Sunday, September 23, 2007

Encouraging Children to Explore Their Wild Side

by Paul Grondahl
Albany Times-Union
September 23, 2007

Chris Mercogliano was nursing a black eye.

He got the shiner playing in an over-50 basketball league game. He drove the lane and got clocked by a beefy guy's forearm. He went down hard.

"I saw stars," he says, "but I made the shot."

Yep, certified wild man.

Mercogliano, graying ponytail intact, is just the messenger to deliver a manifesto against what he calls "the domestication of childhood."

An alternative education advocate and teacher at Albany Free School for three decades, Mercogliano has written a new book, "In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness." It's published by Beacon Press in Boston.

He recently left on a seven-week, 7,000-mile book tour that will take him coast-to-coast to speak at alternative schools, progressive colleges and independent bookstores.

His message: Childhood needs a Sierra Club-styled conservation movement.

Allowing kids to be kids is going the way of the dodo bird, Mercogliano argues.

Where are today's Tom Sawyers and Pippi Longstockings? They'll be gone forever unless there's a sustained effort to preserve what Mercogliano sees as a child's inner wildness -- the spark of impromptu creativity and joyful play that might be termed the soul.

Mercogliano hopes to prevent the endangered species of wild child from becoming extinct in the face of overstructured school days, too many hours spent in front of the TV and computer, a lack of unfettered play time and the end of solitude.

On the book tour, he'll be driving a diesel VW Jetta wagon converted to burn used cooking oil. He gets his local supply from a Chinese restaurant around the corner from his house in the Mansion neighborhood. On the road, he'll beg for dregs from any greasy spoon he passes.

Mercogliano is 53 and still stoking the fires of his inner wildness. A mantra of sorts might be found in the title of his first book, "Making It Up As We Go Along," a history of Albany Free School.

It's been a family journey. Mercogliano's wife, Betsy, is a childbirth educator who once taught at the school. They have two daughters: Lily, a teacher at Brooklyn Free School, and Sarah, a senior at Ithaca College majoring in special education.

In the new book, his fourth on the philosophy of education, Mercogliano builds his argument on mainstream scientific research, particularly a long-range study on self-determination by University of Rochester researchers.

"My research confirmed my belief that it's OK to trust children," Mercogliano says.

He stresses the notion of daimon, a Greek concept popular with some contemporary psychologists. In essence, daimon is a determining power akin to fate or providence, which guides children as well as adults, Mercogliano believes.

Mercogliano relied heavily on mythology and archetypes in his previous work, but was careful to base his beliefs about what he sees as a crisis facing childhood in scientific terms.

"I have consciously broken away from the box of being this guy who teaches at a strange alternative school," said Mercogliano, who wanted to spend more time writing and stepped down last June from Albany Free School after 35 years there as teacher, director and guiding spirit.

The Free School practices self-determination with its students, allowing them to choose what to study, how to settle their own disputes and how to approach other matters.

"This book is not mystical or '60s or New Age," Mercogliano said. "Self-determination is not fringe. The problem is, it's not practiced in our traditional educational system."

He dismisses critics who say the world is a much more dangerous place today and children left unsupervised are not safe. He says the statistics on crimes against children do not bear that out. That perception is the result of overheated media reports about sex offenders and childhood abductions, he says.

Mercogliano writes in his book's introduction: "When it is their choice, children will devour good books and stories and keep asking for more. But if you try to force them when the desire and excitement are missing, that is when the trouble begins."

Mercogliano says the loss of childhoods rich in personal freedom and free time for play has resulted in other problems, particularly a rising obesity rate in children.

Mercogliano says nearly one in four kids in the U.S. today is overweight or obese. That's because play today typically involves sedentary activities such as TV and video games in place of tramping through woods, riding bikes, playing pickup basketball and other free-form games, he says.

Living in Albany's inner city, Mercogliano is pleased to see basketball courts and playgrounds near his home used by kids who aren't on hyper-competitive travel teams or in structured sports leagues.

"But there aren't as many kids playing out there, that's for sure," he said.

Mercogliano writes from experience. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and dropped out of Washington and Lee University in Virginia after his freshman year. "I felt my own inner wildness being choked," he recalled.

He worked in construction for a time and convinced Betsy, who also dropped out of college, to drive to Albany to volunteer at the newly opened Free School.

That was 1973. Mercogliano is still making it up as he goes along, the wild child entering middle age.

Copyright 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

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