Summer Loving and Learning

My 9 year old son is a different person in the summer. He goes to daycamp every day, and comes back happier, lighter and at peace in his spirit. We have spent this past school year with our son being so tense and anxious, looking to pick fights with us and his younger brother, defiance and anger often in his eyes. This was a tough year in our home. And through it all, we almost forgot who he really was. We started to believe that this angry, disengaged self was really him.

But here he is, coming home from camp every day, with a huge smile on his face, openness and peace in his eyes, and excitement to tell me all about his day. When he went to school, I would ask about his day, and he would just shrug and say, ‘It was fine’, in a voice that told me that it wasn’t fine. When I ask him about his day at camp, he can’t wait to tell me the stories and activities, the friends he has made, the funny encounters, and what he has learned. We love the summer.

But it begs the question, running through my head every day, “Why can’t school be more like camp?” It feels incredibly sad, and a missed opportunity, that at grade three, my son waits all school year for the summer. As someone who is passionate about learning (and works in the post-secondary sector), I am very concerned with his disengagement at school. I want my son to be excited and engaged with his learning, to be happy going to school and happy in his life. I want him to feel safe facing learning challenges that stretch him, to be creative and innovative in his thinking, and to make mistakes and learn from his mistakes. Is this too much to ask?

So what is it about camp, that is different from school, that captures my son’s spirit? A few elements come to mind:

  1. Active: camps are very active, kids are moving around all the time, instead of learning at a desk. People need to move. My son needs to move to learn, not because he has ADD but because people need to move. He is happier when he is able to be active, not at set times but throughout the day.
  1. Experiential: Hands-on experiential learning, like trying to sail a boat and learning about wind patterns, will be imprinted in memory because it is interesting and practical. This engaged learning is far more powerful than book learning that is remembered only for a test.
  1. Fun: Camp is fun! The songs, jokes and cheers. Doesn’t everyone want to have fun and enjoy life? Does school need to be so serious? Can’t learning be fun? I found this great article about a professor who doesn’t have exams or tests, but now reframes them as ‘celebrations’ – that is the spirit I am looking for!
  1. Connected: This is the game-changer for my son. My son makes an immediate connection to his counselors at camp. This does not happen at school. Based on this connection, he feels like he belongs and that he is safe. At the end of Day 1 at camp, he knows all of his counselors names. He talks incessantly about his camp counselors, and at the end of his week at camp, he is sad to say goodbye. I was pleasantly surprised when one evening, he gave up storytime before bed so that he could make all of his camp counselors snake puppets out of construction paper to give to them as presents (and he is NOT usually a crafty kid!). He selected which puppet should go to which counselor based on their personality. This connection just does not happen at school.

How hard would it be for schools to integrate these elements, to foster a (dare I say) fun, engaged and joyful learning environment? It would actually be very hard, because it would mean radically dismantling the culture of education that hasn’t changed much in 100 years. The culture of education that I am referring to, is where ‘learning’ takes place in desks and in classrooms, where kids line up when bells are rung, and fun is relegated to a once a year ‘fun day’ (listen to Sir Ken Robinson talk on this – he is very articulate and inspiring). Yes, dismantling this system of education would be hard. But for the sake of our children, it is time for change!

SickKids – Soothing Spaces

I recently spent five days with my little one at SickKids hospital. It was probably one of the most stressful times in my life, and definitely the most stressful time as a mom. Five days is such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of life, but when I was there, it felt like forever. The days were long, waiting for tests and doctors and results and answers, and the nights were even longer, sleeping on the pull-out chair beside the hospital bed and worrying about my life (and my other son) outside of the hospital. I met several parents whose child was living in the hospital for months and months, and I can’t imagine how hard that reality must have been.

I think a lot about space, and how space impacts us, in terms of how we feel and how we act. I believe strongly that space has an incredible impact on our attitudes and behaviours, and even small changes to space can make a big difference. During our days at SickKids, we had a lot of time to explore this hospital, and I was always looking for ways to entertain my three year old. In the midst of stress, we found spaces that provided much needed laughter and peace. These spaces made all of the difference in our day, providing us with energy and uplifting our spirits. My favourite spaces were:

  1. The Elevator

What could be better than an elevator to entertain a three-year old? We ‘rode the rails’ for hours every day. We pressed the buttons, got in and out, in and out, and the elevator was a source of endless entertainment. We met a lot of people on the elevator, going up and down, all going about their lives. I love how the elevator is so open, and the space of the hospital from this perspective feels so open and spacious. I was so appreciative of this space during our stay at the hospital.

SickKids-elevator-K SickKids-elevator

  1. The Tim Hortons train

The Tim Hortons at SickKids has a train that goes around and around the store. There is a button for kids to press that makes the train move. Again, this was a source of great entertainment for my boy, who loves trains. A few times a day, we would do the walk to Tim Hortons, and I could drink much-needed coffee while K pressed the button and delighted in watching the train move. I was very thankful for this space.

SickKids-TimHortonswithtrain

  1. The Starlight Room Rooftop Space

This was the most important space for me during our time at SickKids. It brought K and I (and others) a deep sense of peace when we needed it. We weren’t able to leave the hospital, so we were stuck inside during beautiful sunny days. When I found the Starlight Room Rooftop Space (on the 9th floor – if you are looking for it, you can only take the middle elevator up to it), I almost cried with joy. The rooftop patio is beautiful, with couches and water features, and we were able to be outside! We were able to enjoy the warm sun and the breeze of the wind, without leaving the hospital. We spent a lot of time up on the rooftop patio, playing and making crafts and enjoying fresh air.

SickKids-StarlightRoom-rooftop

These spaces at SickKids made my stay there bearable. SickKids is a special place, with amazing doctors and nurses and staff, and I am so thankful that little K was taken care of there.