“Ban homework before third grade; support children’s play”. That was the banner headline from an article from The Christian Science Monitor that got quite a few shares recently on Facebook. And a fair amount of exposure through Twitter too.
The article’s author, Bonnie Harris, makes a heartfelt plea to ban homework for young children because the ever-increasing load of homework is eating into the time that they have for that most vital of learning experiences, free play. How much time less for free play, and how much time more for homework? The figures are staggering:
A study done by Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland found that from 1981 to 1997, American kids ages six to eight spent 25 percent less time engaged in free play and 18 percent more time in the classroom. Their homework time increased by a shocking 145 percent. Her updated research in 2003 shows play time continuing to decline and study time increasing yet another 32 percent!
Free play is vital – it’s how children learn resilience, personal competency, social skills, problem solving and a myriad other things that research shows are the best predictors of future academic success.
Over many years people have asked me about how I come up with the crazy instruments I build. Surely I must have a phenomenally creative mind. Um, no. I just look at other “real” instruments and think “what’s the simplest possible way to make a version of this, preferably one that is incredibly cheap and extremely hard to break, and that very young children will be able to play successfully”.
I’m very proud of my instruments – I think they are pretty darn wonderful, and other people seem to think so too, especially the children I work with – but they are not complex. My over-riding design principle is KISS. If I cant build it simply I don’t build it at all. If I can also make it from recycled junk that’s a bonus.
People also assume that I must have wonderful manual arts skills, that I am a trained woodworker and metal machinist. Nope. To be honest, my skills are very limited. I’m not proud of this, but I failed woodwork and metalwork in first year high school, and I think of myself as a self-taught wood-butcher and metal-hacker. OK, I had a lot of experience working with PVC pipe when I used to be a professional gardener, but a 5 year old child can cut PVC pipe just as well as I can.
Nor do I have a state-of the art workshop with milling machines, band saws, thicknessers, router tables and the like. I mainly work with manual hand tools of the simplest kind. In fact the only power tools I use are:
a cordless drill
a drill press
an angle grinder;
an electric jigsaw
a 1/3rd sheet electric sander
a hand-held electric planer
You could outfit my entire workshop by going to any major hardware store with $1000 and come away with plenty of change. Indeed there is not one of my instruments that actually requires power tools to make – they just save a lot of time, but if necessary I could make them just with hand tools.
So, if I don’t have enormous creativity, nor great manual skills, nor a flash workshop, how did I learn to make such great instruments? Two words: