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Forget the Flashcards, Remember Imagination

Susan Notes: What a delight: To see an article advocating young children's play in a mainstream newspaper. Now let's let older kids play too.

IT'S SAID that play is the work of children. Now we're taking their jobs away.

That's the thesis of Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. The two developmental psychologists were at the Port Discovery children's museum Thursday. They came to promote play.

They had an appreciative audience repeating after them: "Play equals learning! Play equals learning!"

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff have co-authored a delightful book, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, which decries our Roadrunner society's fixation on teaching kids to read and compute before they're potty-trained, prepping them for Harvard before they can tie their shoes, viewing a "Baby Einstein" video before they know their colors.

"Children are getting older younger," said Hirsh-Pasek. And she's right. We're a society obsessed with quantifiable learning results, the earlier the better. The late Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) observed that "people talk about play as if it were a relief from serious learning or even worse: a waste of time." Children don't play as much as they used to, and when they do it's often alone, on one of those electronic toys that talk in a monotone when you press the green button.

Earlier in the week, I got a call from Meg Carter, who had just returned from her daughter's kindergarten classroom at Fifth District Elementary School in Baltimore County. An older daughter, a senior this year, had attended kindergarten in the same school, so Carter was in a position to compare the kindergarten of 2004 with that of 13 years ago.

Then: much more informal. Now: heavy emphasis on reading and math. Then: lots of playing with simple items like blocks. Now: flashcards with 70 words parents are expected to have children master at home.

"My daughter goes to a wonderful school with wonderful teachers," said Carter, "but I think the concentration on academics so early is a mistake. We've lost something really precious along the way."

Jennifer Miller, an education coordinator at St. Jerome's Head Start in Southwest Baltimore, was a panelist at the Port Discovery event. Miller said Head Start teachers are "under tremendous pressure" to boost the academic skills of children, age birth to 5, in their charge.

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff attribute much of what they call a "crisis" to changing family living patterns. Children and parents in many families don't dine together; nearly a third of young children have television sets in their bedrooms, the authors say. A quarter of the nation's sixth-graders watch television 40 hours or more a week. And they're not watching public TV.

The two professors, Hirsh-Pasek at Temple, Golinkoff at the University of Delaware, say a child's EQ - emotional quotient - is just as important as a child's IQ, and the disappearance of play damages the EQ.

"The fear, the guilt and the scientific sound bites have created a panic in parents and educators," they write. "We need to let our children live their lives, rather than view each and every moment of their lives as part of a grand plan for their future."

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff are part of a developing backlash against the movement to teach kids academics in infancy (even in the womb). The counter-movement caught fire about five years ago, when John T. Bruer's The Myth of the First Three Years debunked the notion that all is lost if a child isn't in intellectual high gear by the age of 3.

Vivian Gussin Paley, a kindergarten and nursery school teacher for 37 years, is just out with a compelling little book, A Child's Work, which makes the case for the role of fantasy play in children's lives. (Paley will speak at Park School on Sept. 28.)

The message of all of these observers is the same: Parents, lighten up. Your child will probably grow up and succeed if you fail to engage in "fetal parenting" or to pipe Mozart into the bassinet. Relax. Take your children to play at a museum like Port Discovery. Let your children enjoy childhood.

— Mike Bowler
Baltimore Sun


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