Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Top SAT Scores Begin in the Sandbox

Top SAT Scores Begin in the Sandbox

In my last post I wrote about when a student should start preparing for college entrance exams. I described the parents who wanted me to start coaching their sixth-grader. (Read that post below.) As crazy as that sounds, I know that there are parents of even younger children who are already obsessing over how to maximize their child’s chances of getting into a top college. Some of you may eventually find your way to this blog. This post is for you.

I was teaching trigonometry in one of the top public high schools in the country. The class was in the middle of a test when one of my best students came up to ask about one of the questions.  Some exploratory questions on my part revealed her problem. The word problem concerned flying a kite. She had never flown one. She didn’t understand how an airborne kite would behave. It was about that time that I began to realize: American teenagers are suffering from a sandbox deficit. They have spent too much time interacting with virtual environments and engaged in structured schooling and not enough time engaged in hands-on play activities that build the concrete foundations for more advanced learning.

I proposed the Sandbox Deficit theory to a fellow attendee at a meeting for recipients of an NSF grant for STEM programs. A professor of engineering at a university in the Midwest, he shared that his department had come to the same conclusion at a department meeting. Our young potential engineers are handicapped in their studies by the lack of a basic, hands-on experience of the world that used to be universal.

There is something fundamentally wrong with having to add remedial kite-flying to the trigonometry curriculum, but that is not as horrifying as the teenagers who don’t understand how shadows work.  (Read a fellow blogger's post on that subject here.)  One wonders if some of our youngsters have ever been outside. The director of an environmental education program for honors-level high school students shared, “The first thing we have to do is teach the children how to be outside. When they come for the first session, they are all dressed inappropriately for the weather and the environment.”  The real shocker:  These children aren’t inhabitants of the “urban jungle”; all come from five of the most rural counties in North Carolina.

Everywhere I turn I see advertisements for the latest early childhood electronic learning program. Parents who elect not to enroll their toddlers in pre-school announce they are “home schooling”.  Some are actually using formal preschool curriculum. Meanwhile, formal school tasks are filtering down to younger and younger grades.

As high stakes testing adds pressure to perform academically, schools are trying to maximize classroom learning during the school day. Parents are lining up tutors and extra-curricular activities in an attempt to make sure their children have every advantage.  More and more the thing that is missing from our children’s lives is unstructured play.  Researchers are beginning to look at the learning that takes place during play, and the result of removing play opportunities from the school day.  (Read an article on the subject here.)

As time goes on, I expect that we will hear of more and more evidence of the importance of play and the necessity of scaling back students’ interactions with electronic “learning” programs. Meanwhile, as I work with students preparing for their college entrance exams, I continue to see first-hand the effects of the Sandbox Deficit.


  1. Is North Carolina moving to/ on the Common Core standards yet?

    1. Yes, North Carolina is on the way to implementing Common Core standards. That decision was made 2? 3? years ago when the state was competing for a Race to the Top grant. It's not clear exactly where they are in the process. I do know that one of the requirements is that the state give a nationally normed achievement test to juniors each year. Accordingly in February of this year all North Carolina juniors took the ACT.

      There has been surprising little information sent home to parents on the subject, and this problem seems to originate at the state level. Inquiries at the school have revealed that no one is telling them either. The neighborhood high school had about six weeks notice that all juniors would take the ACT. I'm sure this is contributing to a lot of the frustration and anxiety expressed by our public school teachers.