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Want To Get Your Kids Into College? Let Them Play.

I am posting this for those of you who would like to see a polar opposite approach to Tiger Mom.  My commentary follows the article.

Editor’s note: Erika Christakis, MEd, MPH, is an early childhood teacher and former preschool director. Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, is a professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard University. Together, they serve as Masters of Pforzheimer House, one of the undergraduate residential houses at Harvard College.

(CNN) — Every day where we work, we see our young students struggling with the transition from home to school. They’re all wonderful kids, but some can’t share easily or listen in a group.

Some have impulse control problems and have trouble keeping their hands to themselves; others don’t always see that actions have consequences; a few suffer terribly from separation anxiety.

We’re not talking about preschool children. These are Harvard undergraduate students whom we teach and advise. They all know how to work, but some of them haven’t learned how to play.

Parents, educators, psychologists, neuroscientists, and politicians generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to preparing very young children for school: play-based or skills-based.

These two kinds of curricula are often pitted against one another as a zero-sum game: If you want to protect your daughter’s childhood, so the argument goes, choose a play-based program; but if you want her to get into Harvard, you’d better make sure you’re brushing up on the ABC flashcards every night before bed.

We think it is quite the reverse. Or, in any case, if you want your child to succeed in college, the play-based curriculum is the way to go.

In fact, we wonder why play is not encouraged in educational periods later in the developmental life of young people — giving kids more practice as they get closer to the ages of our students.

Why do this? One of the best predictors of school success is the ability to control impulses. Children who can control their impulse to be the center of the universe, and — relatedly — who can assume the perspective of another person, are better equipped to learn.

Psychologists calls this the “theory of mind”: the ability to recognize that our own ideas, beliefs, and desires are distinct from those of the people around us. When a four-year-old destroys someone’s carefully constructed block castle or a 20-year-old belligerently monopolizes the class discussion on a routine basis, we might conclude that they are unaware of the feelings of the people around them.

The beauty of a play-based curriculum is that very young children can routinely observe and learn from others’ emotions and experiences. Skills-based curricula, on the other hand, are sometimes derisively known as “drill and kill” programs because most teachers understand that young children can’t learn meaningfully in the social isolation required for such an approach.

How do these approaches look different in a classroom? Preschoolers in both kinds of programs might learn about hibernating squirrels, for example, but in the skills-based program, the child could be asked to fill out a worksheet, counting (or guessing) the number of nuts in a basket and coloring the squirrel’s fur.

In a play-based curriculum, by contrast, a child might hear stories about squirrels and be asked why a squirrel accumulates nuts or has fur. The child might then collaborate with peers in the construction of a squirrel habitat, learning not only about number sense, measurement, and other principles needed for engineering, but also about how to listen to, and express, ideas.

The child filling out the worksheet is engaged in a more one-dimensional task, but the child in the play-based program interacts meaningfully with peers, materials, and ideas.

Programs centered around constructive, teacher-moderated play are very effective. For instance, one randomized, controlled trial had 4- and 5-year-olds engage in make-believe play with adults and found substantial and durable gains in the ability of children to show self-control and to delay gratification. Countless other studies support the association between dramatic play and self-regulation.

Through play, children learn to take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment. By allowing children to imagine walking in another person’s shoes, imaginative play also seeds the development of empathy, a key ingredient for intellectual and social-emotional success.

The real “readiness” skills that make for an academically successful kindergartener or college student have as much to do with emotional intelligence as they do with academic preparation. Kindergartners need to know not just sight words and lower case letters, but how to search for meaning. The same is true of 18-year-olds.

As admissions officers at selective colleges like to say, an entire freshman class could be filled with students with perfect grades and test scores. But academic achievement in college requires readiness skills that transcend mere book learning. It requires the ability to engage actively with people and ideas. In short, it requires a deep connection with the world.

For a five year-old, this connection begins and ends with the creating, questioning, imitating, dreaming, and sharing that characterize play. When we deny young children play, we are denying them the right to understand the world. By the time they get to college, we will have denied them the opportunity to fix the world too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Erika and Nicholas Christakis.

SmartyPantz Commentary

I am currently working on another post regarding Tiger Mom, so I will refrain from discussing her in this one.  I posted this article because I think the authors do a great job of outlining and unpacking how/why play based and developmental programs work well and can certainly teach kids skills that are on par or superior to those in primarily academic settings.  As a teacher who has worked with students age 3 through middle school, I have witnessed a myriad of teaching styles/methods.  Based on my experience, professional philosophy and the research I have reviewed, I agree that play based and developmental approaches to learning in early childhood programs are the best way to open children’s minds, hearts and imaginations to the world of formal school.

The emphasis, however, should be placed primarily on the developmental readiness level of the students as opposed to a program simply offering a play based curriculum.  Teaching geometry to pre-Kindergarten students would prove fruitless.  However, introducing them to patterning, a building block to geometry, would be appropriate and provide students with an experience they can both comprehend and use as a building block to future learning (otherwise known as scaffolding).  I highly suggest visiting for additional information on developmental readiness, especially those parents who are contemplating Kindergarten for their child in the next year or two.

It’s not chronological age, but a child’s developmental age that really points to whether or not he/she is ready to take on the pressure of school.  And, yes, Kindergarten is pressure filled for children and can cause them stress if they are misplaced.  One of the most poignant stories I have to illustrate this point comes from a colleague of mine who taught Kindergarten for over 18 years.  She had a student who was not developmentally ready for Kindergarten and struggled throughout the year.  He just kept repeating that school wasn’t fun.  At the end of the year a group decision, with the consent of his parents, was made to retain him in Kindergarten for a second year.  The following year, a few months into school, this young man bounded up to my colleague and exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me last year that Kindergarten could be so fun!”  It was clear this young man was now in the correct place, regardless of his chronological age.

I could go on for days, but I won’t put you through the pain.  In addition to Gesell, I did write a lesson in Answer Keys:  Teachers’ Lessons for Successful Parenting (my shameless plug of the day- entitled, Developmental Readiness:  Is My Child Ready for School? Parents need all the tools they can get to help them make strong decisions on behalf of their kids.  I hope this information is helpful.  Please feel free to send me questions, as I am happy to answer them or point you in the right direction.  Happy learning!


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael G. January 12, 2011 at 3:39 am

The problem is education trends tend to take on the extreme instead of a balanced approach. A mixture of play-based and skills-based can and sould co-exist. The two can blend in one curriculum and don’t have to be pitted against each other.


smartypantzed January 13, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Excellent point Michael, and I couldn’t agree more. It puzzles me how the pendulum swings so far in either direction and rarely stays toward the middle. Thank you for commenting!


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