These kids needed space

“Rock pools at low tide. An old bicycle with no brakes. Half a dozen trees and a brain damaged cat that will bite you if you pick it up the wrong way. Throw in a handful of kids (preferably with sticks and pets) and allow to run riot round the neighbourhood stealing fruit and getting shouted at by other parents. Allow them to make something without direction out of entirely forbidden items in someone’s garage. If no one loses an eye give them back to me.

The director of studies blinked. She’d asked me what was needed to make these kids more of a success and blitz all the other kids from competing ‘bushibans’ or after-school academies.

I think she was meaning more in the way of textbooks and audio gear but I was entirely serious.

These kids needed space. Lots of it. And time. Lots of it. They needed to observe more (rock pools are great for this) and fall out of, off and into stuff as a result of their bad choices or lack of focus.

They did not need any more book or screen or organised activity time in their lives.

I was appalled that eight year olds could have the joie de vivre of 40-year-old car salesmen. They were drowning in all the force-fed opportunities their parents had never had and so the academic hot housing had succeeded in eradicating any form of excitement, imagination or curiosity in them.

In a desperate attempt to generate interest, I faked a ghost siting, an ill-advised yet highly successful inspiration of dubious academic worth. It was ghost month in Taiwan and the kids were susceptible. It resulted in a stampede of 27 terrified screaming eight year olds down 4 flights of stairs and a broken leg. Which was embarrassing but none of the kids missed a class after that. I remember having to write a report regarding the pedagogical purpose of making small children flee onto the traffic jammed streets outside.

Once, as an experiment I asked the class what they’d do right now if they had all the money in the world and could choose anything at all. I had photos of helicopter rides to glaciers, driving a ridiculously huge truck or going to the world’s best chocolate shops. They all, without an exception said; “Sleep.” I called their bluff thinking it would last two seconds and they’d be kicking each other under the desks and generally going mental in an eye-blink. Within two minutes they were all sound asleep. They stayed that way for the next 2 hours – again, embarrassing as the Director popped her head round the corner to find me, feet up, reading my novel with 27 fee-paying students sound asleep in my charge. I assured her that this was how it was done in New Zealand.

These kids were exhausted from their high pressure highway to success yet didn’t get to refuel by just running around and being kids. Paradoxically, it was ruining their academic ambitions. In short, their lack of freedom to crash stuff and waste time was making them stupid. Not in NZ.

Then I read the Milo study on children’s play has revealed that only half of New Zealand kids get to play everyday. That means that half of them are not falling out of, into and off stuff often enough before they get bought some low riding speed machine on their 16th birthday and get to learn about consequences the really hard way.

As I wrote this by hand because yet another young person had ploughed into a power pole on my road which caused a power outage, where 2 girls lost their lives and a young very inebriated treasure took out the pylon at the top of my drive not that long ago, I wondered if the crashes on the Xbox had felt quite the same, or if a bit more time on bikes would have helped.

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