Sandcastles and Blanket Forts

I have learned through conversations with teachers from various grade levels that the pressures of curricular timelines and standardized testing aren’t restricted to secondary school. They reach down into the elementary grades, too. We have become so preoccupied with achievement that some of our practices have been squashing curiosity in the interest of standardization and progress.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink (2009) explains that allowing people autonomy with clear goals increases intrinsic motivation. As children, we often experienced intrinsic motivation, the feeling of satisfaction that causes us to work more intently, more often than we typically do as adults. Remember the perfect sandcastle after the waves have pommelled multiple attempts, the days-long intricate Lego construction project, or the mightiest blanket fort for your sleepover? Older kids participate in sports where they come to practice and weekend games for either team or individual sports; the reward is not only the completion of the task or competition but the joy of working and the satisfaction of reaching a goal. As adults, we set goals for ourselves. For me, it is running a 10k race. 

Putting on those sneakers and heading out the door to run every day is not easy; it is the feeling that I have once the run is done that gets me motivated to do it and to keep on doing it. I want to engage students in a way that causes them to want to do the work because they know the feeling of success that will result. 

photo of woman wearing pink sports shoes walking
Photo by Daniel Reche on

There were two small things that frustrated me in the course of a teaching day. One thing is when my high school students raise their hand asking permission to go to the bathroom. Haven’t we all experienced this during a lesson? Just when I felt as though all of the students in the class are engaged – not just compliant actually engaged, participating, and listening – a hand goes up. In that instant, my hopes inflate imagining the questions or observations that a student will share. This could be the conversation that starts a knowledge-deepening investigation. But alas, “Can I go to the bathroom?”  Argh, disappointment, of course, a kid can go to the bathroom, but why now when I thought we had something good going?

Turns out they were not that interested in me.

I needed to find a way to capture the sandcastle and blanket fort feeling. I asked students to blog about their goals, many students wrote about the grade they wanted to have at the end of the term. Some were able to explain how they would achieve that grade. Sometimes they would explain the reason for their grade was to be on the honor roll or maintain a GPA or for athletic eligibility. 

I needed to help kids see the value of what they were learning.

When I began providing students with choices about what they were learning and how they learned it, they didn’t ask to leave as often.

Eventually, goals began to change and the process and reason for them changed also. Students were finding meaningful reasons to participate in class. It was no longer about the honor roll, it was about the satisfaction of knowing something that they did not know before, being able to transfer their knowledge, actually use it, and teach other people some goals were to learn new things or simply try something new. Sandcastles and blanket forts.


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