Teachers talk a lot about the value of “heavy work”. Usually those conversations are about helping children with sensory needs or ADHD, or giving children an opportunity to work off extra energy and increase their focus and attention. Framing the conversation this way misses what the true value is of “heavy work”. Children don’t need to work off “extra” energy. Children don’t have extra energy – they have energy, period. Heavy work is a target for energy, a chance for children to take risks, set goals, and see what they can accomplish, putting their greatest energy at work. There isn’t anything magical about heavy work that increases focus. It’s the act of doing a self-selected task that has intrinsic value and that poses a challenge that pushes children to pay attention, because this task is meaningful to the child.
We all seek to challenge ourselves, to push, to pull, to lift, to climb, to reach, to ascend.
For young children, these tasks are often physical, as they test out their developing muscles and coordination, and as they learn to take risks and test out the limits of their developing bodies and abilities.. How high can I reach? How high can I climb? Can I lift this? Can I push this? All these questions have another question at the core: What am I able to do? Or, Can I do things I didn’t even think were possible?
On the playground, we see children doing what is seemingly impossible – trying to pull or push a rock or tree or pole that is immovable. Or is it? Heavy work is more than just pushing something to use up energy and see if it will move. Heavy work is having the opportunity to problem solve and discover whether you can make it move. Or not.
Having the freedom to experiment with trying to move the object is cognitive heavy work, which is just as important as the physical heavy work. The innate drive to go higher, push harder, and to test limits – both our own, and those set for us, is the heavy work that we all have to do.