Recently, Slate magazine ran a piece calling Natalie Portman “a movie star for a generation of overprogrammed children.” The writer, Nathan Heller, views Portman as a dilettante and a suck-up. Heller feels that Portman’s career—child actor, Harvardian, scientific researcher, vegan, international-microfinance-lecturer—has been characterized by “easy, hammy poses of artistic seriousness, proof of an organization kid’s needy drive for cultural credentials and good deeds.”
That, I think, is taking it a bit too far. Portman has her lighter side—I get a kick out of Portman’s demented giggle and adored her gangsta rap on Saturday Night Live. But it’s just that kind of goofiness that I wish Portman displayed more often. In many of her movies she seems blank (Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, anyone?), stilted (The Closer, in which she gave the grimmest, most awkward performance as an exotic dancer since Demi Moore in Striptease), or unreal (Garden State, in which she strenuously embodies the annoying male-fantasy archetype known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl). The kind of free-range giddiness she showed at the Golden Globes and on SNL is a rarity for her. (Though then again, I’m not sure anyone could deliver the line, “Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo!” in a believable way.)
And this is exactly why she’s the perfect spokeswoman for her generation: Her opaque, inauthentic-feeling performances capture the spirit of the Millenials, that group of entitled, high-maintenance, short-attention-spanned, helicopter-parented, well-rounded-but-depthless weenies. The stereotype is borne out by my friends in academia, who talk about the way their students simply want to parrot back the “right” answers and expect straight A’s as their due. A professor friend tells the story of a student who got a B+ on a paper and insisted she deserved an A “because I’m an A student!”
Parents and schools share responsibility for students like these. When we parents fight our kids’ every battle, insist that their self-esteem is paramount and can’t survive honest criticism, and expect everyone else to see them as the flawless delicate flowers we’ve told them they are, we don’t prepare them for the real world. When schools teach kids only to excel at filling in the ovals on standardized tests and spitting out answers without synthesizing or contextualizing them, they don’t teach kids how to reason. Or how to be moral. Or how to cope with difference and nuance.
And you know what? I think the prescription for Natalie Portman’s career longevity and for our grade-obsessed kids is the same: large doses of fun.
A recent piece by George H. Wood, executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, co-author of Many Children Left Behind, and a high-school principal, points out the problems with our lack of fun. “I do think we have lost something in our unending quest of lofty standards, more rigor and higher test scores,” he says. “That something is the joyfulness of play, and the creativeness of curiosity. We have separated our children from the very world that sustains them. They will be poorer intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for it.”
Most of us have kids who are buried under piles of homework, who have seen their recess time curtailed in favor of more literacy- and math-instruction time, and who have come to expect the stress of regular high-stakes standardized tests starting as early as kindergarten. The playtime kids get is often in the form of video games (designed by adults) and sports teams (run by adults). There’s simply no time for unstructured free play.
But play is essential. A review of research by Yale psychologists concludes that make-believe play improves vocabulary, creates strategies for problem-solving, and develops flexible thinking. Another study found that graduates of “play-based” kindergartens did better long-term in reading, math, social and emotional adjustment, creativity, oral expression, and “industry” than graduates of more academic kindergartens. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says that play helps children develop confidence, resiliency, cooperation, and conflict-resolution. Yet we parents worry, when our kids are playing, that they’re “not being productive” or that they’re wasting time that could be spent getting ahead of the Chinese. (No joke, when Josie was in pre-K I attended a school tour where the principal said ominously, “The kind of education we provide is the only way to prevent people overseas from taking all our jobs.”)
There’s plenty of research showing how “executive brain function”—the ability to self-regulate—is improved by play.
“Children who can control their impulse to be the center of the universe, and—relatedly—who can assume the perspective of another person, are better equipped to learn,” say Erika and Nicholas Christakis, she an early-childhood educator and he a professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard. They draw parallels between a preschooler destroying someone else’s block castle and a 20-year-old rudely monopolizing class discussion. Both lack empathy. Starting grade-schoolers off with a play-based curriculum instead of a “skills-based” curriculum, they argue, could help prevent the castle-toppler from becoming the entitled college junior. The skills-based curriculum emphasizes worksheets and equations; the play-based version is more multi-disciplinary and offers storytelling, problem-solving, cooperation. “The child filling out the worksheet is engaged in a more one-dimensional task,” they say, “but the child in the play-based program interacts meaningfully with peers, materials, and ideas.”
I’m reminded of Josie’s “trout curriculum” from first grade in her progressive, diverse public school. The kids worked together to clean the trout tank and measure and record the pH and ammonia levels in the aquarium. They sketched trout, learned the physiology of fry, read fish-centric fiction and non-fiction, went to see a musical about New York’s intricate waterways. Josie dressed as an alevin, a baby trout still attached to its yolk sac, for Halloween. (She wore a silver dress and silver swim cap and taped a big orange balloon to her stomach.) At the end of the year, the kids sang a song about trout (“I Believe I Can Swim,” to the tune of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”) and let the trout go in an upstate stream. (They had a permit.)
This is the antithesis of the “will this be on the test” school of learning, the kind that turns kids into Portman-esque nimrods. Kids learn not only the scientific method (you make guesses and predictions, and sometimes you’re wrong, and that’s OK) but also how to take turns, problem-solve creatively (why did the pH in the tank keep dropping?), share goals, and cope with disappointment. (Sometimes the trout die, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you get a B+ on a paper.) And it helps kids connect to each other and to the wider world they live in, instead of making them think only about themselves. And they have fun.
Sorry to dump on Ms. Herschlag. I think she’s probably a mensch. And alas, I think women in particular are set up to be grinds: Our culture (and education system) tends to reward them for being chirping back the teacher’s ideas instead of being creative or paradigm-shattering. Women like Portman (or, hey, Hillary Clinton) are expected to work hard without letting the effort show, lest they be deemed too aggressive or ambitious. Boys can be class clowns, loud, disruptive, stoner-y Rogens, but girls have to be cute and “good.”
I hope Portman’s impending marriage (even if it’s to a goy) and baby will help her see the value of unstructured time, play, and joy. I hope it will help her get more in touch with her giggly and gangsta sides. And I hope more kids get the chance to have fun, and fish.