I just read an interesting piece in The Atlantic that stressed the importance of creative play. The article includes an interview with psychology professor and writer Alison Gopnik about her latest book The Gardener and the Carpenter that argues that parents should encourage their children’s natural inclination to learn through play. In the interview, Gopnik notes that creativity and innovation come out of play and free exploration, and that such a foundation is critical for future success. And yet, the reality in today’s world is that children are getting less and less time to play as more emphasis is placed on academic performance that often goes beyond the child's development level and cognitive abilities. Play holds a vital role in early childhood. Play is a child's "work" and helps develop the foundation for social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Through creative play, children become independent in learning the powerful lesson of pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion. Play also allows children to internalize important concepts and act out real life in an active, enjoyable, flexible manner that focuses on the process of learning, not the product. It strengthens cognitive connections and allows children to think symbolically. Most importantly, it helps children experience, manage, and deal with often strong emotions that accompany imaginative play. In the longer view, research directly links play to children's ability to master such academic content as literacy and numeracy, as well as contributing to advances in vocabulary, language comprehension, attention span, concentration, problem-solving strategies and group participation. It is heartening to see writers like Gopnik give voice to this important issue.
I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. And again. Training is critical for our early childhood educators. A professionalized, well-trained workforce will help ensure that we, as a nation and as a state, provide our children the level of excellence that effective early childhood education demands. But what kind of training do our early childhood educators need? Traditionally, teachers are taught to focus on developing cognitive skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics, but for young children, learning focused on emotional and social development is of primary importance. Emotional and social development provides the foundation for the development of academic skills. Persistence, maintaining focus during periods of frustration, patience, and perseverance are all essential to learning. That is why children need the most effective instructors to teach them not only facts and figures, but also to help construct the building blocks of emotional competence. Teachers need training on how to help young children develop the emotional and social competencies central to academic and social success. They also must develop their own emotionality—awareness, expressiveness, and regulation skills—in order to model their behavior and reactions for younger learners. At Beginnings School and Child Development Center, we not only begin our year with a week of training, but we continue to train our teachers weekly on these principles. We also provide professional development opportunities for our staff outside the classroom. Why? Training is critical for our early childhood educators.
As a psychologist and founder of a child development center, I work with young children on building emotional competence. Emotional competence, research shows, is a critical foundation in achieving lifelong academic and social success, as well as overall wellbeing. Emotional competence is comprised of emotion knowledge and emotion regulation. Advances in neuroscience show that by three years of age, 90% of a child’s brain has been developed and that during this time, the maturation of the brain is intricately connected to the ability to manage and control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. As the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child noted in 2004, “When feelings are not managed or well regulated well, thinking can be impaired; when the brain is dealing with unregulated emotion, it cannot learn.” In order to teach children emotional competence, we as adults also need emotional competence. As our childrens’ primary socializers, we need to know how to permit and promote appropriate expressions of behavior so that they can learn through the observation, imitation, modeling, guidance, and responsive reaction that emerge out of our close relationships with them. But the reality is that permitting and promoting appropriate expressions of behavior in ourselves can sometimes be difficult, particularly when it comes to expressive language. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard adults mislabel emotions, especially when it comes to anger. While Ryan hitting his sister might make Mommy angry, Mommy, perhaps for fear of being too harsh, tells Ryan instead his actions made her sad. Granularity of language matters, especially when it comes to emotion. A recent article in The New York Times by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, points to studies that show that emotional granularity allows people to be more agile at regulating their emotions. “People who achieve it are also likely to have longer, healthier lives,” she writes. “They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label, and understand their emotions.” Feldman Barrett also points out, as we know so well at Beginnings, that schoolchildren who learn more emotion concepts have improved social behavior and academic performance. Recognition and identification, expression, understanding and regulation are all important parts of emotional competence. To develop it in our children, we need those same skills ourselves. So the next time you are mad at your child for bonking the dog on the head or pulling a sibling’s hair or dumping that lasagna you just burned on the floor, please don’t say you’re sad, if in fact you are angry. Your child will be better off for it.
As adults, when we typically think of play, we embrace the thought of escaping from work, relishing the fantasies of just being able to have fun. Unfortunately for us, we tend to believe that play and work are mutually exclusive. To children, however, play is their "work," and they take it very seriously. As a result, play enables children to acquire some critical developmental skills that can serve them for the rest of their lives. There are many definitions of play, but play here refers to creative, imaginative recreation created and directed by children (such as make-believe play, block play, etc.). Allowing children to self-direct their play gives them creative control and ownership of their domain, allowing them to express themselves in an uninhibited manner. In turn, their curiosity is fed, stretching their minds and promoting further learning. Here is a top 10 list of the benefits of play for young children.
- Dramatic play develops self-control and self-regulation. While play is often associated with freedom, dramatic play is actually self-regulated. Take the example of children playing firemen: if a child begins crying, another child will point out that firemen don't cry and self-control must be exercised if the child is continue to play that role.
- Role-playing increases a child's concentration and attention span. Research shows that a child's ability to control their impulses is stronger when imaging a dramatic scene rather than a non-play situation. When asked to stand still for as long as possible, four-year-old children typically did not make it past one minute. But when asked to imagine themselves as castle guards, the children stood still for as long as four minutes.
- Play is one of the vital signs and contributors of health in children. Many health professionals see a direct link between the decline of active outdoor play and the increasingly alarming rise in childhood obesity.
- Engaging in active and creative play gives children a place to vent their stress and pent-up energy. Many experts feel that the rise in childhood anxiety and aggression can be linked to the increased focus on kindergarten curriculum on standardized testing and the corresponding decrease in indoor and outdoor creative playtime.
- Different types of play cultivate different fundamental developmental skills. "Large-motor" play, more commonly known as playground romping (sliding, climbing, swinging, etc.) develops coordination, balance, and a sense of self-awareness and of the space around oneself. Small-motor play, such as puzzle-making and stringing beads, develops fine-motor control, as well as dexterity. Rules-based play requires children to exercise self-control, as well as perform the social negotiation skills needed to adapt rules to changing scenarios.
- Role-playing promotes observation skills and increases verbal expression. Creating and filling out a fully-fashioned character requires children to drawn on their observations of the world around them. To communicate these observations, they further expand their vocabulary, connecting rules of effective communication with social interactions.
- Through play, children form hypotheses and play the processes to test them. Initiating special projects such as the production of a play or construction of a pillow fort provides invaluable venues for learning at many levels - learning that involves math, literacy, and even the basis of scientific method.
- Play teaches children the importance of pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion. Play allows children to internalize critical concepts and act out real life in an enjoyable, flexible manner that focuses on the process of learning, not the product.
- Play is linked to academic success. Research directly correlates play to children's ability to master such academic content as literacy and numeracy, problem-solving strategies, and group participation.
- Play fosters a child's social and emotional development. Play develops a child's executive center, which controls the higher brain functions associated with social and emotional abilities.
Grit is important. Perseverance, effort, the ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down—these traits matter. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” “No one ever scored a goal without taking a shot.” “Success is dependent on effort.” Pick your adage, the message remains the same: effort brings reward. Grit, as popularized by Angela Duckworth in her recent work, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, is in effect the ability to put forth continued effort despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. What really drives success is not genius, she suggests, but that combination of passion and long-term perseverance. The reality, however, is that the primary ingredients for lifelong success are more expansive and begin within the first several years of life. In his recent New Yorker article, “The Limits of Grit”, David Denby skillfully explains why beliefs like Duckworth’s are misleading because they overlook this critical reality. Denby does give credit where it’s due. As Denby notes, Duckworth and others do acknowledge the now widely accepted role that non-cognitive skills play in the academic and social success of a child. These include not just grit, but also self-control, zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity. But missing in that list of non-cognitive skills is emotional competence. Emotional competence is the ability to be aware of, constructively express, and effectively manage and deal with one’s own emotions and those of others. These skills are fundamental in the development of empathy and self-regulation (the ability to manage and control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors—all critical in learning). So why is it so important to start to develop emotional competence in the earliest of years? Emotion is our first language and 90 percent of the brain is developed during the first three years of a child’s life. Research shows that this phase of “neuroplasticity” is when a child’s brain is most conducive to being shaped and rewired by daily experiences, interactions, and social environment. This development is informed by the interrelatedness of the brain’s emotional and cognitive circuitry. The more we strengthen emotional skills, the stronger the cognitive skills become. In his article, Denby acknowledges the work of Jack Shonkoff, the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, who stresses that children “who do not grow up in an environment of responsive relationships that has buffered them from excessive stress activation” are more likely to lack the foundation necessary for grit and motivation. Denby also points to the work of Paul Tough and others who note that early childhood programs in which adults are responsive to children’s emotional and physical needs can go a long way in helping children (particularly underserved ones) overcome hardship so that they can ultimately learn and succeed. These include programs with home visits by trained professionals who help parents engage meaningfully with their infants and pre-K centers in which babies are treated with affectionate warmth and enfolded. But it is not enough to talk in vague or abstract terms about early childhood programs that are described as responsive or as treating very young children with warmth. We need to be much more specific about how early childhood programs can provide children critical emotional skills. We must implement evidence-based programs that specifically teach emotional competencies—the building blocks for what common parlance now calls emotional intelligence. We must train our teachers to provide our young children opportunities and experiences to learn how to become aware of, constructively express, and effectively manage and deal with their own emotions and those of others. These experiences are critical for building the emotional foundations for learning and for developing a strong, secure and successful sense of self. Grit is helpful, yes. But grit means nothing if children lack the emotional competence that is the basis on which their long-term health, wellbeing, and success is built.
I was delighted last week to read “The Building Blocks of Learning” by New York Times OpEd columnist David Brooks in which he noted that the most important education environment is the one that surrounds children in the first five years, “when the emotional foundations are being engraved,” and that the best programs are responsive, empathetic, and “guide them back to calmness.” We are so thrilled that national discourse is at last recognizing not only the importance of early childhood education but also the importance of learning emotional competence at this phase of children’s development—long our primary focus here at Beginnings School. To create a healthy society in which children become confident and successful contributors, we need to teach them at an early age how to identify, constructively express, manage, and effectively deal with their own emotions and those of others. These skills are critical in the development of self-regulation and should be taught from birth within the context of relationship in a nurturing, sensitive, and responsive environment. These emotional competencies are also pivotal in fostering empathy, kindness, and compassion—traits that today’s society sorely needs. I commend Mr. Brooks for his perceptive observations and for bringing attention to this issue at a time when this country is finally willing to discuss the vital role of early education and its long-term impact on our children’s wellbeing and lifelong success.
I had the honor of running a workshop last week for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) at their annual professional development conference on the topic of training educators to teach self-regulation and the building blocks of emotional intelligence. The workshop underscored both how timely and how critical qualified, well-trained educators are in ensuring that our early childhood education programs succeed both at a local and national level. Teaching children emotion regulation and self-regulation from birth helps develop the neural circuits for emotional intelligence, which are highly associated with executive function. Understanding the teacher’s role as socializer, addressing emotion in real time, and using age-appropriate tools are essential in teaching the emotional competencies necessary for developing emotional intelligence. Some 120 educators and administrators attended my workshop and what most struck me was the number of attendees who approached me afterward to ask if I could provide similar training in their state. Their overwhelming interest in the ECSEL (Emotional Cognitive Social Emotional Learning) approach we employ at Beginnings School and in how we train our educators to deliver ECSEL was indicative of the growing recognition at both a state and national level of our need to put in place the requisite support to effectively provide the quality early childhood education that our country so needs. As the first state to create a department of early education in 2005, Massachusetts is now expressing a similar interest. About ten days ago, the Boston Globe ran a story about House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s efforts around early childhood education. Speaker DeLeo is currently meeting with business leaders to develop a plan on how the state can not only increase access to early education but also improve its quality. A professionalized, well- trained workforce is key to ensuring that we, as a nation and as a state, provide our children the level of excellence that effective early childhood education demands, a need that at last is being given the recognition it deserves.
Beginnings children recently provided more than their two cents in worldwide efforts to help children who need it most. The “Spark Room" purchased red noses for children to wear and bring home as part of the “Fun-Raiser” to provide children-in-need with basic necessities, such as meals, medicine, shelter, books, and glasses. "Red Nose Day is in line with our overall philosophy at Beginnings and our social and emotional learning approach called ECSEL (Emotional, Cognitive, Social Early Learning). From day one, we strive to teach children to be empathetic and to understand the needs of others. We also stress the importance of community, both within our school and outside it,” said Spark Room teacher Linda Lee. The children discussed basic needs that people have and how the purchase of those plastic noses helped in raising money to meet these basic needs. The children wore their red plastic noses with great delight in the classroom before bringing them home at the end of the day. Red Nose Day is one of a number of outreach initiatives at Beginnings, a school for children aged three months to six years that enhances emotional and cognitive development through play, relationships, and hands-on, in-the-moment, learning. Other recent initiatives at the school include Cradles-to-Crayon collections, supplies drives for food pantries and shelters, and holiday gift-giving initiatives.
Initial work on our Discovery Nature Preserve is underway! The outdoor classroom will serve as a serene place for discovery for children to observe nature first-hand. The preserve, located at the front of the Beginnings property, will include:
Nature Art Area | Sensory Garden | Investigation Center | Mud Kitchen
Wildlife Refuge | Messy Materials Zone | Building Space with Discovery Tables
Climbing Area | Music and Outdoor Performance Stage
We are making great progress on our fundraising efforts, thanks to the generosity of our community. At our Annual Art Auction and 30th Anniversary Celebration, we raised more than $15,000 for the preserve. You can still be a part of our efforts by making a donation at any level that you deem appropriate. In addition, we are offering sponsorship levels that will allow your family’s legacy to live on at Beginnings School for generations to come. “Cement” your Legacy | $1,000 Have your child’s handprint, name and other desired language imprinted into a stone, used in our outdoor classroom. (19 available) “Sweeten” the Pot | $5,000 Our maple trees will become a teaching tool as students learn how trees grow and maple syrup is made. After naming one of many maple trees in your family’s name, you will also receive a bottle of your very own syrup every year once the trees start producing. (5 available) Build for the Future | $10,000 Your family’s name will be part of our bridge or tree house in the Discovery Nature Preserve. These naming opportunities also allow you to lock in Beginnings School 2016 tuition rates for your children, and their children, in perpetuity, so future generations in your family can enjoy all the benefits of a Beginnings education. (1 available) Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get more details.
Beginnings School is holding its Annual Art Auction and 30th Anniversary party. It will be a great event. Come to our celebration to:
- Learn about and support our new Discovery Nature Preserve
- Find out about exciting research around Social and Emotional Learning and the impact it has on your child’s success
- Bid on great art work by renowned artists and Beginnings students
- Or simply socialize with Beginnings friends, new and old!