Play your own way. It’s the key to learning.

This week I had the amazing opportunity to attend the graduation ceremony at a private college that I have the privilege to teach as an adjunct professor. The college I work for has an open enrollment policy and the belief that “every student deserves the chance to try.” Most major universities have a selection criteria enabling them to only select the students who have already displayed the evidence that they believe will lead to future success. The open enrollment philosophy in existence where I work part time allows for a more diverse student body as many students are first generation college students who may not have shown high levels of academic achievement earlier in life, yet with an earned degree they just might find equal footing and a chance to climb the ladder to career success.

America, as a whole, is a country that believes that all can achieve, all can make it, all that’s needed is hard work, effort, and a goal. So many believe that anyone can climb the ladder to success, if only they take it upon themselves to work hard enough to get there. I agree wholeheartedly, however, the often misunderstood and ignored flaw in this thought process, is the belief that we all begin on the same rung of the ladder, when in reality, this is far from the truth for so many.

For my day job as a school principal I get the opportunity to work in a building serving students from often high levels of poverty. More than 90% of the students at my school come from homes that qualify for free lunch. We send home backpacks filled with food to feed families on the weekend. Dozens of our students are faced with having a parent in jail and a large percentage of the students live with an adult other than their biological parent.  Working in this building, serving these students, is an opportunity and a blessing. My job is to change destinies by changing realities.


In 2008 I was first introduced to Dr. Nelson Maylone. Dr. Maylone is well known in the state of Michigan for his work on identifying the correlation between student socio-economic status and academic achievement results. It is well established in educational research that a key factor impacting student achievement in school is the SES level the  student lives in at home, however there is a cure.

First, let me be clear that a parent’s paycheck is not a magic pill for student learning. Just because money is going into a bank account does not mean that lasting learning is being absorbed by a child. So what does it mean? When a child lives in poverty there are many issues at play that a school may not have power over. We cannot control family dynamics, past experiences, or parental expectations. Each of these do have an impact on success, but there is a game changer that is so often missed.

In many states, schools that have students with struggling achievement results are mandated into strict schedules, tight curriculum controls, and focused instruction. Student downtime is limited. I understand why, but I believe this is a flawed plan. Let me explain why.

I could share the data that demonstrates that national SAT scores are actually lower now than they were 15 years ago. I could share the latest PISA results that show American students further behind their international counterparts to show that current practices are not working, but I won’t. Instead, I just want to share an observation.

Yes, students from poverty tend to score lower on academic achievement tests than their peers, but poverty alone is not the cause. When students live in communities with high poverty students also tend to live in areas of high crime. In areas of high crime parents are not as willing to let their students get outside and enjoy the community. Instead, in an effort to keep children safe, they are often kept indoors where they are often asked to fend for themselves.


Poverty in America is concentrated. It is not widespread and not equally dispersed. My school is located in the panhandle of Florida, a location just two miles from the beach in the Sunshine State, yet so many of my students spend the vast majority of their days protected inside of building, whether at home or at school, never getting the chance to learn from play.

This week while out of town visiting other communities while traveling for the college graduation, I was able to witness a number of communities in small town America; communities that have schools that have high levels of student academic success. In each of these towns, I saw one commonality. Kids. Kids running around and playing OUTSIDE. I did not see kids sitting on porches reading books. I did not see kids lined up outside of libraries and museums. I saw kids who attend schools with great achievement results being allowed outside to play. I saw kids running around without parental supervision. I saw kids falling off of bikes and getting back on. I saw kids riding skateboards. I saw kids swinging and sliding. Kids playing with kids. Kids speaking with kids. Kids learning with kids.

Students who live in poverty often miss out on this simple yet powerful activity yet this activity leads to more learning than anything else we can do with our kids. Kids need to play.

This summer, if you want your kids to thrive, let them go outside and play. If you want your students to thrive, give them opportunities to play. Create a safe place, free from worldly problems, a place where kids can fall down and get back up. Create a place where students can argue and make up. Create a place where students can create, solve, make, and grow.

Is poverty a real burden for many students? ABSOLUTELY. Is it a complex and multi-faceted problem? OF COURSE….but it is not an excuse. My kids deserve a chance to try. My kids deserve the opportunity to begin climbing the same ladder as your kids. My kids need to learn and I plan to help them do it by finding ways to let them play. Lasting learning really is Like Riding a Bike.

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