In gathering and reviewing a large body of research on which non-academic factors lead to success in early adulthood, researchers from The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that early experiences can have a profound effect.
- Agency, which is the ability to determine the course of one’s life “rather than simply reacting to external forces.”
- Integrated identity, which is a strong sense of self and an “internal compass” for making decisions that are consistent with one’s values and goals.
- Competencies, which are what it takes to be productive and adapt across settings.
In asking how children come to develop those characteristics, researchers found evidence that several particular childhood experiences can help.
First, children need to try lots of new things and interact with different kinds of people. Whether this means playing on a youth sports team, creating art with a wide variety of materials, or going on hands-on field trips, early experiences help children to “develop awareness of themselves, others, and the world.”
Closely related, children also need to be allowed to design, build, experiment and play. While play is widely recognized as important in preschool and kindergarten, researchers worry that the concept becomes lost by 1st grade.
“There is little opportunity to tinker in formal K-12 settings,” the report states. “This is a mistake, because opportunities to be creative are indispensable to children’s learning.”
Next, young children must practice the things they want to improve at, ideally with regular adult feedback so that mistakes do not become ingrained as a result of repetition. “Practice not only builds expertise over time, but also reinforces motivation for continued learning,” according to the report.
The old adage, practice makes perfect, is apparently true not only for perfecting the task one is practicing, but for developing the critical adult ability to practice and improve.
Finally, it is important for children to be given the chance to make their own choices and contribute to group decisions or activities. That doesn’t mean parents and teachers should be held hostage to a child’s every whim. But if there’s an opportunity to allow choice—Would you like to wear red socks or blue ones? Should we play outside this morning or inside?—it should be given.
The same goes for contributing. Children are often the recipients of items and activities designed for them, but it’s important for them to contribute to the functioning of larger groups as well.
“When young people have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions that are valued by others, they gain self-confidence and come to see themselves as capable,” the report states.
That can mean sharing an opinion that is listened to, helping clean up a shared space, or actually participating in volunteer work and giving to others.
Like much research into what experiences best help develop character, these guidelines are ones many parents and teachers have followed intuitively for years. Still, sometimes it’s nice to know you’ve got the science on your side.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.