There are many aspects of my more than decade-long career as a teacher that I'm proud of.
My reputation for giving lots and lots of homework is not one of them.
For most of my teaching career, I taught fifth or sixth grade. Sometimes I gave more than two hours of homework. Kids complained a lot, though parents rarely did — at least not to my face. I think parents mostly felt the same way I did: that homework was the best way to practice new skills, learn responsibility, develop a strong work ethic, and reflect on new learning.
I wasn't entirely wrong about all of that. But only for middle and high school students (and not hours of assignments). Not for elementary students, and certainly not for kindergarteners or preschoolers.
When I entered a doctoral program in education policy, I learned about the research that suggests that homework is not good for young kids.
I became a parent during graduate school, and then I experienced for myself just how tired and overwhelmed kids can be after a full day at school. After hours spent sitting and engaging in mostly adult-directed activities, children's minds and bodies need other kinds of experiences when they get home — not more academics.
What are some of the things kids could be doing instead?
1. Jump rope.
An important part of how young kids' minds develop is through free, self-directed play.
"Through play," writes David Elkind, Ph.D., "children create new learning experiences, and those self-created experiences enable them to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills they could not acquire any other way."
2. Talk with parents.
Instead of nagging their overtired kids to do homework they're too young to do independently, parents should spend time talking together about their day. In fact, conversation is the best way for all of us —especially young children — to learn about our world and cultivate empathy.
The National Sleep Foundation estimates that between 25% and 30% of children aren't getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep can cause all sorts of problems in kids, including poor attention, behavior problems, academic difficulties, irritability, and weight gain.
4. Independent reading.
Most of us know that developing good habits (and hopefully a love of reading) is critical to doing well at school. Homework can actually interfere with the time kids can spend on reading for pleasure.
5. Listen to a book.
Studies show that kids who are read to aloud do better in school and have better vocabularies.
6. Go up a slide backwards.
"Risky" play is good for kids. Children need to explore their own limits, to be able to assess risks, and to learn how to negotiate their environments.
7. Help with dinner.
Kids who learn about new foods and how to prepare them may be more likely to choose more nutritious foods later on.
8. Walk the dog.
Kids who help take care of family pets may be less anxious, less likely to develop allergies and asthma, and more active.
9. Hang out at grandma's.
Multigenerational relationships can teach kids how other adult role models in their lives handle conflict, create and negotiate rules and routines, and embrace family traditions.
10. Participate in a community service project.
Through volunteering, kids can become more grateful, empathetic, and feel more connected to the wider community.
11. Do a science experiment.
Kids are naturally curious and want to know how things work. Scientific exploration outside the classroom may be particularly effective at teaching kids about scientific thinking.
12. Play dress up.
The significance of imaginative "pretend" or "fantasy" play for kids' creativity and future problem-solving skills is difficult to overstate.
When kids pretend they're superheroes or talk to stuffed animals, they're learning about social roles, setting the stage for later learning, and processing ideas from the world around them. In fact, some research suggests that kids who don't engage in fantasy play may actually struggle in the classroom later.
13. Wrestle with a sibling.
"Rough and tumble" play is not the same as aggression. It's vigorous, free-form, whole-body, energetic, happy play. Kids learn decision-making skills, relieve stress, improve their ability to read social cues, and enhance their cardiovascular health.
14. Clean their room.
A University of Minnesota researcher, Marty Rossman, found that one of the best predictors of a kid's future success is whether they contributed to household chores as a young child.
15. Write a story.
By writing down stories, kids can express their feelings, stretch their imaginations, and practice their fine motor skills.
16. Zone out.
Just as important as play is down time.
Downtime is when kids are allowed to literally do not much of anything, like sit around and listen to music or stare at the ceiling. These moments allow children to reflect, rest, and reset their minds and bodies.
Studies have found that mindfulness and meditation can improve behavior, focus, and reduce impulsiveness.
18. Create a collage.
"Constructive play" — building a fort or making a snowman — is goal-oriented and involves kids building something using tools and materials. Constructive play also has an important role in developing children's communication, mathematical, and socio-emotional skills.
19. Listen to classical music.
One study found that that playing classical music to children can improve their listening and concentration skills as well as self-discipline.
20. Learn to knit.
Knitting, sewing, and crocheting are hobbies that can help enhance fine motor skills, improve coordination, and help in developing longer attention spans.
21. Take pictures.
"Photography can help develop a child's voice, vision and identity as it pertains to their family, friends and community," according to one photographer who teaches photography to children in Canada.
22. Ride a bike.
Kids who are physically active have stronger hearts, lungs, and bones. They are less likely to develop cancer or be overweight and more likely to feel good about themselves.
23. Listen to a long bedtime story.
Babies, children, and adult sleep better when they have a regular (not rushed) bedtime routine. Kids who don't have bedtime routines are more likely to have behavior problems, be hyperactive, and suffer from emotional difficulties.
When homework is assigned to young children, it doesn't improve academic learning.
In any case, the learning done in school is only one form of learning. Homework takes away from the time available to engage in endless other forms of learning, such as social, physical, and emotional — as well as rest.
Our kids deserve a chance to spend all their other hours outside of school doing their most important job of all: being a kid.
This article originally appeared on Motherwell and is reprinted here with permission.