The United States Department of Education defines education as “preparing children for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence,” but a growing movement of educators and parents calls for educating children to deal effectively with problems of the real world, locally and globally. At Roosevelt Island Explorers (RIEx), we are taking baby steps in this direction.
For years now, my husband and I have watched strong Roosevelt Island storms wash away the soft edges of the Riverwalk Commons. One morning, a few construction workers brought new drain pipes, buried them in the ground, and spread gravel on top. Somebody thought of the correct solution, but there is more to this story. What we are seeing now is how this two-foot-wide gravel strip mesmerizes young children; over and over, they choose to walk on the gravel rather than the sidewalk. For some reason, children seem to prefer rough to flat. What are they telling us? Perhaps that we adults are flattening their paths unnecessarily…
We do this with good intentions, of course: to protect them, to teach them useful skills, and to prepare them for life. But are we really sure what gets them there? If you are confused about this, you are not alone.
On one hand, there is a constant pressure to “prepare” your child for the best kindergarten, best school, best college; on the other, there is mounting evidence that fewer rules and more freedom develop children’s creativity and critical thinking. The United States Department of Education defines education as “preparing children for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence,” but a growing movement of educators and parents calls for educating children to deal effectively with problems of the real world, locally and globally. At Roosevelt Island Explorers (RIEx), we are taking baby steps in this direction.
In this changing world, in which reality is a complex and messy experience, “teaching transferable skills such as knowing how to research, learn about, and interrelate various disciplines, understandings, and habits of the mind are more important than memorizing facts,” says Zoe Weil, co-founder and the president of the Institute for Humane Education, in her new book The World Becomes What We Teach. To develop these skills, children need adults, parents, and teachers to provide a supportive environment that enables a different kind of learning. The good news is that children already have everything else: the ability to learn, compassion and sensitivity toward others, willingness to collaborate, and honesty. They are also tireless in matters that make sense to them.
RIEx recognizes children’s extraordinary innate capacities. Supported by the Island’s unique physical and social environment, we follow their interests and give them the time, space, and, most importantly, the freedom to explore, have their own ideas, make their own decisions, and take responsibility. The Children’s Garden behind Starbucks is a place where children lead.
This is where Sonia and Mariam can make a house for worms and a museum for weeds. This is where we saved Miles’ Christmas tree and Ian could have a proper burial for a dead bird. (Ian’s father assisted; it was a digging project, but it was also a compassionate one.) Eric came on his own to sketch up the plants we are keeping before deciding where to plant new seeds, and Jacob initiated a fundraising campaign.
Our garden is not a science class; children will learn about pollination in due time. Rather, it is a gathering place where we hear concerns like this one from six-years-old Aiyana: “I know one thing about plants, and that is that if you plant only one plant, it may feel lonely.” As one mother observed, the garden has a pull because children know it’s theirs. Even if she doesn’t garden, Noa may set up her picnic blanket there while Niv, Noam, and their friends play make-believe running through the garden bushes. They just want to be close.
RIEx also ventures out to other Island places. During the 2014 and 2015 Fall for Art festivities on the Southpoint and Blackwell Park lawns, we used cardboard boxes, scissors, and tape to create a Renaissance city and a variety of vehicles that take you to, from, and around Roosevelt Island. Rainbow cars, red buses, the F train, and even a coach emerged.
Jonathan used his engineering mind to make a helicopter, and more than a dozen tram cars hung suspended from a rope stretched between the trees. At the North Park, we turned the gray concrete “mini-men” into lively neighbors just for a few hours. Our goal was to bring the community’s attention to many undiscovered places celebrating at the same time our Island’s richness.
However, much more could be done. Each of these sparks could be taken further, engaging children more deeply. To expand our activities, we need parent volunteers who believe that our approach has value for their children’s development. Mariam’s mom does: “The alternative way of exploring the world, the opportunity of leading the way, presenting ideas, finding solutions to problems, being creative, making new friends... these experiences have positively contributed to our daughter’s growth and development of her personality.”
Unfortunately, due to other enrichment programs, children often miss our “messing around.” While exposing children to a variety of experiences benefits their development, Adam Grant, Wharton School professor of management and psychology, warns that gifted children often don’t learn to be original. While practice makes perfect, it does not make new.
Referring to Einstein’s quote “love is a better teacher than a sense of duty,” Grant favors developing children’s own passions rather than turning them into ambitious robots. If you are worried about college boards, it seems they are now shifting their preference from a “well-rounded” student with a long list of extracurricular activities to one who passionately pursues his or her true interests.
We are inviting you to join us in recognizing children’s right to an adequate childhood, one filled with joys of exploration as an “open-ended introduction to a process of continual change” (Mary C. Bateson.), a childhood where falling is understood as building the body, and failing as building the character. Maybe on our tiny Island we could rewrite some rules. Maybe our playgrounds don’t need to be fenced off because with each fence we build a separation leaving somebody out. Does it really make us safer? Maybe on the Island we may address safety with inclusion, demonstrating to our children that they, too, could “participate in creation of a more just and sustainable world” (Zoe Weil). We are inviting you to open your hearts and minds, because each time we do, we find treasures in ourselves and others.
Coach Scot already has. Instead of giving tips to his employees, he makes a monthly donation to an Island organization. In March, he chose Roosevelt Island Explorers (many thanks), which enabled the supply of new seeds and prompted the nomination of our first treasurer. It’s that simple.
Here is how you can participate: join our Planning Committee, share your talents and ideas (they may become our next Island exploration), volunteer during our events (“messing around” also needs setting up and cleaning up), or simply come and enjoy our activities. Please look for Roosevelt Island Explorers at Blackwell Park during Roosevelt Island Day festivities on June 11.