Play, Learn, Succeed


When I watch my 3-year old grandson playing with his trains, sometimes I feel as if I can see right inside his brain, with gears spinning and lights flashing. I marvel as he makes up stories about getting to Grand Central on time and about how a little engine can pull three passenger cars up a steep hill. He is not only entertaining himself, he’s learning about values . . . about time management . . . about problem solving.

In a report for the Alliance for Childhood entitled “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School,” authors Edward Miller and Joan Almon bemoan recent efforts to eliminate play-based learning from the classrooms of younger children, in favor of “highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests…which could have dire consequences” for children in the long term. According to the authors: “Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than non-players, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking.”

That report and similar studies have been cited by a growing number of early education teachers, pediatricians, and other experts on the growth and development of young children who are standing in opposition to New York State’s incorporation of proficiency assessments for children in grades K-2.

New York is one of a handful of states that has chosen to add K-2 testing to the assessment protocols. This has led to great concern among both parents and early childhood professionals. They are reporting that these young children are exhibiting signs of stress and a lack of desire to attend school. Imagine the heartbreak of families who had shared their children’s excitement about starting school, only to have those same children become fearful of failure right out of the starting gate.

I was privileged to meet Dr. Edward Zigler in 1995, a co-founder of Head Start, and learn about his program, The School of the 21st Century, developed at Yale and implemented in schools around the country. It was this meeting that led to the creation of Rockland Schools of the 21st Century, more commonly known as Rockland 21C, now in its 18th year. The mission of Rockland 21C is to ensure the best possible future for every child by building a comprehensive support system that links family, school and community.

One of the important ways we have accomplished this mission is to follow leading research into children’s brain development to ensure that our programs and partnerships provide each child with the opportunity for optimal, age-appropriate learning experiences.

As reported in the Washington Post, child development experts argue that the Common Core standards that urge assessments of children at the K-2 level are not based on legitimate research into brain development and instead “reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.”

A consortium of more than 500 educators, pediatricians, developmental psychologists, and researchers signed a Joint Statement that expresses “grave concerns about the Common Core Standards Initiative for young children.” They say that this kind of “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens and is actually harmful to children under the age of eight because it minimizes and in some cases eliminates opportunities for learning based on play. They fear that this kind of standardized direct instruction will replace research-based early education models including hands-on exploration, and the development of “social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills which have proven to be the essential building blocks for academic and social accomplishment and responsible citizenship.”

I am not a researcher. But as a parent of four, grandmother of three, and a founder of 21C, I have immersed myself in the ways children learn. I know that for young children learning is based on play: that is their work. These early years are critical to development—and yet no K-3 educators were even consulted with regard to Common Core standards.

Ellen Galinsky, Rockland resident and expert on child development who has done seminal research on the changing workforce and the changing family while on the Bank Street faculty, is the author of some 40 books and reports—most recently Mind in the Making. Her research reveals important insights into the science of early learning and clarifies paths to lifelong learning related to discoveries about brain development and how learning builds on the structure and function of the brain.

Children are not numbers on a ledger. They are not formulas to be plugged into equations to determine anticipated outcomes. They are individuals. Children arrive at school on the very first day from different cultures, different socio-economic backgrounds, different family structures. And even within families, each child has characteristics, likes and dislikes, which make that child unique.

History has shown us that it is that unique potential that has changed the world and that has led to every great discovery that mankind has ever known. If all we can offer our children is a one-size-fits-all education, will we still be able to prepare today’s children to be tomorrow’s leaders in government, science, industry and the arts?

In order to realistically attack and abolish the achievement gap in our public schools, we must provide quality education services to children before they begin Kindergarten. And in order to ensure that the love of learning experienced when a child is young stays alive in him and her, we have to use wisely the knowledge and research on how children learn. It’s not just about giving them the ability to compete in a global economy; it’s about giving them the nourishment, both physical and emotional, that allows them to develop into productive and caring citizens. It doesn’t hurt if they can then look after you and me.

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