What I Learn from 8 Year Olds Every Day

by Amy Walter February 07, 2016

I’m a third grade teacher, which means that I’m lucky enough to spend my work week with some pretty remarkable human beings. Childhood is a magical time, but I believe that there is a very special breed of magic reserved for eight year olds. I remember being in third grade like it was yesterday, perhaps because I spend my days immersed in the world of the eight year old. When I was in third grade, my priorities were few, and they were clear-cut: family, friends, play and schoolwork. After school, I’d spend hours with friends, playing outside and wandering the neighborhood. I could often be found exploring the nooks and crannies of our area, getting lost and having adventures. And of course, I always managed to make it home in time for dinner and a bedtime story with Mom.

Unstructured time is important

As an 8 year old, I was doing just the right amount of activities. My load was developmentally appropriate and my life was balanced. I had plenty of time to just ‘be.’ As a teacher and an observer, it seems to me that the most content children are the ones who have plenty of free time after school - unstructured and uncommitted time. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is how it seems for adults too! When I see parents signing their children up for every after school program under the sun, it makes me a little nervous. I believe that children need downtime as much as adults do –time all to themselves, with no particular plan, with nobody watching over their shoulder. We all need that time, and it comes to us only when we aren’t overscheduled. As adults, we take on so much. We can make a decision to lighten our schedules, lessen the number of commitments we are obliged to, and focus on the handful that are the most important. So many parents are brilliant at giving this gift of time to their children but not as good at giving it to themselves. It is often the case that when there is no plan or structure, we find our spark.

Imagination is a tool for our growth

The undoubted highlight of our classroom schedule in third grade is Choice Time. This is a free period, during which some children choose to draw, others read, still others build with Lego or blocks. Inevitably, children indulge in role play and imaginative play, escape into other worlds, and, always, laugh a lot – all this being the stuff of childhood. I love standing by and watching as the day’s ‘choices’ unfold – children will ask me for tape so they can make structures out of paper or make hats for a fashion show, or they’ll curl up on a cushion and just get lost in a book. Whichever choice they make, they are inspired, motivated and completely self driven.
An eight year old girl sitting in a tree in the English countryside. An eight year old girl sitting in a tree in the English countryside.
When I was eight, I’d play with Barbie dolls and escape to an imaginary world - Barbie and her friends went to school, graduated from college, traveled abroad, sailed on boats, got married; they even learned some hard lessons. I realize now that I was trying out different versions of the life I thought I wanted, a kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ with Barbie dolls as props in endless rehearsals for my future life. While I was making wallpaper for my Barbie Dream House, my best friends were drawing on their easels or creating whole worlds out of blocks. At 8, children imagine and create situations, worlds, problems and solutions. They are, in many ways, empowered. They find their own solutions and retreat to their imaginations when they want to work through things and figure out the world around them, and they are more peaceful and resolved for it. There are so many ways that adults can find to channel their spirit of imagination, too. Make something, build something, play Charades, do some improv or role play. Let imagination into your adult life, and do it alongside your children, too – they’ll love it.

Pursuing passions should be mandatory for us all

Growing up, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I would line up my dolls and then proceed to teach them what I thought they needed to know. “Children, here’s how you write a story”...Like many 8 year olds, I also wanted to do other things - I wanted to be a writer, for one. I would write stories that were ten pages long and always carried around a little notebook and pen set, ready to ‘report’ the news wherever I went. Teaching and writing are parts of who I am, and they are more than a profession; they’re my passions. When I was eight, I didn’t know the word passion, but I chose to spend my free time writing, and pretending to be a teacher. It seems to me that it is a huge pity if we as adults can’t make some time in our lives to pursue the ideas, projects, hobbies and work that inspire us. At the school I teach at, we recently got rid of homework. By doing this, we effectively gave parents permission to let their children spend their afternoons pursuing activities, hobbies, learnings and passions. The results speak for themselves – our students are happy, energetic and eager to learn and ‘work’ during school hours, knowing that their evenings are free to pursue choice activities and passion projects. I wonder if we can’t get rid of some our adult ‘homework’, or at least marginalize it so we can spend more time doing what we love. I know this takes a shift and involves setting real boundaries around how we use our time, but I believe there really are enough hours in the day to spend time with our passions, even if its just an hour while the baby is sleeping.

Showing vulnerability is brave, and forgiving is too

Just the other day, a child in my class was crying. Her tears ran, free flowing, down her face, and dripped down onto her sweater. Through her tears, she told me that she was worried because a friend had called her a name and she’d thought they were best friends until this had happened. By the time children reach third grade, they are able to put words to their emotions, and are often very articulate about how they feel. After the tears, once the problem has been named and worked through, eight year olds have the ability (perhaps it is a special gift) to move past the hurt and to forgive and forget; to carry on like nothing happened– I see it on the playground every day. There’s a lesson here for us; I think we can allow ourselves tears, raw honesty and vulnerability in our lives as adults, and then we can move on when it's time to move on, because life gets richer when we let go of past hurts. We can take a leaf from the book of 8 year old behavior and follow up our tears with some exercise and some free time. Crying is a healing mechanism, as is forgiving.

Steer yourself in the direction you wish to travel

On the topic of this article, there is so much more to say. An eight year old is a gem of a person, caught between early childhood and adolescence. Middle childhood is a special time, because children at this age are increasingly more empathetic, articulate and reasoned about the world around them, whilst also remaining true to their most authentic childhood selves. 8 year old boy As adults, we can try more often to channel the child within us. A sense of play, the spirit of imagination, the joys of free time and time spent with our passions, as well as the power of tears to heal and the ability to move past feelings of hurt...all this feels like a recipe for a more content adulthood. We have so much freedom as adults; using this freedom in ways that nurture, heal and inspire makes us happier. I love teaching because every work day offers me endless opportunities to live my passion, use my imagination, and to be around happy, content, people. If third graders inhabited every workplace, surely the world would be a more joyful, forgiving place. Alas, this is not a possibility, so we must start with ourselves. As Dr. Seuss wrote: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” When we choose to fill our lives with lightness, joy, passion and imagination, we become the very best kind of role models for our children.

Amy Walter


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