When I was growing up there were a few “structured” learning events outside of school. A week of nature day camp in the summer, horse riding instructions, followed by a pony we had to take care of, and piano lessons, which I got after I begged for them. My friends had been showing off playing “Heart and Soul” as a duet on the school piano and it looked like so much fun. Then, there was the sporadic trip to a museum or classical music concert. But most of our “free” time was really free time.
Those few children that were born in the generation between baby boomers and millennials often were often known as latch key children. They let themselves in after school, with an unsupervised hour or two before tired parents (or often a single parent) drug themselves in the door from work, followed by a fast food or microwave dinner and then they were on their own again.
Starting around 1990’s, entrepreneurs realized there was a desire to provide the increasing number of young children a kind of educational play so parents could relax or go shopping without the children and without feeling guilty. So those born after 1985 grew up with more videos, interactive electronic toys, and talking books that were supposed to make them smarter. When my children were young I saw a mushrooming number of child sized indoor playgrounds and gyms that were supposed to make them stronger, or at least tire them out. This structured “play” continued with athletic competition provided for those as young as four years old.
As millennials generation reached school age everyone was supposed to be on a sport team (or two), in addition to after school clubs to improve a child’s competitive edge by learning everything from Scrabble to science experiments to chess. In the summer break from school there were library book clubs, drawing, dancing and acting lessons.
Perhaps parents who pushed their children a too wholeheartedly into the constantly structured activities had an inkling of how competitive it was going to be in the future. There were signs of the times to come – increasing number of quality goods being made oversees which meant less manufacturing jobs, and the United States slipping behind other countries in providing education. Trying to start a career that could actually pay the bills with only a high school degree would become increasingly hard during the 1980’s. Soon it would be impossible.
Even as the length of the millennial’s childhood was expanding beyond that of previous generations. The quality of their childhood was less “childlike.” It was not necessarily safe enough to ride their bikes edge of town, and beyond, as I did the summers during junior high and high school. Besides this aimless bike-riding is not seen as productive as running sprints on a soccer field. Now, there are fewer shopping districts to meander through on the main streets of small towns because malls have taken over. I remember how bored would get on long, languid, summer days. Much of the merchandise in Ben Franklin’s Five and Dime was barely more than 10 cents. But the merchandise didn’t change that often. With nothing new to buy and nothing to watch on TV but reruns, I spent hours curled up on the couch reading books about other times and places, never realizing how much I was really learning.
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What is the true nature of unstructured learning?