the school year) is floated around, as it was in 2012 when the B.C. government introduced legislation allowing school districts to set their own calendar as long as they meet a specific minimum of teaching days, I have Opinions about that. I’m not for it. (Although there are a handful of B.C. schools that do operate on a year-round calendar, this has not been adopted province-wide or even district-wide anywhere to the best of my knowledge).

When all-day kindergarten was implemented across the board in B.C., I wasn’t for that either. I consider it a Band-Aid solution to the very real challenge of unaffordable childcare in an economic landscape that tends to require two working parents to support even a modest household. I do not agree there is any solid educational basis whatsoever for keeping five-year-old children in a classroom setting for twice as long as they used to be. According to the wisdom of the government, B.C. children were “falling behind” (this is also the government’s position on summer vacations, which is why although they are not forcing districts to adopt year-round schooling they encouraged it). But falling behind whom? Falling behind cultures where children go from morning lessons to school to tutor to night school and live in constant competition with each other and constant fear of disappointing their parents? Is that a lifestyle we really want to emulate? Besides, if all-day kindergarten were truly an educational imperative, kindergarten itself would be mandatory in this province, but it’s not. If you send your kid to kindergarten, you have to send them all day, every day, but if you decide to keep them at home for another year and just plop them into grade one when they’re six, apparently that’s completely okay and there’s no government hand-wringing about how far your kid has “fallen behind”. Can’t see the logic in that. [Note: I am not in any way passing judgement on the quality of kindergarten teaching in this province; I’m sure the teachers and support staff teaching the all-day kindergarten curriculum are absolutely fabulous, but the quality of the education is not the point.]

Children are not little adults. We don’t need to prep them for the labour market just yet. Kids should play. And I’m not talking about “play-based learning” in the classroom or whatever pedagogical buzzwords the Ministry of Education decides to throw around this year. I’m talking about unstructured, totally for fun, (mostly) unsupervised play. I’m talking about two months of swimming at the lake and camping trips and running through sprinklers and building forts and watching your dad stain the deck (and maybe getting to help paint ONE board). I’m talking about fishing grubby change out of grubby pockets and heading with your friends to whatever nearby store sells candy/ice cream (when we were in town that would have been “Susan’s Place”, but at the lake, etc. it would have just been the concession) and playing on rock piles and in the bush.

As it turns out, concerns about limiting kids’ play aren’t just rooted in nostalgia–Maclean’s just ran an excellent interview with injury-prevention expert Mariana Brussoni (June 29, 2015 issue), in which she  discusses research that demonstrates that not allowing children to engage in unstructured, rough-and-tumble play is actually detrimental to children’s health outcomes and social development. Risky outdoor play not only encourages physical activity and makes children familiar with their own physical limits, it also promotes the development of skills like conflict resolution and setting boundaries (which is very important if you want children to be empowered enough to say no to drugs or to practice safe sex). According to Brussoni:

In supervised activities, there’s somebody else guiding the activities; [children] don’t have to set the goals for what they want to do and how they want to engage in it. When they’re out in the neighbourhood [on their own], they’re deciding, “Okay, let’s build a fort. Let’s play prisoner. Let’s play capture the flag.” They’re negotiating back and forth to decide what the rules will be, how it’s going to work, who’s going to do what.

So basically, when we let kids play on their own, we let them develop the skills they’ll need to be adults. Without confining them to a classroom for another three hours every day, or forcing them to sweat it out in school in the middle of July or August instead of being on summer vacation. Huh. I should note that Brussoni was mostly talking about the detrimental effects of “anxiety-based caregiving” as it pertains to parenting and playground infrastructure (which Brussoni says is now too safe and too boring and not as good as a tree or some bushes), but it’s not hard to see how the B.C. government’s positions on all-day kindergarten and year-round schooling are rooted in and play to an anxiety-based methodology of teaching and caregiving. While there are absolutely cases in which some kind of summer programming can be beneficial to kids (children who don’t speak English in the home, for example, may risk losing a lot of newly-acquired English skills over summer break), special cases should not shape childhood experience across the board or indefinitely (once kids who benefit from summer programming acquire the skills they need I’m sure they’d love a summer vacation too), and it’s important to consider what kids lose when we take away their opportunities for play.

Just because play cannot be measured like grades in a report card, that doesn’t mean it is without value. Just because we aren’t keeping children in formal educational settings 24/7, and telling them exactly what they should notice and investigate and pointing their head in the direction we want them to look, that doesn’t mean they aren’t noticing and investigating the world around them. We need to give kids the same chances we enjoyed ourselves (and maybe a little push to take those chances, a push like limiting screen time). Children are naturally curious (that’s why they poke around and ask weird questions I assume). Why can’t we trust them to learn? Do we really think they’re so stupid, so inept, that their lives require elaborate choreography every second of the day? Is a skinned knee or a ripped coat (or even the occasional trip to the hospital for stitches or a broken arm) really such a bad thing if your child is confident, capable, and curious?

I believe in public education, and I know that formal education (especially getting a good grasp of reading, writing, and numeracy) is an incredibly important part of a person’s learning experience. But it should NEVER be confused with the actual act of learning, which is ongoing and unending and absolutely limitless.


In Body and Soul, I’m Always Going Home

Our House (2011 - neither of those cars exist now)

Our House (2011 – neither of those cars exist now)

I am a lucky one. After a recent trip to visit my family in Saskatchewan, I have realized that whether going or coming, whether travelling from Vancouver to the prairie or from the prairie to Vancouver, I am always returning home.

It works like this: I leave the apartment I share with TC, which is home, and get on a plane. My parents pick me up from the airport and take me to the house I grew up in, also known as home. I sleep in my tiny bed in my tiny bedroom and revel in the delicious feeling of being home. At the end of my visit, I wistfully bid my home good-bye and get back on a plane. Several hours later, I reach the door of my home. I sleep in our modest bed in our modest loft and revel in the delicious feeling of being home.

Pretty great, huh?

If they wanted to, I suppose a pedant or a killjoy could point out that I can’t possibly always be going home, especially since one home requires me to have brought a suitcase and one has all my clothes and toiletries in it already. Or, to look at it another way, since one home saw more than 20 years of my life, and the other has been occupied by me for less than two. Perhaps in practice (rather than poetic fancy), my only actual home is in Vancouver, by virtue of my clothes being there, or maybe my only real home is in Saskatchewan, by virtue of the many years I spent there. These observations are valid, but contradictory, and forcing my homes to compete against one another for legitimacy fails to recognize the unique value each home has for me.

Sure, my Vancouver home contains all my stuff (or all the stuff I currently use, at least), but my Saskatchewan home contains all my memories. Sure, my Saskatchewan home sheltered me for more than twenty years, but it is my home with TC (wherever that may be) that will shelter me in my future. If home is where the heart is, and I love both the family I have with my parents and sisters and also my TC (and the potential for a new family that he represents), it is clear my heart is required to be in two places. And it must therefore have two homes.

I realized after completing my BFA that I would likely not be moving back to Saskatchewan. My university friends and colleagues were here in BC, my (mostly imagined) future in the theatre was here, and having never lived or worked in an urban centre in Saskatchewan (where I would likely need to live/work were I to ever return), there were many day-to-day realities of life in a prairie city I would neither recognize nor enjoy. A future in Saskatchewan was, for me, impractical. My future was in BC, and my future home was here also.

But if you want to know where the home of my soul is, where I go to recharge and re-ground myself, I will tell you that it is a brown house in a big yard on the prairie, surrounded by forests and fields and neighbours who’ve known me all my life. I’m an admittedly nostalgic person, but this isn’t just nostalgia, per se, it’s a knowing, deep in my bones, that a certain place belongs to me and I belong to it.

I suspect my sisters feel the same way, which is why we are so aghast whenever my parents renovate the house (designed and built by my dad in the mid-80s). Logically, I understand that 25-year-old carpet should probably be replaced, and I suppose I can’t mind too much when my unused bedroom is re-purposed by my parents for storage and by a particular lazy cat as his favourite place to sleep. I can’t expect my childhood home to remain suspended in time; the house is, after all, a currently occupied (and therefore ever-changing)  place of life and work for my parents, not a museum dedicated to indulging the wistful nostalgia of their children. Sometimes I wonder if my fierce attachments to my recollections of home are somewhat unfair to the actual physical structure, which must bend to reality rather than exist in memory. It’s a lot to ask of a house that it remain the same in every aspect, even as time and weather (and pets) leave their mark on the place, necessitating shocking changes every once in a while, like new shingles and (gasp!) new carpet. I suppose it’s unfair to my parents as well, who have to listen to my griping every time they dare to change their house to suit their needs–the house, after all, that they built and paid for and still live in as their daughters pursue their dreams across the world.

I think my parents should take our attachment to the house and our desire not to see anything changed as a compliment–I imagine when the house was built my parents were hoping to create a home for their family and they succeeded. The truth is, if we had not been so happy we probably wouldn’t care so much. Our home is the stage for our family mythology, a mythology preserved in photographs, Lego sets, favourite old VHS tapes, anecdotes and stories, and yes, in the house itself. Sad as I am to see one home change, I am thrilled by the idea of trying to create such a home and such a happy mythology for my future kids. Isn’t that a wonderful challenge?

That time I went to a summer camp in Ukraine

Illustration by Sonja Kresowaty

When I was 10, I went to a summer camp in Ukraine.

I don’t mean that my parents shipped me off and told me to have fun with macrame and Ukrainians and that they’d see me in a few weeks. My whole family had been living in Latvia (the home of my mother’s predecessors) for the previous year, and after the school year and the Jāņi (Midsummer) celebrations were done, we hopped an overnight train to Ukraine, my parents rented a “microbus” van (complete with driver) and we drove into the Carpathians to visit the homeland (on my father’s side–where did you think “Kresowaty” came from?).

I didn’t quite realize this at the time, but by the end of our year in Latvia, we weren’t exactly rolling in money with which to tour another Eastern European country. This, I imagine, is why it seemed like a good idea to spend a few days staying in a cabin in a children’s summer camp, sleeping on the cheap and eating camp dinners with the kids. And for all intents and purposes, it was a good idea, since it worked out just fine.

The camp was pretty and the woman who ran it was very accommodating. After realizing that we spoke English, the children staying there treated us like celebrities, crowding around us to get a look (which was a bit scary for my sisters and me at first but wasn’t mean). Our cabin was large and bright compared to some of the hotels we had recently stayed in (or the hay-covered floor we had slept on after the Jāņi festivities).

As for the camp’s facilities, I remember only that I had to eat mashed potatoes (even though I hated them) because that was what was being served, and that the “bathrooms” at the camp were cement cubicles with small holes in the floor. My aim (as a child of 10 who was used to sit-down toilets) was not so great, so whenever I could I took advantage of the WC provided by the Great Outdoors. I can’t remember if we were ever able to shower while we were there, or whether we bathed in a river or something instead (there was a beautiful little waterfall nearby where we could jump off the rock into the pool below).

But no matter. My parents revealed to me this year that they’re pretty sure that a lot of the kids at the camp were from the Chernobyl contamination zone, spending a summer away from the ever-present danger of radiation (the disaster had only occurred about a decade ago at that point). That freaked me out a bit because I’ve read that to spend time living with a Chernobylite is essentially to spend time with a nuclear reactor (human bodies hold radiation just like everything else), but it also made their kindness all the more touching.

Despite my sisters and my shyness, the other kids (girls especially) were friendly and inclusive and those who could speak a bit of English seemed excited to try it out on us. An older girl took charge of us at the camp’s “Disco” night, asking us what music we liked (I told her Ace of Base) and making sure the teasing boys behaved themselves. On our last day at the camp, some of the girls presented us with little gifts they had bought from the ladies who sometimes set up little booths there.

I want to point out that these kids had nothing. Ukraine was a very poor country following the collapse of the USSR only five or so years before (running water only available some parts of the day, hot water hardly at all) and I think these girls were even poorer than that. I can’t remember how my sisters and I reacted to receiving the plastic earrings, bottle of perfume, and the small bottle of “Venus” deodorant we were given (I don’t think it was a slight, this seemed to be one of the prized items for sale). I think even as (comparatively) privileged Canadian kids we realized how nice this was. I don’t remember any of the girls’ names, but the memory of their generosity only becomes more amazing to me as I grow older. I don’t know many children, poor or otherwise, who would ever think to buy presents out of pocket for complete strangers.

Illustration by Sonja Kresowaty

On our last night, my sisters and I were roused from sleep. The lady who ran the camp was there, to feed us some type of corn porridge and sell my parents a heavy wool blanket (the “Ukrainian blanket” is the warmest blanket my family owns, popular on the couch in Saskatchewan winters or when camping). There was a lot of eating with strangers in Ukraine. Wherever we went, it seems people wanted to feed us. That’s just how it was.

Most of that trip through Ukraine feels like a dream to me now. Not because I was young (I have vivid memories of being much younger than 10), but because it was all so unusual to me. My memories of the country are just little snatches now: Fanta in sugar-rimmed glasses. The gilded opera house in Lviv where gorgeous women in stilettos went clack clack clack up marble staircases. Paying 1000 “kupons” (5 USD) for a carved wooden jewellery box. The cherries that looked good but had worms in them. The family we found who may or may not have been related to my grandmother (no way of telling since the village church records were destroyed by the Soviets) but who invited us for lunch anyways. Spending the night in a hotel that wasn’t open to the public yet (and didn’t have toilet seats). My mom celebrating her birthday on the train somewhere in Belarus and blowing out matchsticks stuck into a bun. Dill on everything.

On one of our last nights in Ukraine, we stayed in the apartment of relatives of our travel agent (for free, I think). They had a great big book of Ukrainian folktales in English. The folk art illustrations were stunning. The owners of the apartment gave the book to us, maybe just because they didn’t have use for an English book, maybe because they wanted to give us something. I have it on my shelf now and it is one of the possessions I am most careful with (especially because it belongs to my sisters too, not just to me).

I don’t know why I am thinking of Ukraine today. Maybe because my friend Aliya (who is also half-Ukrainian) mentioned that she would like to go. Maybe because the warm sunny weather and my recent trip to the Prairies has me dreaming of blue skies and yellow fields. Maybe because I encountered some of the most generous people I’ve ever met in my life there. Maybe because there’s a tiny part in me, however small, that cries for the home of my blood.

Or maybe because today I just wanted to tell you, in case you didn’t know, about the time I went to summer camp in Ukraine.