Children need time to play and just be children

11 Mar

Children are not “mini mes” or short adults. They are children and they should have time to play, to dream, and to use their imagination. Alison Gopnik has an excellent article in Slate which reports about the results of two new studies, Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School

In the first study, MIT professor Laura Schulz, her graduate student Elizabeth Bonawitz, and their colleagues looked at how 4-year-olds learned about a new toy with four tubes. Each tube could do something interesting: If you pulled on one tube it squeaked, if you looked inside another tube you found a hidden mirror, and so on. For one group of children, the experimenter said: “I just found this toy!” As she brought out the toy, she pulled the first tube, as if by accident, and it squeaked. She acted surprised (“Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that!”) and pulled the tube again to make it squeak a second time. With the other children, the experimenter acted more like a teacher. She said, “I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” and deliberately made the tube squeak. Then she left both groups of children alone to play with the toy. …

As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions….

These experts in machine learning argue that learning from teachers first requires you to learn about teachers. For example, if you know how teachers work, you tend to assume that they are trying to be informative. When the teacher in the tube-toy experiment doesn’t go looking for hidden features inside the tubes, the learner unconsciously thinks: “She’s a teacher. If there were something interesting in there, she would have showed it to me.” These assumptions lead children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present, children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options.

Knowing what to expect from a teacher is a really good thing, of course: It lets you get the right answers more quickly than you would otherwise. Indeed, these studies show that 4-year-olds understand how teaching works and can learn from teachers. But there is an intrinsic trade-off between that kind of learning and the more wide-ranging learning that is so natural for young children. Knowing this, it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.

In the rush to produce baby Einsteins and child prodigies, perhaps we are missing the creativity that play activities by preschoolers produces.

John Tierney has an interesting New York Times article, Findings: Can A Playground Be Too Safe?

After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.

Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive — why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? — the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery…

There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. He noted that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t, because it is a common phenomenon,” Dr. Ball said. “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance….”

What happens in America is defined by tort lawyers, and unfortunately that limits some of the adventure playgrounds,” said Adrian Benepe, the current parks commissioner. But while he misses the Tarzan ropes, he’s glad that the litigation rate has declined, and he’s not nostalgic for asphalt pavement.

I think safety surfaces are a godsend,” he said. “I suspect that parents who have to deal with concussions and broken arms wouldn’t agree that playgrounds have become too safe.” The ultra-safe enclosed platforms of the 1980s and 1990s may have been an overreaction, Mr. Benepe said, but lately there have been more creative alternatives.

The good news is that manufacturers have brought out new versions of the old toys,” he said. “Because of height limitations, no one’s building the old monkey bars anymore, but kids can go up smaller climbing walls and rope nets and artificial rocks.”

Adults are trying to eliminate the risks of childhood and that simply is not possible.

Valerie Strauss has an interesting Washington Post article, Robbing kindergartners of play in the name of reform:

We used to debate how much academic work is too much for preschoolers and kindergartners to handle at their developmental stage, but over the past dozen years or so that has been increasingly drowned out by the rise of standard- and test-driven accountability.

Now all we hear is about getting kids ready for the rigors of rigor at school (“rigor” being an operative word today in education, even for 5-year-olds). That includes subjecting 5-year-olds to test after test.

Kids who can’t read in kindergarten and certainly by the end of first grade are at risk of being declared laggards. Boys, who generally develop the skills needed to learn to read later than girls, suffer tremendously from this pushdown of curriculum.

Try as they might, school reformers can’t change the course of human evolution. While kids are certainly exposed to more at an earlier age than they were even 20 years ago, their little brains and bodies haven’t evolved along with school reform thinking. They still can’t handle what they couldn’t back then.

Chip Wood, the author of the seminal “Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14,” tells us what we need to know about 5 year olds. They are active and receptive, taking in things through their senses, and they love to play. He writes:

Every location in the classroom and at home appears full of possibilities. And fives know how to get the most out of each possibility for as long as it holds their interest. Play, of course, offers endless potential and is the five-year-old’s primary occupation. The adults may call it something else, like ‘Choice Time,’ but five-year-olds know what they are doing.”

It’s the adults who won’t let them play who don’t know what they are doing.

Since some kindergartners today are 6, let’s look at them: Six-year-olds, Wood says, “take on every activity, at home and at school, with unbridled enthusiasm,” “love jokes, silly songs, and guessing games,” and “love to be outdoors.”

No time for that in many kindergartens today. They have to do their math and literacy work.

Now the superintendent of the Hartford School District, Christina Kishimoto, wants kindergarteners at the district’s lowest performing schools (as measured by standardized test scores) to stay in class for 11 months a year instead of the regular nine, and stay hard at work. That leaves less time than ever for the thing they should be doing the most — playing.

Yes, it is true that many students, especially in high-poverty areas, enter preschool and kindergarten without the same literacy skills as students from middle- and higher-income families, and this puts them at an enormous disadvantage at school. And it is important for schools to learn how to help these students overcome their early literacy deficits.

But there are right ways to do this and wrong ways to do this.

Child development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige has written in this article, “Through play children build the foundation they need to understand the concepts they learn in school, but play offers an even deeper benefit as well. Through play children continually regain their sense of equilibrium which is what allows them to greet learning tasks in school with openness and confidence—to have the emotional and mental readiness to say: I can do this task and I want to do it!”

We must not so over-schedule children that they have no time to play and to dream.


The ‘whole child’ approach to education

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

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