Monday, April 29, 2013

Oh, to be bored

Recently, I was invited to a Singapore Conversation session on education and while I was there, I was asked to give a soundbite for an MOE video that's to be produced for teachers and staff.  There were many things I could have said but in the end, what I chose to say within the 2 minutes or so was the importance of letting kids have their free time.

This topic just happened to be topmost on my mind because Lesley-Anne was reading up on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and she became all excited when she came to Article 24: Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.

"I wish my school knew this!"

When Lesley-Anne first started secondary school, she was full of anticipation.  By the end of sec 3, she was physically and mentally exhausted.  Don't get me wrong, it's not that she doesn't like her school.  It's because her schedule had become so intense she barely had time to breathe.  It's not just lessons. After school, if there wasn't some supplementary or enrichment class, there would be CCA.  If it wasn't CCA, it would be some excursion or project discussion. When there's the rare occasion that there's nothing on or a holiday coming up, you can be sure the teachers would pile the students with extra homework.  If the students protest, they're often told not to be lazy or have better time management skills.  School holidays are a sham. There's never one where my kids don't need to go back to school for something or the other.

CCA is almost on par with schoolwork in its demands.  In sec 1, Lesley-Anne was super psyched to be in band. She got to learn a new instrument and perform in a musical group.  It was fun.  By this year, she had grown thoroughly sick of it. Why?  Band practices are 3 times a week, 3 hours each time.  When the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) draws near, rehearsals intensify to almost everyday.  The pressure placed on the band for SYF is intense. If they miss out on a Distinction, there is much hue and cry.  The students feel the loss keenly and the school demonstrates its disappointment by cutting the band budget.  Even during non-SYF years, the band is expected to put on school and other performances, again the justification for intensive practice.

This trend is not just for band, obviously. Lesley-Anne tells me that many students in the school choir over-practise to the point that they suffer vocal cord damage and have to go to the doctor to have a tube inserted into the throat to heal it.

Doesn't this strike anyone as ridiculous? I find that our culture is fixated on the maxim that if something is good, it's better to keep doing more of it. To the point where something that used to be fun and interesting becomes detestable and downright unhealthy.

We are grooming a generation of jaded kids.

I recently read a BBC News article on the importance of boredom and enforced solitude for creativity.  Through interviews with authors, artists and scientists, Dr Belton, an education researcher found that free time allowed people to tap into their latent creative energies.

If this is true, then it perhaps partly explains why Singapore seems to have so much trouble in this respect.  Our kids barely have enough time for rest, let alone time to be bored.  When Lesley-Anne was very young, about 3 or 4, I used to see her sitting on her bedroom floor, just staring into space. I never knew what she was thinking about, I like to imagine she was in some childhood fantasy land, maybe with flying teddy bears and talking dolphins.  She doesn't have time to daydream anymore. Today, when she has some free time, she catches up on sleep. She has learnt the art of sleeping anywhere - at the desk, on a cushion, on the bus.

My friend, Lilian, was recounting to me how at the International School in Bangkok, the students get to try out a diverse range of interests throughout their school life, eg in photography or music or art, and some emerge to be fantastic talents in these areas.

My belief is this: it's not that Singapore kids don't have talent, it's just that they don't have the time to discover them. Their schedules are so packed with academic work that any such activity is considered extra and comes out of their own time. Curriculum time seldom allows for non-core subjects, except in a cursory manner.  Typically, by the time the kids have finished studying, CCA, tuition, etc, they're so tired the last thing they want to do is fill their remaining time with more stuff.  All they want to do is veg out in front of the tv or computer because it's a shutting down mechanism. (Note that tv and computer time does not constitute boredom and does not increase creativity).

If children here are musical or sporting talents, chances are it's because their parents invested resources and made their kids carve out time to bear out these talents.  That's why I'm sometimes a little sceptical about the DSA scheme.  Although it tries to be more holistic by recognising talents other than academic, it focuses only on the end result and doesn't aid the nurturing process.

The truth is that passions and skills in areas like the arts and sports take time to develop.  It starts with exposure, discovery, and trial and error.  Then gradually, the child will come to see if he has a passion in it before the honing of the skill.  The process is slow and it requires an extensive amount of time, something our kids don't have the luxury of. Because of the DSA, some parents are pushing their kids to accelerate their artistic and sporting potential for the sake of admissions at pri 6. When we rob the kids of the natural process of creation and development, we risk killing the passion because the objective becomes a pragmatic one and it all becomes too much, too soon.

I feel strongly that schools, teachers and parents alike have to recognise the value of letting kids have their time and space.  What I said in the MOE video was that teachers (and parents) have to stop thinking that whenever the child has some time, they have to fill it.  At some point, we've got to realise that filling time doesn't improve learning, it impedes it.

Less really is more.


Lilian said...

I couldn't agree with this more. I can't tell you how important it is for kids to have time to do nothing or something, whatever. I love seeing my kids lounge about reading for pleasure, or drawing, or cutting paper, making paper aeroplanes, and if I had a more outdoorsy kid like Andre, to see him come home all sweaty after hanging out with the neighbourhood kids. Love it when you told me how Andre spent all his post-PSLE days just having fun fun fun. I'm sure you were your happiest then too :D

That is how it is overseas too. The kids spend lots of after-school time socialising, hanging out, playing, and I believe that improves social skills too, and the ability to communicate well, work with others. When they do explore further, eg in dance, the arts etc, there is no pressure, it truly comes from within, and I believe that is why they excel. During summer hols, some of these girls, barely into high school, would arrange photoshoots with friends as models, and you can see their skills progress over time as they move into still life and play with light etc. It is pretty amazing.

It is sad to see LA's enthusiasm die down cos of excessive time spent on it. I still remember the Eusoff Hall play that Guan was in, remember, eat Ikan Kurau everyday also jelak. No matter how much you like something, if you have to do it too often, you'll still get sick of it. Not sure if this applies to Candy Crush though lol! So everything in moderation, let our kids have more free time to explore what they really like. Not everything has to be a competition!

monlim said...

Lilian: That's the key, isn't it? Everything has become a competition so that whatever we do, it has to be at level 10 and better than somebody else, no matter whether it's studies or sports or arts. If there's something that's really purely for fun, then it's considered unimportant and not worth doing at all.

Actually, not just teachers, we parents are guilty too lah. How many times have we said, "you so free, go read!" or "practise the piano!" or "revise your work!" lol

I loved Andre's post-PSLE days but to be honest, it's not just cos he was so carefree, it's cos I didn't have to nag him to study and do revision papers or MARK those darn papers! PSLE prep has to be one of the most detestable tasks in the history of the universe.

You're absolutely right, when there's no pressure and kids have the time to discover their own passions and talents, the outcome can be pretty amazing and definitely longer lasting.

I have no memory of the play you're talking about leh... I think my brain does its own housekeeping, haha.

Lilian said...

I think if a kid has piano lessons, then the least he should do is practise a bit lah. haha. Same with schoolwork revision, since we're in this system where there's homework and exams, still must do what's required. It's when the parents pile kids with one enrichment after another, or sign up for branded tuition even when their kids are already doing well in school, then I say Good Luck to you. You will soon see the sparkle in these kids' eyes dim, so if these parents say school killed their kids' love for learning, I'll say, "No, you did!". Yes, school has a part to play in some cases, eg LA's, but for many kids, their parents need to take responsibility too for cramming their days with activities. Even from young, playdates lah, this lah that lah.

You know, I find preschool playdates the most artificial things ever. For the most part, the parents are friends who think their kids need some socialising, so they arrange all these playdates when for the most part, the kids will just not like each other. Then there's the comparing, ohhh, is he walking yet? Your kid is reading already, oh no, should I send mine for phonics class? Gosh, kids will find their friends, their real friends, when they are older, and chances are, their friends will not be their parents' friends' kids lol!

monlim said...

Yes, yes. Got 90 for maths, not good enough, go tuition maybe can get 100. Somebody needs to shake some sense into these parents. And we wonder why the kids become so rebellious, jaded and angry when they're older. Not to mention self-absorbed cos their whole world was defined so narrowly.

As for playdates, yeah, when my kids were younger, it was natural with friends cos we want to meet up, so we also let our kids meet up. But it's a fallacy to think that because we are friends with the parents, our kids will be friends too. In fact, sometimes they may hate each other, due to the comparing, as you pointed out. Having said that, I think L-A did enjoy her playdates with Brian, haha. Similar interests, maybe? And perhaps cos I never said, "Brian can play chess, how come you can't?" Lol

Lilian said...

Yes, Brian enjoyed playing with LA a lot. She was always the teacher and she was a very kind friend to him in school and in the bus :D

When kids meet up cos parents meet up, that kind of playdates is still okay, not that bad (comparing is still bad, always is). But there are parents who plan regular playdates on a weekly, twice weekly, even more basis when maybe what their tiny ones need is just to play on their own at home. I used to worry when Brian was young that he had no friends (being an only child and all), but he's perfectly sociable now. With Sean, I never bothered with playdates lah, cos he had his korkor at home anyway.

monlim said...

I'm with you. I don't understand the need for organising regular playdates for their own sake. Isn't that what preschool is for, anyway?

Anonymous said...

Both of you are so cute. Actually I have not many playdates for my dd when in preschool, I agree I had nothing much to talk about.

However, now she has a more regular playdate. Why? Because we dislike so much work and no play so every Friday is TGIF and we never talk about's always play,

My dd has no stress on her face until now and I think that is a bonus in a place like SG.

I agree her best days are the days she has nothing to do and draws many comic strips to entertain herself. She believes she can draw but whether she can is another matter.. LOL My evaluation is she can draw humourous things to make me laugh and that is enough for me.
Some of the best jokes I have ever heard in my life came from her original ones. An idle mind indeed spurs creativity. She has enlightened me.


monlim said...

QX: Play play Friday sounds fantastic! Every kid should have that. It's true, your dd probably draws comic strips cos she has time to create and amuse herself. Don't let her give that up :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mon. If all things within my control, I would encourage her not to give up on it. :) It would be like giving up on her sense of humour.


Anonymous said...

At work, in school, we are always so busy. But so unfulfilled. A quote attributed to Socrates rings true: "Beware the barrenness of a busy life."

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,
Nice piece as usual. =)

Yes, schools are get so angsty when it comes to SYF and all those COMPETITIONS. I wonder if the SYF has lost its original intent. It stems from our KPI-obsessed system. It's not good enuff to just participate and have fun. We must execl and do well and win medals leh. There is only 1 winner. Is the winner really happy? Really? It's just an accolade the school can throw about.

Yes, I agree that things must be done in moderation. I agree that kids must be given time to just idle and just do nothing.


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