Back to Basics

Stop the race and play a little

By Valerie Lustgarten

“Ma, what’s up?” my 16-year-old son asked, as I hugged him again. This had been going on for a few minutes now, and although it wasn’t the norm, I just couldn’t let go. I was feeling so guilty, so confused and so enlightened, all at the same time. Just minutes before, I had watched the screening of Race to Nowhere, a documentary produced and co-directed by Vicki Abeles, a concerned mother from suburban California. The title says it all. Where is it exactly that our youth is running to? And why are they racing to get there?

Education-2You hear about it in the news, you watch special reports on TV, but it doesn’t hit home until your 4-year-old’s buddy can’t come play because he has baseball practice on Mondays and Wednesdays, Mandarin classes on Tuesdays and tutoring on Thursdays. Personally, I try to retrace my steps as a parent. Maybe those piano lessons were too much, or Little League, soccer and basketball were unnecessary. Perhaps those tongue-in-cheek comments about getting only A’s on report cards did it. I realize it’s too late now; my child has become a self-motivated, self-directed overachiever. Now in his junior year, he is taking five AP courses, while swimming for the school team, debating on the Forensics team and holding positions as post-editor of the school paper and Social Studies vice-chair. Competition is so severe among his peers that one of his best friends won’t tell him where he goes after school, in fear that my son will discover his private SAT tutor (which he already did and has no interest in pursuing).

As a colleague told me after the screening of Race to Nowhere, “It’s too late now. You broadcast the signals loud and clear for the past 10 years, and he read them and took them seriously.” At that point, after the screening, I went home and hugged my kid. Since then we’ve had deep conversations at home about life, priorities, what success looks like, what motivates each one of us, and what makes us happy. My colleague may argue that it’s too late, and although in the back of my mind I know he’s right, I believe these conversations won’t hurt. So I stepped out of the picture and saw what was going on, acknowledged it and asked myself if I was satisfied with it. I then asked myself what I could do differently, and have since tried replacing questions about community service and SAT scores with questions about my son’s day and dialogues about what he is learning.

This takes me back to my initial questions: To where is our youth running? A great college? One that will open doors to the best jobs, or allow for a better life? Then again, what is a great college? What is the best job? Do our kids even know the answers to those questions? Do we know the answers? Does anyone really know what we are supposed to be preparing the next generations for? We don’t know what kind of jobs will be needed in the next decade, much less which ones will make our children happy. With the current economy, our children may learn that less is more and that less may even make them happier, but who knows?

Two things are certain: 1) the future will be very different from what we are living now, and 2) we don’t know what that future will look like. Because of these certainties, issues like the pressure to learn content versus the lack of opportunities for kids to play and engage in activities that require creativity is causing such turmoil. Our children, young and older, have lost the ability to play. Articles about the benefits of play-based learning are popping up everywhere. National movements like the coalition Play for Tomorrow, formed by a group of doctors, educators and parks and recreation officials are trying to bring back play, and trying to give children of all ages their childhood back.

Erika and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard College say it best in their article, “Want to Get Your Kids into College? Let Them Play,” when they write: “As admissions officers at selective colleges like to say, an entire freshman class could be filled with students with perfect grades and test scores. But academic achievement in college requires readiness skills that transcend mere book learning. It requires the ability to engage actively with people and ideas. In short, it requires a deep connection with the world. For a 5-year-old, this connection begins and ends with the creating, questioning, imitating, dreaming and sharing that characterize play. When we deny young children play, we are denying them the right to understand the world. By the time they get to college, we will have denied them the opportunity to fix the world too.”* Can this insanity be stopped? Probably the best answers to these problems are to start asking the right questions. It is difficult to undo decades of “achievement training,” but perhaps if we ask ourselves why we are running and why we have chosen these particular goals, we can slowly retrain ourselves, refocus our lives, and who knows? Maybe even play a little, too.


*To read the complete article go to

Valerie Lustgarten

Is an Assistant Principal at the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, where her daughters attend the Lower and Middle school. She has one Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education and another in Educational Leadership. She is one of thirteen National Covenant Fellows.