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Early Childhood Opinion

Educating Children in the New Millennium: Child’s Play

By Steven T. Webb — October 08, 2007 6 min read
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Our 3-year-old daughter, Tess, is in love. Her passion is the Wiggles, a children’s performance group from Australia. Last year, she was in love with Jeff Wiggle, who wears the purple shirt. Her new crush is Sam Wiggle, who wears the yellow shirt. Recently, as we were saying grace before dinner, Tess told us one thing she was thankful for. You guessed it—“the yellow Wiggle.”

We know our daughter is constructing mental “maps” based on her experiences. Jean Piaget, the child psychologist, described this early-childhood development stage as “pre-operational.” He theorized that a child’s mental models, or cognitive structures, are based on the child’s activities; engagement makes meaning. Free, unstructured play is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones. Piaget’s theory is based on the idea that the developing child builds cognitive structures known as mental maps or schemes for understanding and responding to physical experiences.

What is known as constructivism postulates that by reflecting on our experiences, we develop our own understanding of the world. Each of us generates our own mental models to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences. Constructivist teaching focuses on creating experiential and engaging activities for students, such as participating in a science fair. This kind of learning also involves an element of play.

Imagine what is possible when a community focuses its development efforts on attracting the creative class and building the creative economy.

What does any of this have to do with educating millennial children? Many students today are not benefiting from a balance of intellect and imagination. As an American Academy of Pediatrics report published last January notes, changes in the family structure, the highly competitive college-admissions process, and federal education policies have led to reduced time for recess and physical education in many school systems, a fact that has reduced free play and unscheduled time for children.

Even worse, some school systems have reduced or eliminated curricular art programs that look like play to some people. Increasingly, research in neuroscience suggests that the arts (and play) have a significant impact on students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development. From a Piagetian perspective, we know this is true in theory. But recent developments in neuroimaging technologies (brain-based research) have added another important dimension to our knowledge, by allowing scientists to observe how various processing systems in the brain collaborate. Not only do play, the arts, and physical education have inherent value—new technologies demonstrate a significant link between artistic and cognitive development.

During the brain’s early years, neural connections are made at a rapid rate. Much of what young children do as play—singing, dancing, painting, drawing, acting—are natural forms of art. I see this in Tess every day. She learns through play: artistic play. In fact, it’s how she learned her ABCs. High-quality early-childhood programs are grounded in the arts, play, and experiential learning.

When children enter school, art experiences must continue. As David A. Sousa, a former superintendent and the author of How the Brain Learns, writes: “The arts are not just expressive and affective, they are deeply cognitive. They develop essential thinking tools—pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical, and metaphorical representations; careful observation of the world; and abstraction from complexity.” My daughter Tess can’t explain her process of learning in those terms, but she does some of what is listed here as she finger-paints portraits of the Wiggles. She does it with dance, too, as she “romp bompa chomps” her favorite Dorothy the Dinosaur dance. She is not only mimicking behavior, she’s engaged in improvisational dance.

What’s the implication for schooling in the beginning of the new millennium? We must think differently about teaching and learning. Today’s students need to know more about the world and how to act as global citizens, particularly in this increasingly complex, global economy. They need practice in interdisciplinary thinking, because that is how innovation occurs. They need to become smarter about new sources of information. Kids need to learn how to rapidly process information and distinguish between what’s reliable and what’s not. In a world where information access is ubiquitous, discernible use is essential. And they should develop good people skills. They must emerge from school skilled in communication, empathy, relationships, teamwork, and cultural competency.

Daniel H. Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, identifies three forces shaping the new economy: abundance, Asia, and automation. He poses three questions that should serve as our wake-up call: “1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper? 2. Can a computer do it faster? 3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?”

If the answers to questions 1 and 2 are yes, and the answer to 3 is no, we’re in trouble.

Pink identifies a different set of skills necessary for people to thrive in what he calls the “conceptual age”: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. What type of worker will thrive in the new economy? According to Pink and other leading scholars, the most successful workers will be members of the so-called “creative class”: artists, inventors, programmers, designers, storytellers, and big-picture thinkers.

Many students today are not benefiting from a balance of intellect and imagination.

Imagine what is possible when a community focuses its development efforts on attracting the creative class and building the creative economy. The result is much like New York City’s SoHo district, Denver’s LoDo, and Portland, Ore.’s Pearl District: artsy, expensive, and expansive.

Richard Florida, a leading researcher on the rise of the creative class, says that today, some 40 million Americans work in the creative economy, roughly a third of total employment. The creative economy accounts for nearly $2 trillion in wages and salaries, according to his calculation.

Thomas L. Friedman, in his huge best-seller The World Is Flat, writes, “In engineering specifically, universities in Asian countries now produce eight times as many bachelor’s degrees as the United States.” We also know that China’s economy continues to boom—by roughly 10 percent GDP over the past two years. Forecasts predict a slower growth rate of 7 percent to 8 percent for 2007. This is double to triple the predicted growth rate for the U.S. economy.

Innovation, a blending of intellect and imagination, has catapulted and sustained America’s place as the dominant economic force in the global economy. So, in spite of the “flat world,” consider this fact in a recent story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reported from Zhejiang Province, China: “While Americans wonder how China can produce so many engineers, the Chinese wonder why, with so many engineers, they still cannot win a Nobel Prize.” We must pay attention to rigor and world-class standards in mathematics and science, but not at the expense of those disciplines that develop and nurture creativity. Innovation and entrepreneurship will sustain America’s leading role in the world.

Schools, and what happens in them, are vital to our children’s future success. We must design schools that will prepare young people to thrive in the 21st century, to master rigorous literacy, math, and science standards and have the ability to think critically, be creative, and respond to new challenges with agility. Those are the keys that will unlock doors for our young people. We simply need to pause long enough to listen and observe—child’s play.

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