What would happen if an elementary school abolished homework? This.

Parents complained when their children's Manhattan school did away with homework

Citing the lack of evidence that homework does much if anything to improve academic performance in elementary grades, a principal in Manhattan notified parents that there would be no more after-school assignments for the public school’s students.

And then came the rebellion—not from teachers, but from parents, according to the website DNAinfo. They threatened to transfer their children to another school. Some said they were finding online sources of homework for their children.

They were not convinced by the explanation from Principal Jane Hsu at P.S. 116 about the negative effects of homework on young children, including “children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities and family time and, sadly, for many, loss of interest in learning.” Instead of doing homework, she suggested, children should spend their time on activities that had been found to do more for their academic and social and emotional development. Not television (to which I’d add—not computer face time). But free play (if there are many around who remember what that is). Reading stories or books of their choice.

Parents complained that their children would fall behind in learning or fail to develop discipline.

As a backer of Hsu’s approach, I wonder how much of the parental rebellion occurs not because of what children will miss out on, but because parents themselves no longer feel confident about their ability to help children develop without highly structured activities to guide them.

I’m reminded of a meeting at a school my younger daughter was about to start when she was 6. The head of the school met with parents to say she, too, was considering doing away with homework. The responses were surprising, to say the least. What would children do with all that spare time, one mother wondered. Another objected because homework was her “special time” each day with her child, when they would sit down together to go through the work.

The head of school, a grandmotherly German woman, appeared goggle-eyed at this. She gently suggested that the mother might read to her child, or that they might cook dinner together, go for a nature walk, plant flowers or herbs. All provide great learning opportunities, and they’re a lot more fun than worksheets. Coloring or painting together, playing silly games, singing songs—what isn’t a better way to spend time with a child than doing homework?

If discipline is the issue, children can and should do chores around the house. It gives them a sense of contribution.

I’m sorry to see elementary schools clinging to the homework paradigm despite the evidence that this makes very little difference to children’s achievement or development. (The evidence for middle school is more mixed, and though some researchers disagree, there’s been a some consensus that homework is helpful to high school students—although more than two hours a day has been found to have negative effects as well.)

It’s been sad to see kids who, between their structured soccer practices and their homework, have very little time to play—or just be. Who read because they have an assignment to do so for 20 minutes each night, or they’ll get a reward at school, and not because they are learning the pleasures of reading. Who toil away at nonstop worksheets that wear them down with repetition without adding to their learning.

But it’s even sadder to see the parental nervousness around what might happen to a third-grader who has hours open to create, think, read, interact with others, imagine, run. What might happen, I suspect, is more happiness, more energy, better physical fitness.

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