"Molding the Future: Child Development Through Work with Clay" By Todd Erickson

By Todd Erickson
Republished by Stanford: Bing Nursery School. View the article at the here

A child approaches the West PM art table, where a ball of grayish clay awaits. She picks up the ball and feels its cool smoothness in her hands. As she squeezes, the ball slowly changes its shape. Her fingers dig deeply into the now elongated form, and with some effort she pulls it into two pieces. A smile spreads across her face as she puts both pieces on the table and vigorously pounds her fists into them.

One of the paradoxes behind all of Bing’s open-ended, basic materials (blocks, clay, paint, sand and water) is their wonderful complexity. Clay is an excellent example of this paradox. It offers an alluring mix of hardness and flexibility. It is simultaneously plastic and yet resistant. Unlike water, paint and sand, clay can indefinitely maintain its shape after manipulation. Perhaps it is closest to blocks in its density and permanence.

When children in West PM work with clay as an expressive medium, their experience touches a variety of different developmental modalities that support and inform each other. These modalities touch the most basic aspects of human experience: physical development, cognitive challenge, artistic expression, social connection and emotional satisfaction.


The interaction between hand and clay can be not only physically stimulating
but also emotionally satisfying to children. A handprint allows children to
consider their reflection in and imprint on the wider physical world.

Physically, clay offers a child an excellent combination of fine and large motor opportunities. Fingers can pinch, smooth, poke and push smaller pieces of clay through detailed and intricate fine motor work. Importantly, many of the hand muscles at work during clay play are the same muscles a child will use to hold a pencil, tie shoes or button clothes. As hands and arms work to slap, push, squeeze and pound, large motor skills are called upon. It is not uncommon for children to lean their entire upper torso into the clay as they are flattening or cutting it. Clay provides and sometimes demands a whole body experience!

As a child considers the lump of clay in his hands, he creates a plan of action and evaluates the various steps needed to reach his goal. These cognitive processes, known as executive function, will be vital for future information assessment and problem solving. As he rolls the ball of clay into a long worm-like shape and then back into a ball, his rudimentary, hands-on experiments with advanced concepts like the conservation of mass (the mass of an object does not change, even if the shape of it does) increase his overall awareness of physical properties of the world around him.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso understood the vast levels of creativity possessed by the very young. Like all of Bing’s five basic materials, clay is open-ended, which allows a child to approach a ball of clay as she would a blank piece of easel paper. The clay can become anything from an abstract design to a flying vehicle with rocket blasters. And with greater experience and confidence naturally follows increased awareness and attention to creative elements and aesthetics. As children move into what is called a “later representational” stage of clay creation, they name their clay creation before they actually begin the work. If it is true that every child is an artist, then every child is an intentional artist. Even a seemingly experimental or random clay construction contains deep meaning and significance to a child. In fact, West PM teachers can learn much about a child by simply observing her creative choices with clay.

When a child shares some part of himself through his clay expression, he is using the clay to also reach out for social connection. He is telling his peers, his teachers and the world, “This is who I am. This is what I feel strongly about.” Further, when children join together around the clay table, a social dynamic is created that often deepens social connection. Recently in West PM, Devin and Rhys used the clay to make pizza, pancakes and salad. By sharing their small feast, along with lots of laughter, the children deepened their social bond.

West PM teachers are also interested in teaching various techniques, when appropriate. One example is the creation of a “pinch pot” by using the thumb and index fingers to pinch the edges of a flat, round piece of clay. As a child diligently applies this technique to create a bowl-like shape, she receives emotional satisfaction thanks to her growing competence. Satisfaction can be achieved not only through increased skills, however, but also by the specific application of those skills. When she is able to use clay to create something that both pleases her and carries even a degree of representational accuracy, a child feels deeply satisfied.

As mentioned above, these developmental modalities do not exist in isolation. A recent moment at the West PM clay table illustrates the interrelation of these developmental growth points. José sat down at the table and began slapping several small pieces of clay with his open palm (large motor physical development). Once the pieces were flattened, José delicately attached the various pieces together (fine motor physical development). “Mickey Mouse,” he announced as he examined his work (artistic expression). After considering his creation, he then added a tiny piece of clay to the torso. “This is the nametag,” José said, pointing at his new addition (cognitive development). José held up his clay mouse for the children at the clay table to see, which prompted the question from a peer, “How did you make that?” José then shared with the peer his process of making the clay mouse (social connection). When he was finished walking through the steps with a peer, José smiled broadly, quite content with his work (emotional satisfaction).

Clay is a timeless substance that concurrently touches many aspects of a child’s development. Like all basic materials, it meets the child at her own distinct abilities and interests. Yet despite its unassuming appearance, clay also pushes children toward greater exploration. Clay inspires invigorating activity that bridges ages and genders and allows for infinite expression. Clay is truly an effective multidisciplinary material!
 

MIT Brain Study: Back-And-Forth Talk Key To Developing Kids' Verbal Skills By: Carey Goldberg

By: Carey Goldberg
Republished by WBUR. View the article at the WBUR website here

New MIT research finds that for children's brain development, parents don't just need to talk to their kids — it's important to talk with them, in back-and-forth exchanges.

"What we found is, the more often parents engaged in back-and-forth conversation with their child, the stronger was the brain response in the front of the brain to language," said cognitive neuroscience professor John Gabrieli.

That stronger brain response, measured as children ages 4 to 6 lay in a scanner listening to simple stories, reflects a deeper, more intimate engagement with language, said graduate student Rachel Romeo.

On average, a child from a better-off, more-educated family is likely to hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than a child from a less-well-off family.

That finding from 1995 helped explain some school achievement gaps. Now, the MIT researchers have illuminated how more talking actually changes a child's brain — and it's not just about the number of words a child hears, Romeo said. It's about interaction, the number of conversational "turns" that parents and preschool-aged children took while wearing recorders that taped their every word over two days.

And the effect didn't depend on parents' income or education, she noted, so it's not as if lower-income children are "doomed" to weaker verbal abilities.

"It seems to suggest, instead, that if they're provided with a rich verbal environment early in life, that that can predict great language and cognitive outcomes," Romeo said.

The finding is an important addition to work over the last 20-plus years on language development, said Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, a behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the study. She praised its use of brain scanners and recording devices to move the research forward.

A previous study turned up similar MRI findings on children who were read to by their parents, she said, "But what's really revolutionary about this study — and why I think it's really important — is it did both: It looked at the conversations, the words that children heard, and then also looked at the brain activation."

It strengthens a two-part message, she added. "One, we need to talk to our children from the moment they're born, and probably in utero. And two, that language needs to come out of a relationship — and that's what this study really cements. It isn't about streaming tape to a child through the course of a day with thousands and thousands of words, because those become meaningless. It's really about the relationship."

The next step in the research, Romeo said, will be to study an early intervention that gives toddlers more back-and-forth conversations.

"Obviously a two-year-old is not going to debate philosophy with you, but just a back and forth with them, whatever their capabilities are, is really valuable," she said.

The study found a broad range in how many conversational "turns" parents and child took in the course of an hour, from just 90 to as many as 400, Romeo said.

Families under more stress — say, with parents holding down more jobs — may have a harder time changing their conversational interactions with children, Gabrieli acknowledged. "But it is a thing — a very specific thing — that any of us could do with the right encouragement and support," he said.

Passively watched screens clearly do not bring the same sort of interaction as real conversation. But could a smart speaker use artificial intelligence to develop a child's brain much as a conversational parent would?

That question will require more study, the researchers said. Some initial research suggests that if devices can really respond to what a child says, they may offer added benefits, Romeo said.

But Dr. Augustyn is skeptical. Children can become very connected to technology, she said, but even if they develop some sort of relationship with a smart speaker, ultimately, "Alexa doesn't have a lap."

"Papa, Don't Text: The Perils of Distracted Parenting" By: Deborah Fallows

By: Deborah Fallows
Republished by Atlantic. View the article at the Atlantic website here

"You can only do one thing at a time: talk to the baby or talk on the phone."

Last summer, as my baby grandson and I strolled through the same neighborhood his father and I had strolled through 30 years earlier, I saw that something vital had changed. Back then, adults pushing babies in strollers talked with those babies about whatever came across their path. But these days, most adults engage instead in one-sided conversations on their cellphones, or else text in complete silence.

As a linguist, I wondered whether the time adults spend with their mobile devices might be affecting the way children learn language. Since the technology hasn’t been ubiquitous for long, research on this question is scarce. But other research on the effects of adult-child conversation makes a strong case for putting cellphones away when you’re around children.

For a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2009, researchers outfitted young children with small digital recorders, which captured the language each child heard and produced. The researchers could then identify and count the two-sided exchanges, or conversational “turns,” between children and adults. Subjects were also tested on a range of linguistic measures, from the earliest preverbal behaviors, to nascent phonology and grammar skills, to preliteracy and the integration of complex parts of language.

The children exposed to more conversational give-and-take scored higher at every stage of language proficiency. In essence, the children made greater linguistic strides when adults talked with them than when they were simply in the presence of language or even when adults talked to them. We learned long ago that children’s language abilities and eventual academic success are linked to the sheer volume of words they are exposed to early on. Now we have additional evidence that the quality of linguistic exposure, not just its quantity, matters.

Two other studies, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesin 2003, looked at the effects of parent-child interactions on very early stages of language production and perception. In one, babbling infants and their mothers were tracked during on-the-floor playtime. Mothers in one group were directed to respond to their babies’ vocalizations with smiles and touches, and by moving closer. Mothers in the other group were not cued to respond in the same way. The study found that babies whose moms interacted with them in sync with their babbling soon began to vocalize more, with more complex sounds, and articulated more accurately than the other children.

In the other study, 9-month-old babies, who are in the late stages of locking in to the sound system of their native language, were exposed to mini lessons in Mandarin, to see if they could still learn to discern the sounds of a foreign language. One group of babies was taught by real live Chinese speakers. Another group got lessons from electronic versions of the adults, who appeared either on TV or on audiotape. Infants with live teachers learned to discern the sounds of Mandarin, while those in the group with electronic instruction did not.

These studies suggest that social interaction is important to early language learning. Of course, everyone learns to talk. But how ironic is it that, in this era when child-rearing is the focus of unprecedented imagination, invention, sophistication, and expense, something as simple and pleasurable as conversing with our children can be overlooked? As Dimitri Christakis, one of the authors of the Pediatrics paper, put it to me, “You can only do one thing at a time: talk to the baby or talk on the phone.”

"Taking Playtime Seriously" by Perri Klass, M.D.

By PERRI KLASS, M.D. JAN. 29, 2018

Republished by the New York Times. View the article at the New York Times website here

Play is a universal, cross-cultural and necessary attribute of childhood, essential for development and essential for learning. Experts who study it say that play is intrinsic to children’s natures, but still needs support and attention from the adults around them.

Children are natural players, right from the beginning. “It’s hard to imagine when an infant or a toddler isn’t playing,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of applied psychology at New York University who studies play and learning in babies and young children. She cited, for example, the joys of mushing food, pulling books off a shelf or making noises rattling a paper bag.

“I don’t like it when scientists think children are playing only when they sit down with some toys,” she said. “Almost all the learning that goes on in the first years of life is in the context of exploration of the environment.”

Dr. Tamis-LeMonda’s research includes going into homes to look at everyday play, with a special focus on how play functions in language learning. “We think that all domains of development are informed by children engaging in play,” she said. This certainly includes communication, with babies learning words and concepts as they engage with objects in their environment (ball, blue), spatial math concepts when they play with blocks (or pull the books off a shelf), getting motor practice as they climb and crawl and run.

And this is all mixed in with the cognitive development which goes along with symbolic play, children re-enacting their own experience by pretending to feed their dolls, or putting the puppy to bed, and with the social development of learning to take turns.

But though play may be intrinsically present, and intrinsically playful, those who study its importance in children’s lives point out that it can also be threatened, either by too little attention and responsiveness from distracted adults or, in another sense, by too much attention and teaching, of the not-so-playful kind.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, pointed to statistics that suggest that as children age into preschool and kindergarten, we are encroaching more and more on their time for playing.

“What are kids doing instead?” she asked. “The answer is test prep.” In kindergarten classrooms studied in New York and Los Angeles in 2009, she said, teachers reported that there was little or no time to play. Kindergarten had become the new first grade, with much less time for art, or for running and jumping and bouncing, she said, and a quarter of the Los Angeles teachers said there was no time at all for free play.

“We’re trying to train our kids to be better computers, but our kids will never be better computers than computers,” Dr. Hirsh-Pasek said. In addition to teaching children content, we should look to strengthen their human skills, she said, helping them learn to think up new ideas and explore them, and to navigate the social worlds of play and, later, of work. “These are things humans do better than computers, and play helps us develop that.”

So part of encouraging play is pulling back on how much programmed goal-directed learning we expect from very young children, to leave them time for the fun of exploration, curiosity and, well, fun. But another important part may be creating environments that foster children’s play and parents’ participation and attention.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cited its Learning Landscapes Initiative, which aims to set up learning opportunities in public places where people will encounter them. One of these, the Urban Thinkscape project in Philadelphia, involves puzzle benches at bus stops, with puzzles designed to build STEM skills.

Before the benches were installed, she said, parents waiting for buses were almost uniformly looking at their cellphones. “Now we’re starting to see playful learning interactions.” They have also tried putting up a big chalkboard with a prompt for people to complete: When I was little, I played ….

“We put one up in a park,” she said. “In four days it was completely filled with responses.” And interestingly, the activities people cited from their own childhoods were mostly free recess-type activities with other kids.

As children get older, she said, some of their playing continues to be free play, in which a child goes out into the world as a discoverer and an explorer, and some is “constrained tinkering,” which she compared to bowling with bumpers. “People learn best when they’re active, when they’re engaged rather than distracted, when it’s socially interactive, and when it’s joyful,” she said.

Free play, she said, reduces stress and also “allows our kids to flex their entrepreneurial muscle.” But guided play is also important, as children grow, and parents should look for toys and environments (like children’s museums) that feed children’s curiosity and offer new opportunities for exploration.

What happens when children start playing more with virtual objects, manipulating touch screens instead of blocks and books?

“I’m very concerned that screentime is substituting for active playtime,” Dr. Tamis-LeMonda said. Children need to engage with real objects, handling them, building with them, dropping them and throwing them.

And of course, parental screentime can also get in the way of playing together and learning. In a study published in 2017 by Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues, mothers taught their 2-year-olds two novel words. When the interactions were interrupted by a cellphone call, those children did not learn the new word.

Young children will play and young children will learn, and that playing, as well as that learning, deserves to be recognized and supported. What they most need are interactions, language, give and take, which can just be another way of saying somebody to play with. No special skills or equipment are needed; every parent learns the virtue of pots and spoons as playthings, and boxes that are more fascinating to babies than the toys they contained.

As children get older, we need to keep an eye on whether their schools give them time to play, we need to help them go on engaging with the world around them, and we might even be able to make that world a better environment for learning and play. Again, this is not about walling children off into special places where they can play, it’s about helping them play and learn in the world, in the homes and schoolrooms and larger environments in which they live and grow.

“Play is not a specific activity, it’s an approach to learning, an engaged, fun, curious way of discovering your world,” Dr. Tamis-LeMonda said.

"How to Raise a Reader" by By Pamela Paul and Maria Russo (NY Times)

By Pamela Paul and Maria Russo  (NY Times)
Republished by the NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here

From the moment you’re expecting your first child, you are bombarded with messages about the importance of reading. For good reason: The benefits of reading at every stage of a child’s development are well documented. Happily, raising a reader is fun, rewarding and relatively easy.

FIRST, REACQUAINT YOURSELF WITH READING

If you’ve let reading slide to the margins of your life, now is the time to bring it back. Make the space, and time, for books you read for yourself, and books you read with your child. If you want to raise a reader, be a reader. 

BABY BOOKS ARE A NECESSITY

You may think you’re off the hook with books until your baby is at least vertical, but not so. Even newborns benefit from the experience of hearing stories (and they can’t complain about your taste in books). So take advantage. Here’s how:

Read out loud, every day. Any book. You can read anything to a newborn: a cookbook, a dystopian novel, a parenting manual. The content doesn’t matter. What does matter is the sound of your voice, the cadence of the text and the words themselves. Research has shown that the number of words an infant is exposed to has a direct impact on language development and literacy. But here’s the catch: The language has to be live, in person and directed at the child. Turning on a television, or even an audiobook, doesn’t count. Sure, it’s good to get started reading aloud the children’s books that will be part of your child’s library. But don’t feel limited. Just be sure to enjoy yourself.

Use your senses. Babies who are read to are learning that reading is fun and can involve all the senses: the feel of the pages, the smell of the glue (don’t go crazy), the visuals of the illustrations, the sound of the parent’s voice. Try it: Texturized books are especially good for your child’s tactile experience.

Mind your audience. Make eye contact, but don’t look for a particular reaction. It may seem like babies are not listening, but they are absorbing the experience. And the patterns, routines and attentive habits that are set now will last a lifetime.

Get your baby talking. Babies may start making sounds in response to your reading. This is why many books for this age contain nonsense words or animal sounds — they’re easier to mimic. Try it: If your child make a noise, respond. It may make no sense to you, but it’s communication. There’s a straight line from this moment to your first parent-child book club.

TODDLERS

It’s hard to overestimate how important reading is to a toddler’s intellectual, social and emotional development. When you read with toddlers, they take it all in: vocabulary and language structure, numbers and math concepts, colors, shapes, animals, opposites, manners and all kinds of useful information about how the world works. What’s more, when you read out loud, your toddler connects books with the familiar, beloved sound of your voice — and the physical closeness that reading together brings. You are helping build a positive association with books that will last a lifetime.

Keep in mind:

Reading happens throughout the day. Nightly bedtime reading is a familiar routine for parents of toddlers — what better way to get your little ball of energy to relax before bed? Make sure the atmosphere is soothing and not rushed, and choose some of the many books that end, strategically, with a peaceful going-to-bed scene (though friskier books about sleep-avoiding children are fun, too). But read with your toddler during the day, as well. Offering to read books with toddlers is one of the best ways — some days, it can seem like the only way — to get them to slow down and focus. Sit close, and enjoy these moments of connection while it’s still light outside.

Introduce your own taste. You’ve been reading a long time, and you have a sense of what you like in grown-up books. As a parent, you have the chance to rediscover your taste in children’s books. Pull out your old favorites, and find what’s new that catches your eye when you’re in bookstores, libraries or friends’ homes. The good news is that the best authors and illustrators of children’s books aim to please their grown-up audience, too. Try it: Tweak the text when you’re reading out loud. Many classic children’s books are now considered sexist, racist, outdated and, in certain ways, downright awful. Feel free to make them better.

Respect your child’s preferences. Your child is already surprising you with independent tastes and opinions. Just as your child doesn’t like your kale salad, he or she may not appreciate the exquisite black-and-white crosshatching of Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” as much as you did as a child. You may not be all that excited about fairies or talking trucks, but your child might be. Encourage children to express what they like about their books, and find more books like those.

The parent-child pas de deux. The more you can make reading mutually satisfying, the more it will be associated with pleasure and reward. If your child doesn’t like your silly ogre’s voice, don’t use it. Remember, it’s your child’s story time, too. Try it: Let your child turn the pages, to control the pace. (It’s also great for developing fine motor skills.)

It’s O.K. to interrupt. Don’t get so caught up in your own reading that you ignore your child’s comments and queries. Interruptions show that your child is engaged. Try it: If you find yourself saying, “Just let me finish this page,” stop and ask your toddler to repeat the question. If children don’t seem engaged by the words, ask what they see in the pictures. Point at things and invite them to explain or narrate the action.

Expand your toddler’s world. Sometimes toddlers seem “stuck” on a certain book you’re not crazy about. Don’t deny them the books they like, but try to actively steer them toward other books as well. Most important, don’t be afraid to expose toddlers to subjects they don’t have any context for. All topics — even geology, the history of art, and life in different cultures — can be broken down into small parts and made interesting by a great children’s book. Try it: At a certain age, children may start to gravitate exclusively to stories that feature a protagonist of their own gender. This is not true for toddlers. Take advantage of this time to expose them to a balanced menu of characters.

Choose diverse books. All children need to see themselves reflected in the picture books around them. If your child is a member of a racial or ethnic minority, seek out books that feature children who look similar to yours — they are getting much easier to find. White children also benefit from books that show children with different skin tones and ethnicities. All children need to encounter books that present the variety of cultural traditions and family structures that coexist in our communities. Exposing children to diversity in books will prepare them for life in a diverse world.

 

"The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids" by Erika Christakis (The Atlantic)

By Erika Christakis
Republished by the Atlantic. View the article at the Atlantic website here

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.

Because so few adults can remember the pertinent details of their own preschool or kindergarten years, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early-education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades. The changes are not restricted to the confusing pastiche on classroom walls. Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.

One study, titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. The researchers also reported more time spent with workbooks and worksheets, and less time devoted to music and art. Kindergarten is indeed the new first grade, the authors concluded glumly. In turn, children who would once have used the kindergarten year as a gentle transition into school are in some cases being held back before they’ve had a chance to start. A study out of Mississippi found that in some counties, more than 10 percent of kindergartners weren’t allowed to advance to first grade.

Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor was the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New Yorkmagazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Pendulum shifts in education are as old as our republic. Steven Mintz, a historian who has written about the evolution of American childhood, describes an oscillation in the national zeitgeist between the notion of a “protected” childhood and that of a “prepared” one. Starting in the early 2000s, though, a confluence of forces began pushing preferences ever further in the direction of preparation: the increasing numbers of dual-career families scrambling to arrange child care; a new scientific focus on the cognitive potential of the early years; and concerns about growing ability gaps between well-off and disadvantaged children, which in turn fueled the trend of standards-based testing in public schools.

Preschool is a relatively recent addition to the American educational system. With a few notable exceptions, the government had a limited role in early education until the 1960s, when the federal Head Start program was founded. Before mothers entered the full-time workforce in large numbers, private preschools were likewise uncommon, and mainly served as a safe social space for children to learn to get along with others.

By second grade, the children who had attended preschool performed worse than their peers.

In the past few decades, however, we have seen a major transfer of child care and early learning from home to institution: Nearly three-quarters of American 4-year-olds are now in some kind of nonfamily care. That category spans a dizzying mix of privately and publicly funded preschool environments, including family-run day cares, private preschools in church basements, and Head Start programs in public elementary schools, to name a few. Across all of them, the distinction between early education and “official” school seems to be eroding.

When I survey parents of preschoolers, they tend to be on board with many of these changes, either because they fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option. The stress is palpable: Pick the “wrong” preschool or ease up on the phonics drills at home, and your child might not go to college. She might not be employable. She might not even be allowed to start first grade!

Media attention to the cognitive potential of early childhood has a way of exacerbating such worries, but the actual academic consensus on the components of high-quality early education tells another story. According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted—as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.

Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in informal classroom settings predicted their students’ reading comprehension and word knowledge in fourth grade. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”

Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.

Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.

Iwas recently asked to review a popular preschool curriculum that comes with a big box of thematic units, including lists of words and “key concepts” that children are supposed to master. One objective of the curriculum’s ocean unit, for example, is to help preschoolers understand “the importance of the ocean to the environment.” Children are given a list of specific terms to learn, including exoskeletonscallop shellblubber, and tube feet. At first glance, this stuff seems fun and educational, but doesn’t this extremely narrow articulation of “key concepts” feel a little off? What’s so special about blubber, anyway? Might a young child not want to ponder bigger questions: What is water? Where do the blue and green come from? Could anything be more beautiful and more terrifying than an ocean?

The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.

Last year, I observed some preschoolers conversing about whether snakes have bones. They argued at length among themselves, comparing the flexible serpentine body with dinosaur fossils and fish, both of which they had previously explored. There was no clear consensus on how these various creatures could contain the same hard skeletons, but I watched, transfixed, as each child added to the groundwork another had laid. The teacher gently guided the group as a captain might steer a large ship, with the tiniest nudge of the wheel. Finally, a little boy who had seen a snake skeleton in a museum became animated as he pantomimed the structure of a snake’s spine in a series of karate chops: “One bone, one bone, one bone,” he informed his friends. “I think we’re all going to have to do a lot more research,” the teacher replied, impressed. This loosely Socratic method is a perfect fit for young minds; the problem is that it doesn’t conform easily to a school-readiness checklist.

The focus should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.

The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are getting something this way.

But that something—while relatively cheap to provide—is awfully thin gruel. One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.

We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter.

It’s become almost a cliché to look to Finland’s educational system for inspiration. As has been widely reported, the country began to radically professionalize its workforce in the 1970s and abandoned most of the performance standards endemic to American schooling. Today, Finland’s schools are consistently ranked among the world’s very best. This “Finnish miracle” sounds almost too good to be true. Surely the country must have a few dud teachers and slacker kids!

And yet, when I’ve visited Finland, I’ve found it impossible to remain unmoved by the example of preschools where the learning environment is assessed, rather than the children in it. Having rejected many of the pseudo-academic benchmarks that can, and do, fit on a scorecard, preschool teachers in Finland are free to focus on what’s really essential: their relationship with the growing child.

Here’s what the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.”

For our littlest learners, what could be more important than that?

Recommended Read: "Standout New Picture Books" (NY Times)

By Maria Russo
Republished by NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here

BUS! STOP! 
Written and illustrated by James Yang

A little boy with a backpack misses his bus. Bummer. Then comes a succession of buslike vehicles — a covered wagon, a ship — that are definitely not what he’s waiting for. This ingenious book will call out to toddlers, but keep it around for early readers, too. The words are simple, and Yang’s witty art is built to last.

32 pp. Viking. $17.99. (Ages 2 to 5)

THE RABBIT LISTENED 
Written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld

Onesie-wearing Taylor, who’s wonderfully drawn to be either a boy or a girl, builds a block tower that falls down. Everyone who comes by to help, including a chicken and an elephant, is full of well-meaning advice. Only a silent rabbit offers what Taylor — like all of us — needs: the comfort of someone who will just listen, laugh and give a hug.

40 pp. Dial. $17.99. (Ages 3 to 6)

HELLO, HELLO 
Written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel

Wenzel’s “They All Saw a Cat” played with different creatures’ points of view. This book spreads its arms wider, introducing the staggering range of species that share the earth — many of them endangered or threatened. Wenzel’s vibrant collaged art and simple rhythms call to mind Eric Carle, with a factual-minded touch.

48 pp. Chronicle. $17.99. (Ages 5 to 8)

THE WORD COLLECTOR 
Written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Jerome collects not things but words — lovely ones like “willow” and “spark” — and decides to share them. As always, Reynolds (“The Dot”) brings an enchanting light hand to deeper themes. In Jerome’s quest to spread the beauty of language, the story acquires the timeless, classic quality of Leo Lionni’s tale of Frederick the mouse.

40 pp. Orchard Books. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

GRANDMA’S PURSE 
Written and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

This warm trip through the wonderland of Grandma Mimi’s purse is really a tribute to the steadying force of grandparental love in a child’s life. It also brims with adorable small stuff to look at. No illustrator does clothes, décor and style better than Brantley-Newton (“The Youngest Marcher”).

32 pp. Knopf. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

VINCENT COMES HOME 
Written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley and Aaron Bagley

Jessixa Bagley’s books featuring woodland animals include “Boats for Papa,” an honestto-God tear-jerker. Here she’s teamed with her husband, Aaron Bagley, for the tale of a ship’s cat who learns what “home” means. Wider-ranging than her solo books, it’s just as satisfying and emotionally astute.

38 pp. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

ALL THAT TRASH: THE STORY OF THE 1987 GARBAGE BARGE AND OUR PROBLEM WITH STUFF 
Written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy

With her exuberantly silly illustrations, McCarthy (“Earmuffs for Everyone!”) has a great way with nonfiction picture books. This one — about an oozing, fly-infested barge of New York City garbage that became famous for traveling the seas unable to find a willing dump — raises awareness of our national trash problem. As children know, the truth is so often stranger than fiction.

48 pp. Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

BEAR AND WOLF 
Written and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Salmieri, known for his visual humor (“Dragons Love Tacos”), shows his writing chops in this stunning, serene and philosophical book. A bear and a wolf, out for nighttime walks, hike through snowy winter vistas. Nothing much happens: Sometimes, peaceful companionship and a mutual appreciation of beauty are more than enough.

48 pp. Enchanted Lion. $17.95. (Ages 4 to 8)

GRACE FOR GUS 
By Harry Bliss. Illustrated by Harry Bliss and Frank Young

In this wordless graphic novel-style picture book, Grace’s class wants a new hamster. She sneaks out to raise money by busking, drawing and dancing. Bliss, a New Yorker cartoonist, piles on funny Manhattan details kids may miss, but they’ll love Grace’s spunky quest to make a difference on her own.

40 pp. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99. (Ages 5 and up)

ISLANDBORN 
By Junot Díaz. Illustrated by Leo Espinosa

The other kids in Lola’s class recall their homelands, but she doesn’t. So she gathers stories of “the Island.” With Espinosa’s bright illustrations creating just the right mood, Díaz, the author of acclaimed adult books including “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” celebrates an immigrant community and testifies to the experiences of Dominicans who fled the dictator Rafael Trujillo, called simply “the Monster.”

48 pp. Dial. $17.99. (Ages 5 to 8)

Recommended Read: "Why Toddlers Deserve More Respect"

By Isabel Fattal
Republished by The Atlantic. View the article at the Atlantic website here

Young kids might be smarter and more empathetic than adults think.

In The Emotional Life of the Toddlerthe child-psychology and psychotherapy expert Alicia F. Lieberman details the dramatic triumphs and tribulations of kids ages 1 to 3. Some of her anecdotes make the most commonplace of experiences feel like they should be backed by a cinematic instrumental track. Take Lieberman’s example of what a toddler feels while walking across the living room:

When Johnny can walk from one end of the living room to the other without falling even once, he feels invincible. When his older brother intercepts him and pushes him to the floor, he feels he has collapsed in shame and wants to bite his attacker (if only he could catch up with him!) When Johnny’s father rescues him, scolds the brother, and helps Johnny on his way, hope and triumph rise up again in Johnny’s heart; everything he wants seems within reach. When the exhaustion overwhelms him a few minutes later, he worries that he will never again be able to go that far and bursts into tears.  

“If adults experienced and enacted the full range of feelings available to an average toddler in the course of a day,” Lieberman writes, “they would collapse from emotional exhaustion.” But Lieberman doesn’t view this range of emotions as the toddler’s downside. She sees toddlers as complex, compassionate human beings, and she has dedicated her life’s research to helping adults understand the feelings and the logic behind the most seemingly ridiculous or wild toddler behaviors.

Lieberman first published The Emotional Life of the Toddler in 1993, and it has since become known as a seminal guide to life with young kids. The book’s publishers asked her if she wanted to celebrate the book’s 25th anniversary with a second edition. They asked if she had anything to add, and after following new developments in both parenthood and toddlerhood over the past few decades, she did. Lieberman recently spoke with me about the second edition of her book, out this week. She discussed what’s changed in the past 25 years—including revelations in child psychology, growing societal acceptance of gay parents, and the omnipresence of technology—and what’s stayed the same. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Isabel Fattal: In the years since you last published this book, technology became a dominant part of parents’ and toddlers’ lives. You argue in the book that people are always afraid that social changes will have a negative effect on toddlers, but that often, with time, this fear is proven unfounded. Do you think this will happen with current concerns about technology?

Alicia Lieberman: I do. I think that any pressure, any new source of stress, adds to the difficulty that parents and children have in negotiating [family] relationships and negotiating the world. For example, the data shows that when working mothers are committed to their work, and find meaning and satisfaction in their work, and have working conditions that enable them to balance their work life and their family life, working is not a risk factor for children. When mothers are feeling that the work conditions are so demanding, so oppressive, that it comes at the expense of their ability to pay attention to their children … then it does have a negative impact.

Divorce [is another] example. When the most major researcher in divorce, Mavis Hetherington, began studying divorce in the 1970s, she thought it was cause and effect: Parents get divorced, [which has a negative effect on] children. Thirty years later, she realized that it depends on: What are the mediating factors, moderating factors, social circumstances? How do the parents get along after divorce, how do they talk about each other to the child? All kinds of emotionally charged conditions that are much more predictive than the single factor of divorce. The same thing will happen with screen time and media.

Fattal: How does this theory map onto the way that parents should approach technology?

Lieberman: When mothers and fathers feel so overwhelmed about their circumstances that they use the tablets as substitutes for themselves, then their children are essentially alone with these inanimate objects. They are not engaging in reciprocal interpersonal relationships. But parents [can also] use screen time as an aid, not as a persistent substitute. I have seen children and parents who move back and forth between the use of the tablet, the same way that you use a book or a toy … something that will give the child time alone to enjoy an individual activity while the parent is doing something else, but not as a substitute for relationships.

Fattal: How have shifts in public mental-health discourse over the past 25 years affected toddlers?

Lieberman: There is an increasing understanding of how out-of-control behaviors or withdrawn behaviors—intense separation anxiety, persistent sleeping problems, inconsolable tantrums, aggression, emotional or social withdrawal—can be traced to stress and trauma that nobody has asked about. There are studies showing that when one goes to community behavioral-health clinics and looks at the diagnoses given to children in the 2-to-5 age range, the predominant diagnoses are ADHD and behavioral problems. But when one asks the parents, ‘What happened to your child?’ and one is asking systematically about accidents, frightening separations, violence in the community, violence in the home, [many] of those children have been exposed to traumatic circumstances that very clearly can be connected to symptoms. There is a group of people that is carrying that knowledge, and we are doing our best to disseminate it. We’ve come a long way, but it is by no means incorporated yet in all the systems of care that need to know about this frame.  

Fattal: What impact has the growing normalization of same-sex parenting had on children?

Lieberman: I think there has been a very important and timely humanization of gay parents. [When I first wrote the book, society was] not even giving gay people permission to be parents. It was like, why would you want to be a parent? I’m a consultant for child-protective services. I was in court several times to uphold the fact that gay parents that wanted to adopt a child had all the strength that heterosexual parents had. They were giving them the love, the understanding, the socialization. That giving a child for adoption to a gay couple did not endanger the child in terms of their mental health.

 

People would say, “Other children are going to tease them and bully them,” “Other parents are not going to want their children to play with them,” “They won’t have a community that they can belong to,” and the point that me and others were making is that that is not inherent to the condition of being gay. It is inherent to the prejudices of society in how they relate to gay people. I think gay parents really led the way in creating communities for themselves that were able to show the world that they were healthy, loving, joyful families. Twenty-five years ago that was by no means something that was understood or accepted.

Fattal: Is 25 years a long time in the world of child-psychology research? What has changed about our knowledge of toddlers?  

Lieberman: Twenty-five years ago, when I was giving talks about the book, I always started with addressing the question of the “terrible twos.” I was talking about the not-so-terrible twos; [now] I don’t even use the term. I think the more we move away from that term, the better off we are. And I think that my audience did not miss my talking about the “terrible twos.” There is a new understanding that tantrums, oppositionalism, [and] negativism are not a sign that the child is terrible or that the child’s age is terrible. It’s a sign that the ability of the child to think through a situation has collapsed because of overwhelming feelings of fear and frustration that dysregulates their emotional composure. There is more of an awareness that when we say the “terrible twos” we’re really talking about the adult experience rather than the child’s.

Fattal: You mentioned that in recent years, child psychology has moved away from a view of the toddler as simply egocentric. Are these children more empathetic than we give them credit for?

Lieberman: They’re much more empathetic. [They’re] so much more able to use the facial expression of the caregiver, the facial expression of the parents, to guide their behavior. I wanted to convey the simultaneous capacity of toddlers to feel empathy, to look at the world from the perspective of others, and when they themselves are flooded by emotion, to resort to an egocentric view of the world, where “this is happening because of me.”

I’m the starry-eyed grandmother of a 2-year-old [named Sam]. He’s been learning to use the harmonica. There was this 18-month-old who was mesmerized by Sam making music with the harmonica, and he kept wanting the harmonica. And Sam gave it to him. And Sam is just a regular toddler … I’m not saying [this because he is] my grandson. The 18-month-old is huffing and puffing and nothing happens. And Sam takes the harmonica back and goes very close to him and blows on the harmonica, and then gives the child the harmonica. And the child tries and tries and makes it happen, and Sam starts clapping with great joy and turns to the parents. [Here we have] two toddlers identifying a goal, and the older toddler turning over a cherished object to a little boy that he loves, and the little boy allowing himself to be taught by the toddler in a way that his own daddy could not quite do, and then the older toddler celebrating him and turning to the adults, as if he were saying, “Look at what he did!”

And you see that all over the place, if you look. What this book is really intending to do is entice grownups to take the time to look at toddlers, to observe and give them time, and really process what it is that toddlers are showing us, because they are so capable of empathy, cooperation, collaboration. And, on the other side, tantrums. They are just like us.

Recommended Read: Math in the Bath (NAEYC)

By Sarah Erdmann
Republished by NAEYC. View the article at the NAEYC website here

Bath time is perfect for exploring math with your young child! Not only do you have each other’s full attention, but the learning can be hands on, playful, and messy.

These explorations can also be done at a water table, sink, pool, or even a puddle! No matter what water spot you use, safety must be your main focus. Never ever leave your child alone, even for a minute! This is an activity that needs your complete attention.

Make sure that any toys or containers dry out completely between uses, and disinfect toys if several children will use them. Be sure to check toys for mold and replace them when needed. More detailed water safety tips can be found on the Red Cross’s website.

Infants and Toddlers

The very youngest mathematicians are learning what numbers are and that they mean something. Children are also learning to compare the shapes, colors and patterns they see.

Comparing and contrasting

Comparing and contrasting what is happening in the bathtub is a great place to start. It builds children’s math vocabulary and draws attention to what you're doing. “Your arm is dry. Now I’ll pour some water on it and your arm is wet!” “This cup is floating on the water. When we fill it up, it sinks to the bottom!” With these statements, you give your child a way to describe and compare those different states and shown them the step by step process for how it happened!

“I’m going to take the red square washcloth and dip it in the water. Now it is all wet so I can wash you!” By mentioning that the washcloth is square and red, your child sees two more ways to categorize it!

Counting

Count as you wash each part of your child's body. “One arm, two arms! You have two arms!” Count their fingers and toes, gently wash each ear. This repeated, concrete exposure to numbers will help her understand the concept of counting.

Exploring

Toddlers who are able to sit up and grasp objects can do some hands-on math learning as well! Offer different sized containers and encourage your child to use them to dump and pour water. “Now there is a lot of water in the red cup! The yellow cup has less water!” Your child is building her awareness of volume, while also strengthening her fingers and hands.

When you ask her to hand you something, describe the item. “Please hand me the hard, little, cup.” You can also ask your child to wash different parts of her body and help you count as she goes.

Without a lot of extra equipment or time, you’re showing your infant or toddler that math is useful and fun to explore.

Preschool

As children grow to preschool age, they build up their understanding of numbers. They are measuring, finding shapes and patterns, and even beginning to explore the concept of time. They’re also continuing to use math terms as they talk and categorize objects by different characteristics like shape, size and color.

A lot of the math play previously described for infants and toddlers is still great for preschoolers.

Give your child the washcloth and ask him to wash and count his body parts. Not only is he counting, but he's also using one-to-one correspondence, matching one object to another object, to make sure he washes all of his fingers and toes. Give your child containers of all shapes and sizes and let him pour, drip and measure. Ask him to describe what he's doing, the types of containers he has, and which ones have more or less water. You can even start to help him understand that if you pour water from a wide container into a skinny one . . . the amount of water doesn’t change! This is an idea that may be hard for young children to understand, so don’t worry if they don’t quite believe you.

At this age, children are more comfortable with the idea of measuring, so you can go farther with it. Give your child an old ruler so he can see how deep the water is. Discuss temperature and whether the water feels hot or cold. Have him see how many rubber ducks it would take to go across the whole tub.

Bath toys can be sorted or put into patterns. They can also be props in math games. For example, line up several rubber ducks and reenact the “Five Little Ducks” song:

    Five little ducks went out one day, over the hills and far away

    Mother duck said, “Quack, quack, quack, quack”

    But only four little ducks came back . . . (Keep the song going until you reach zero ducks)

Math in the bath (don’t you like how that sounds?) is a chance for your child to play with math concepts and ideas. It also shows them what math can look like in the real world and how they might use it. And as an added bonus? They are squeaky clean by the end of the lesson!

How To Raise Brilliant Children, According To Science

By  ANYA KAMENETZ JULY 5TH 2016

"Why are traffic lights red, yellow and green?"

When a child asks you a question like this, you have a few options. You can shut her down with a "Just because." You can explain: "Red is for stop and green is for go." Or, you can turn the question back to her and help her figure out the answer with plenty of encouragement.

No parent, teacher or caregiver has the time or patience to respond perfectly to all of the many, many, many opportunities like these that come along. But a new book, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, is designed to get us thinking about the magnitude of these moments.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the book's co-author, compares the challenge to climate change.

"What we do with little kids today will matter in 20 years," she says. "If you don't get it right, you will have an unlivable environment. That's the crisis I see."

Hirsh-Pasek, a professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a distinguished developmental psychologist with decades of experience, as is her co-author, Roberta Golinkoff at the University of Delaware. And with this book, the two are putting forward a new framework, based on the science of learning and development, to help parents think about cultivating the skills people really need to succeed.

What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.

What led you to write this book now?

Golinkoff: We live in a crazy time, and parents are very worried about their children's futures. They're getting all kinds of messages about children having to score at the top level on some test. The irony is, kids could score at the top and still not succeed at finding great employment or becoming a great person.

Hirsh-Pasek: If Rip Van Winkle came back, there's only one institution he would recognize: "Oh! That's a school. Kids are still sitting in rows, still listening to the font of wisdom at the front of the classroom."

We're training kids to do what computers do, which is spit back facts. And computers are always going to be better than human beings at that. But what they're not going to be better at is being social, navigating relationships, being citizens in a community. So we need to change the whole definition of what success in school, and out of school, means.

You present something you call the 21st-century report card. And it contains six C's, which I've seen versions of elsewhere: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. But what's new is the way you relate these skills to each other, and also, you've described what they look like at four levels of development.

Hirsh-Pasek: The first, basic, most core is collaboration. Collaboration is everything from getting along with others to controlling your impulses so you can get along and not kick someone else off the swing. It's building a community and experiencing diversity and culture. Everything we do, in the classroom or at home, has to be built on that foundation.

Communication comes next, because you can't communicate if you have no one to communicate with. This includes speaking, writing, reading and that all-but-lost art of listening.

Content is built on communication. You can't learn anything if you haven't learned how to understand language, or to read.

Critical thinking relies on content, because you can't navigate masses of information if you have nothing to navigate to.

Creative innovation requires knowing something. You can't just be a monkey throwing paint on a canvas. It's the 10,000-hour rule: You need to know something well enough to make something new.

And finally, confidence: You have to have the confidence to take safe risks.

Golinkoff: There isn't an entrepreneur or a scientific pioneer who hasn't had failures. And if we don't rear children who are comfortable taking risks, we won't have successes.

OK, and for each of your six C's, you also go into what they look like at four levels of development. Can you give us the deep dive on one of these?

Golinkoff: So, critical thinking. First you have to have content, right?

Most people at their desks at work have papers, books, magazines all over the place. Information is doubling every 2 1/2 years. We have to figure out how to select and synthesize the information we need.

So, at Level 1, we call it "seeing is believing." If someone tells you alligators live in sewers in New York City, you buy it.

At Level 2, you see that truths differ; there are multiple points of view.

You learn Columbus discovered America, then you learn that there are alternative narratives — the Native Americans already lived here. This is kind of when critical thinking starts.

At the third level, we have opinions. All of us have used the phrase "they say." That will get you into trouble because it shows little respect for science or evidence.

At Level 4, we talk about evidence, mastery, the intricacies of doubt.

E.O. Wilson, one of my heroes, the biologist, says we're drowning in information and starved for wisdom. When we're getting to be more at Level 4, we'll see the gaps and the holes in a line of reasoning. Critical thinking is what leads to the next breakthroughs in any area.

In addition to breaking down the six C's and four levels within each of them, you also cover the opportunities for parents, teachers and grandparents to cultivate those skills. Talk about that.

Golinkoff: So, if you're going to have a kid who engages in critical thinking, you're not going to shut them down when they ask a question. You're not going to settle for "because." You're going to encourage them to ask more. And you want them to understand how other people think.

If you see a homeless person in the street: What do you think that person is thinking? How do you think they feel about not having a home?

Get someone else's point of view activated to help them recognize that things are not always what they appear. That's going to help them understand critical thinking.

OK, so that helps me understand how these skills are all interrelated. Perspective-taking, which I think of as a component of empathy, you're saying is also foundational for critical thinking.

Hirsh-Pasek: Yes, theory of mind is important to be able to do critical thinking.

A big part of what you're doing with this book is to try to get parents to supplement what's going on in school. Talk a little more about that.

Hirsh-Pasek: One of the biggest concepts is breadth. Learning isn't just K-12. It starts prenatally. If you get a bead on what your children are and aren't being exposed to at school, that will suggest the kinds of experiences you want your children to have outside of school.

And you want people to look at where they themselves fall in the four levels within the 6 C's, right? It's not just for kids.

Hirsh-Pasek: Yes. I can say as a mom, well, let's think about it — who am I as a collaborator? Am I an on-my-own kind of girl [Level 1] or a side-by-side [Level 2]?

When I was rushing my kids to get dressed and out the door, I was an on my own. I wish I weren't!

It's not a big deal to let my kid try to pick out his wardrobe. Who cares if it's stripes and plaids? Let's see that back-and-forth collaboration is built into our routines.

And then, how much communication is built in? Did we tell a joint story or did I just read the book and get it over with? It's a really good idea to evaluate ourselves according to the grid. We can ask where we want to grow as parents.

Then we can ask, with the same grid: What do I want for my child? Where is my child now, and how can I build an environment in my house that will enable the child to grow up with these different skills?

Wow. OK. So this is really reinforcing the idea of learning as a social, relationship-oriented process. It's not just a grid for sorting and measuring our kids; it's about how we are relating to our kids.

Golinkoff: The other thing I think is crucial to notice is that we're talking about doing things in the moment with your child. Notice we're talking about buying nothing, signing up for no classes, and no tablets. Not that we're Luddites, but we're talking about how the crucible of social interaction between child and parent really helps set up the child for the development of these skills.

We're particularly concerned about confidence. At school, when kids are being encouraged to get the one right answer and fill in that bubble, people can do things that enable their children to solve problems in multiple ways: "Can you think of different ways to make the bed?"

It costs nothing, and the child is learning, "I have good ideas, I can be creative, and I can show you that I have confidence."

And the bed gets made.

That too!

Recommended Read From NY Times: "Let the Kids Learn Through Play"

We'd like to share this worthwhile read with you and would love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to weigh in in the comments below. This article is from the NY Times Opinion section. The original can be read here

Let the Kids Learn Through Play

By DAVID KOHN MAY 16, 2015

TWENTY years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.

The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.

But a growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.

One expert I talked to recently, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., describes this trend as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.” She regularly tours schools, and sees younger students floundering to comprehend instruction: “I’ve seen it many, many times in many, many classrooms — kids being told to sit at a table and just copy letters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking.”

The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

In the United States, more academic early education has spread rapidly in the past decade. Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have contributed to more testing and more teacher-directed instruction.

Another reason: the Common Core State Standards, a detailed set of educational guidelines meant to ensure that students reach certain benchmarks between kindergarten and 12th grade. Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted both the math and language standards.

The shift toward didactic approaches is an attempt to solve two pressing problems.

By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries; at the same time, millions of American students, many of them poor and from minority backgrounds, remain far below national norms. Advocates say that starting formal education earlier will help close these dual gaps.

But these moves, while well intentioned, are misguided. Several countries, including Finland and Estonia, don’t start compulsory education until the age of 7. In the most recent comparison of national educational levels, the Program for International Student Assessment, both countries ranked significantly higher than the United States on math, science and reading.

Of course, these countries are smaller, less unequal and less diverse than the United States. In such circumstances, education poses fewer challenges. It’s unlikely that starting school at 7 would work here: too many young kids, disadvantaged or otherwise, would probably end up watching hours of TV a day, not an activity that promotes future educational achievement. But the complexities of the task in this country don’t erase a fundamental fact that overly structured classrooms do not benefit many young children.

Some research indicates that early instruction in reading and other areas may help some students, but these boosts appear to be temporary. A 2009 study by Sebastian P. Suggate, an education researcher at Alanus University in Germany, looked at about 400,000 15-year-olds in more than 50 countries and found that early school entry provided no advantage. Another study by Dr. Suggate, published in 2012, looked at a group of 83 students over several years and found that those who started at age 5 had lower reading comprehension than those who began learning later.

Other research has found that early didactic instruction might actually worsen academic performance. Rebecca A. Marcon, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, studied 343 children who had attended a preschool class that was “academically oriented,” one that encouraged “child initiated” learning, or one in between. She looked at the students’ performance several years later, in third and fourth grade, and found that by the end of the fourth grade those who had received more didactic instruction earned significantly lower grades than those who had been allowed more opportunities to learn through play. Children’s progress “may have been slowed by overly academic preschool experiences that introduced formalized learning experiences too early for most children’s developmental status,” Dr. Marcon wrote.

Nevertheless, many educators want to curtail play during school. “Play is often perceived as immature behavior that doesn’t achieve anything,” says David Whitebread, a psychologist at Cambridge University who has studied the topic for decades. “But it’s essential to their development. They need to learn to persevere, to control attention, to control emotions. Kids learn these things through playing.”

Over the past 20 years, scientists have come to understand much more about how children learn. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has spent his career studying how the human brain develops from birth through adolescence; he says most kids younger than 7 or 8 are better suited for active exploration than didactic explanation. “The trouble with over-structuring is that it discourages exploration,” he says.

Reading, in particular, can’t be rushed. It has been around for only about 6,000 years, so the ability to transform marks on paper into complex meaning is not pre-wired into the brain. It doesn’t develop “naturally,” as do other complex skills such as walking; it can be fostered, but not forced. Too often that’s what schools are trying to do now. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t increase access to preschool, and improve early education for disadvantaged children. But the early education that kids get — whatever their socioeconomic background — should truly help their development. We must hope that those who make education policy will start paying attention to this science.

Read the article at the NY Times here.

Story from the Studio: An Inside Look at Environment as the Third Teacher

Magical. Whimsical. Serene. Nurturing. Comfortable. Homey. Art-filled. Inspiring. Beautiful. 
 
As atelierista, Italian for art director, of Preschool of the Arts for over a decade, these adjectives are all in the forefront of my mind during my weekly visits. It is my responsibility, as well as my passion, to ensure that all five of our locations stay true to our school’s Reggio inspired objective of creating and maintaining beautiful environments embodying all of these characteristics. You may find me perched high on a stool, hanging children’s artwork, arranging holiday displays, or carefully extending my measuring tape across a classroom wall to make way for a new piece of furniture. You may just as likely find me sitting in the art studio, happily working with a group of children who are painting colorful canvases. Reggio inspired schools are unique in a multitude of ways, but perhaps most compelling to me is the strong emphasis they place on the beauty of the school environment and in drawing out children’s innate desire and ability to create.

Children attending Reggio schools are said to have three teachers – their parents, their classroom teachers, and their school environment.  

Referring to the environment as the third teacher may not be as far-fetched as you think.  
 
Children thrive when they work and play in beautiful, serene, well-organized, magical environments, accessorized with the comforts of home. Beautifully designed furniture and the soft touches of home, such as cozy pillows, and comfortable sofas, help ease the transition between school and home. Toys and supplies, well organized and placed within reach of children, help promote their independence. Beautiful objects from naturedisplayed in pleasing ways, help inspire the children’s interest and curiosity about the world and their connection to nature. Additionally, they help stimulate the creative juices necessary for them to flourish in a fast-paced and dizzying world. Children’s artwork, beautifully displayed with the utmost care and dignity, imbues them with self-confidence and a sense of individuality.  

Our school boasts authentic-looking trees growing in the common spaces, an indoor living garden, classroom fireplaces, art studios, a huge indoor sandbox, comfortable parent lounges, kitchens in every classroom, light tables, a modern children’s library, and beautiful children’s art displays, to name a few of the most distinctive and special features. In addition to beautifying our school, these spaces are always very carefully planned with our educational objectives in mind. 

I absolutely relish the opportunity I have to work with our children in the art studio.  I love introducing them to a new art medium and watching their eyes light up in anticipation of trying it out.  Our children have created artwork with water, acrylic, and tempera paints, markers, crayons, colored pencils, oil and chalk pastels, clay, wire, and a wide assortment of collage materials.  Young children's work is bold, un-self-conscious, and full of joie de vivre. If their gusto and enthusiasm to create art is nurtured properly, as I strive continuously to do, it will develop into a lifelong passion for art.  Art will become a natural and pleasurable means of self expression for them. 

Leah Malka Weinstein
MS Early Childhood Education, Atelierista

Meeting the Author: Gail Carson Levine Visits POTA

Reflections From An Educator

Layah Schreiber, BA
Teacher & Photojournalist

In my house I have two bookshelves. One is stacked with books that remain unfinished -- those recommended, book-listed, discounted, I’ll-get-around-to-it books -- and the other holds a far more accessible line-up that frequently wanders over to my bedside table. Those are the ones with the dog-eared corners, soft pages, and faded white binding and edges, creased from spending more time off the bookshelf than on. 

When I was eleven, I shared a room with my older sister, and therefore all furniture was divided accordingly (perhaps more-so in her favor, as she rightfully got first dibs). My bookshelf was the middle of three shelves, a space for the most prized and sacred of my book collection at the time. Easily accessible in the middle of that shelf was a purple-bound chapter book called The Wish by Gail Carson Levine.

I chose it as part of a Scholastic Book Club order, offered twice a year at my elementary school in Chicago. One of the most celebrated moments in the classroom was when that large cardboard box with vibrant red “Scholastic Inc.” tape arrived with each student’s choice book selection. At a time when Lisa Frank pencils and Bonne Bell Lip Smackers were an attractive bonus to many pre-teen listings (which we denied being swayed by but were all guilty), few books of that genre came without the trimmings of dreamcatchers and strawberry scented journals as pure-bound unpretentious book. The Wish was one of the latter. 

It was the title that hooked me, in addition to the brief abstract about Wilma Sturtz’s unpopular existence at Claverford Junior High before she meets an old wish-granting woman on the subway. Although I don’t recall the ending of the novel, or its details, I do remember that Wilma’s fairy tale story was more relatable than glorious, and that it was one of the first chapter books I loved. One of the few novels that I read more than once, twice, or three times throughout middle school. And perhaps the first novel that captured my mind and heart, and planted a literary-loving flag firmly in the center. 

 
 

It is no surprise then that Ms. Levine’s visit to Preschool of the Arts, for a reading of her picture book Betsy Who Cried Wolf to the Pre-K and Nursery classes, fused an unexpected fantasy with my reality. And perhaps not just for me.

“Meeting Gail was a very valuable experience for the Structures Class,” says Pre-K teacher Shayna Landes, “because it brought the idea of ‘being an author’ to a very concrete level.” The class spent several weeks reading and discussing the book, expressing intrigue and curiosity in its details. They took initiative in preparing for the visit by creating hand-written invitations and questions for the author, such as, How can you write the letters so small in the book? and How come you wrote the words? "This gave the class a sense of responsibility and power over the event...it became their event."

During the spirited and interactive reading in the Flatiron Library on 22nd Street, children delightfully howled like the wolves in the story and answered vocabulary and thematic questions.  In an additional Q&A session with the author, the Structures class discussed the role of illustrators and editors in book-writing. Ms. Levine also shared two writing tips with the room of soon-to-be-authors: to practice patience when writing and to consider writing funny stories. 

For the children and the school, this event was an exciting honor and incredible exploration of what it means to be an author. The event brought to life an elusive name, printed in vibrant blue and red letters on one book and in curling golden letters on another. I realize that if part of the magic of learning is seeing something familiar in a new light, we most certainly experienced something extraordinary. Especially because what I did not realize, until I reopened The Wish over winter vacation, is that its story begins as the protagonist exits the 23rd Street subway station. Who knew where I would be 15 years after reading that prologue?

Great Read From WashPo: 5 Ways To Raise Your Kids To Be Nice

Are you raising nice kids? A Harvard psychologist gives 5 ways to raise them to be kind

By Amy Joyce July 18, 2014 

This story was published in The Washington Post On Parenting section. 

Earlier this year, I wrote about teaching empathy, and whether you are a parent who does so. The idea behind it is from Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, who runs the Making Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind.

I know, you’d think they are or that parents are teaching that themselves, right? Not so, according to a new study released by the group. (Chat with Weissbourd here.)

About 80 percent of the youth in the study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Weissbourd and his cohorts have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. Why is this important? Because if we want our children to be moral people, we have to, well, raise them that way.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers write.

The five strategies to raise moral, caring children, according to Making Caring Common:

Click here to read the full story on The Washington Post.

Recommended Read: How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off (NY Times)

Thank you to mom, Raena Franklin for sending in this suggested read! Have any articles, thoughts you would like to share with our parent community? Write to us at info@nycpreschool.org.


Republished from The NY Times. Read the article at the Times here
JANUARY 30, 2016
Adam Grant, Contributing Op-Ed Writer

 

 

THEY learn to read at age 2, play Bach at 4, breeze through calculus at 6, and speak foreign languages fluently by 8. Their classmates shudder with envy; their parents rejoice at winning the lottery. But to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Consider the nation’s most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, called the Super Bowl of scienceby one American president. From its inception in 1942 until 1994, the searchrecognized more than 2000 precocious teenagers as finalists. But just 1 percentended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes. For every Lisa Randall who revolutionizes theoretical physics, there are many dozens who fall far short of their potential.

Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world. We assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation doesn’t suffice: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.

What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, many learn to keep their original ideas to themselves. In the language of the critic William Deresiewicz, they become the excellent sheep.

In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments the psychologist Ellen Winner. “Those who do must make a painful transition” to an adult who “ultimately remakes a domain.”

Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.

So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.

Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.

Even the best athletes didn’t start out any better than their peers. When Dr. Bloom’s team interviewed tennis players who were ranked in the top 10 in the world, they were not, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, doing push-ups since they were a fetus. Few of them faced intense pressure to perfect the game as Andre Agassi did. A majority of the tennis stars remembered one thing about their first coaches: They made tennis enjoyable.

SINCE Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000-hour rule” suggesting that success depends on the time we spend in deliberate practice, debate has ragedabout how the hours necessary to become an expert vary by field and person. In arguing about that, we’ve overlooked two questions that matter just as much.

First, can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study? Research reveals that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.

Second, what motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours? The most reliable answer is passion — discovered through natural curiosity or nurtured through early enjoyable experiences with an activity or many activities.

Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.

No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight. “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition,” Albert Einstein reflected. His mother enrolled him in violin lessons starting at age 5, but he wasn’t intrigued. His love of music only blossomed as a teenager, after he stopped taking lessons and stumbled upon Mozart’s sonatas. “Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty,” he said.

Hear that, Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads? You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.

Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a contributing opinion writer. This essay is adapted from his new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Image: BRIAN CHIPPENDALE / NY Times (not property of POTA. View article at NY Times here

* This is another post in the POTA Recommended Read Series. We'd love to hear your comments, feel free to add your thoughts, questions or musings in the comments section below. Do you have an article you think would be of interest to our parents? Share it with us at info@nycpreschool.org