Why elementary school kids need more than ‘The Three ‘R’s’

There is no doubt that reading skills, basic mathematics, and the ability to write legibly are important from an early age. However, there is much being lost to the assumption that these basic, necessary skills are all that children are going to need as they grow. What do we lose when the focus is strictly on academics, testing, and the certain knowledge that the children being educated will be able to sign their unemployment checks?

Yes, unemployment. At best, these children will be able to graduate college with a minimum of extra education, such as languages or studies outside their majors, and receive a degree that allows them financial security. But our population will see a dearth of small business owners, artists, musicians. We will see a sharp, sad decline in people who create for the sake of creation. Invention will become a fringe activity, and those who partake in these things will be less revered than ever in history.

When we focus so strongly on academics, the ‘Three R’s’, we lose both the creativity and the interest of the children under discussion. No child wants to sit in a chair and drill for eight hours a day. That is the working world, the province of adulthood. Children need time to express themselves. They need a semi-structured environment in which to discover themselves through that expression.

And what about recess, that friend that older people remember so fondly? It is going the way of the arts, even at an elementary school level. Recess, the unstructured but supervised play time that allowed children to interact with each other, is vanishing. And, with its loss, children are losing the opportunity to discover their comfort zone in a hierarchy. They lose the attendant chance to discover when they must step out of that comfort zone and stand up for what they believe in. Along with the exercise, which even the supposed experts agree is a necessary part of a normal childhood development; these children are losing the chance to learn how to stand up for their opinions. They lose the experience of being chosen, or not being chosen, for a team of their peers. In losing that chance, they also lose a precious chance to learn how they can deal with exclusion. How often in life might one be left out at a price no greater than being sidelined during a kickball game?

The ability to express oneself creatively and to be rewarded by the simple pleasure of a job well done that a student actually wanted to do is being lost in the crush to get better academic scores. The end result is a generation of students who are more pressured, stressed, depressed and generally unhappy than any that has come before them. They are losing dedicated teachers, educators who love to help young people, at a more prodigious rate than ever in the history of formalized schooling. Both students and educators are beginning to crumble under the weight of a system that reduces everyone to numbers in paperwork, a system which neglects to encourage personality or reward innovation.

Sadly, the emphasis on basic academic skills has devalued the need for music, art, drama, debate, and even sports. This emphasis on statistics is producing a generation of people who will be afraid to stand up against a bully, who may not even know when they should or how to do so if they have the courage. This system is reducing the experience of education, the preparation for life as an adult, to a series of numbers.

So much more is being lost than will be gained by this sharp shift in educational priorities. The center cannot hold, it must not, or the coming generation will be damaged by the uneven weight it has placed on their shoulders. Children need not only academics, but encouragement to become the most they are able to be. They need to play, to disagree and to make friends again. They, like all people, have the right to and the need for music, freedom of speech, and finger paint. These needs do not vanish because an adult decides that they ‘must’ be able to do a certain level of mathematics by the third grade. If anything, our academic expectations mean only that they need these things they have lost more than ever. The ‘Three R’s’ are simply not enough.