Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the Society for Research and Development’s biennial meeting, where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
The pressure to over-program kids often seems endless – so much so that a simple, old-fashioned idea has fallen to the side: Children should play. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff & Kathy Hirsh-Pasek – researchers and co-authors of “Becoming Brilliant, What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children” – explain their “Learning Landscapes” program, where they help local municipalities turn public spaces like bus stops into child-friendly play zones. Filmed for Early Learning Nation’s Mobile Studio at the Society for Research in Child Development’s biennial meeting in Baltimore, MD, on March 22, 2019. #SRCD19
Chris Riback: Kathy, Roberta, thank you for coming to the studio.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: Our pleasure.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Thank you.
Chris Riback: Kathy, why is “play” a four-letter word?
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Well, it shouldn’t be a four-letter word.
Chris Riback: It shouldn’t be a four-letter word. So what happened? What’d we get wrong?
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: I think it became “just” play when people got worried…
Chris Riback: Modified with “just.”
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Yes, modified with the “just.” We became a more global society. People started to worry and have fear that, oh my gosh, if my kids are playing rather than working, they’re going to fall behind every other kid on the block.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: They didn’t want that, because all of us want our kids to go to MIT, and Harvard, and start now in the proper pre-school.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Then the toy companies caught on, and they thought, well, this is a great opportunity. Let’s monopolize on the fear. Let’s market that we can help these kids get ahead. And all of a sudden, toys started to morph more into workstations than into toys themselves. Then you got the educational toy market.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: Might I react to what Kathy just said? I just attended James Heckman’s talk, he’s a Nobel prizewinner, economics, and he studies early childhood. One of the things that he emphasized in his talk was that, in our field, it used to be the case that IQ ruled.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: And now the findings are showing that it’s not about IQ, it’s about social/emotional development, it’s about perseverance, it’s about executive function. And these are all the things that develop in the context of play.
Chris Riback: What is play? What defines play?
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: It has to have an imaginary component. It’s done voluntarily. And it doesn’t have any kind of a specific goal.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: There’s also a more niche definition that we put out last year. That you’re active, not passive, when you play. You’re engaged in something that’s focusing in, you’re in your flow.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: We can have free play at one end of that spectrum. And then you can have what we call guided play, that actually has a learning goal in mind, but allows the child to be the director of the learning.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: And then you go to games, well, the games are well thought out, these board games, and things.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: Right.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: But the kids are also having fun while they’re doing it. And you can go all the way up to non-play, or direct instruction.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: We’re not Luddites.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: We are not Luddites.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: We are firmly in favor of, where’s my cell phone, and, you know. But doing puzzles is great for kids, especially if they do them with adults. Because the adults casually impart important information, like, “Is that an edge piece?”
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: Playing with blocks is a wonderful thing for children to do. And when parents do it with them, they naturally talk to their kids. Kids pick up all kinds of concepts.
Chris Riback: With that context, what are Learning Landscapes?
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: Oh, Playful Learning Landscapes is where smart cities and human development meet. What we’re about is changing the landscape of cities so that there are places that children and families can go, and without being teachy-preachy, can engage in activities that will feed right into their learning and conversation.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Let me build on that. What if you could move the learning outside? That stimulation that would occur in so many places, out into public spaces.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: They don’t have to be destinations. They have to be invitations from public spaces to engage with the very puzzles, with the very blocks, with the very … impulse control … hopscotches, that we can create right there at a bus stop, right there in a library, right there in a park.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: So the big virtue of Playful Learning Landscapes is, it’s free and it’s in kids’ neighborhoods.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: And it’s not a destination.
Chris Riback: So give me an example. West Philadelphia?
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: So, in West Philadelphia, we had an idea. And that idea was, if you have to use the bus stops, why are bus stops just benches where people sit?
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: And if you watch what goes on at a bus stop…
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: Wait, I’ll demonstrate. [Acts like playing with smart phone]
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: It’s like this. Two people, like this.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: And the kid is wandering around.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Or looking at another cell phone.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: If they’re old enough, yes.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Yes. Okay, so that’s what’s going on in our environment right now.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: So we re-imagined it. And we asked if you could build a puzzle wall at a bus stop. Could you put something down in the ground where the kids were getting active and playing a game like hopscotch?
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: And could that hopscotch be designed so that you could ask the kids, where you see two feet, use one. Where you see one, use two. So if they’re cleverly designed with the learning science embedded in the architecture itself. It invites conversations between parents and children.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: One more piece: The community has to be involved. And it has to be culturally relevant.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: So at this bus stop, over 100 community children helped us to build it. Community members picked the spot that was important to them. A spot where Martin Luther King had given one of the first freedom march speeches. And so our puzzles are Martin Luther King.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: But it gets better. We took findings from the science of learning and turned those into things that kids and families can play at.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: And, secondly, we actually did an experiment. We compared the amount of talk that children and parents did in our Playful Learning Landscape’s installation compared to a playground that was also right in the neighborhood. And that attracted people from the same demographic.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: And we know from that how much … For example, STEMs: science, technology, engineering, and math language … comes out in the context of our Learning Landscape installations, compared to the playground.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: So these come out of, eventually, metro budgets. But what do they do? Well, our hope and prayer is that we’re going to be able to lift up a neighborhood so that these homes will then allow their kids to get that stimulation in the public spaces.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: And we’ll begin to narrow the very, very long held, since the 1970s, achievement gap. And narrow it. At the core of everything we know in the science, it’s that we learn through a brain that has been evolutionarily prepared to interact with human beings.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: So the more we can stimulate that interaction, and the more we can direct it, or target it towards certain outcomes, the better off our children will be. And the more opportunities to thrive. Dream about what cities can be, and that’s where we take Playful Learning Landscapes.
Chris Riback: Thank you both. Thank you for your work. Thank you for stopping by the studio.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: Sure, thank you.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff: Oh, it was fun. Thank you, thank you.