Category Archives: Early Childhood Education

The Positive Power of Play

By Emmy Brockman


“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” -O. Fred Donaldson (Pulitzer nominated author, and renowned play researcher)

Last week, at Children’s Creativity Museum, I observed the following scene: A boy – 3.75 years old by his own account – and his mother are building with large soft blocks. I will call the boy Alex. “It’s fort building time!” announces Alex.

“ What kind of fort are we building?”
“ A no more alligator fort!”

Alex runs to the puppet area and comes back carrying two alligator puppets and one dragon puppet. He hands the dragon to his mom. “This fort is not for you!” he tells the dragon. Knock knock knock on the fort. “Is it dragon time?” asks the dragon. A 20-month-old girl then approaches (I’ll call her Kelly), and mimics the dragon, knocking on the fort. Kelly smiles and Alex joins her in knocking. The dragon pokes its nose in the fort and asks, “Is it dragon time now?” Alex pushes the nose away, pushing Kelly down in the process. Kelly’s eyes flit anxiously in the direction of her father for a moment, then she giggles. Kelly carefully regains her feet and Alex models block stacking, explaining, “we are making our fort safe from all dragons”. Kelly holds the block close and slowly practices balancing it on the pile.

What are Alex and Kelly doing? They are conquering dragons. They are using creative problem solving. They are refining their fine and gross motor skills. They are socializing. They are learning about balance, architecture, and math. The are teaching, learning, and sharing. They are exploring new materials. Simply put, they are playing.

Play has many forms and many definitions. I enjoy the following definition, written in 1896 by education philosopher Carlotta Lombroso. “Play is for the child an occupation as serious, as important, as study is for the adult; play is his means of development and he needs to play, just as the silkworm needs continually to eat leaves”. This quote leaves you with the sense that play is essential for a child’s very survival. In fact, in 1948 the United Nations certified this sentiment by declaring play an inalienable right of children. For centuries countless philosophers, educators, researchers, parents, and children have confirmed the value of play.

I am lucky. The task of convincing you that play is important is already done for me. Simply regard any of the following resources for proof:

In fact, a mere Google search of “play-based learning” will turn up countless resources on the educational, social, and developmental value of play, from “How play-based learning can lead to more successful kids” to “Want to get your kids into college? Let them play”.

With all this available research, why then is play-based learning threatened? Ironically, explaining why play-based education is in decline is far more challenging than finding research and advocacy supporting play. An article I recently read entitled LET THE CHILDREN PLAY: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning attempts to explain the decline of play. Some of the reasons cited in the article include:

  • The more classes, teams, and lessons children participate in, the less time there is for free play. The article notices “an increased focus on structured educational and recreational activities, leaving little time for participation in open-ended, self initiated free play.
  • Children learn by taking risks, testing their abilities, and “failing forward” – as we say at the museum. Modern concerns about safety have manifested in formulaic and sterile play spaces.  With this trend, “children find themselves in carefully constructed outdoor playgrounds that limit challenge in the name of safety.”
  • The outdoors is a place of wonder, exploration and discovery. As our world becomes increasingly developed there are fewer wild places left for children to explore. Simply put, “access to outdoor play opportunities in natural environments in neighborhoods is vanishing.
  • Testable skills such as literacy and numeracy are become a greater focus, even in preschool programs. As a result, “the scope of the learning that unfolds naturally in play is limited.”

Boy with Legos

We’ve established that play is important. We’ve also established that play-based learning is in decline.  So, what is the next step? We, as educators, parents, and advocates must stand up for play. Below are some research-based, CCM-tested, suggestions for promoting play.

1. Prepare an environment that promotes play

  • Space: Different spaces encourage different types of play. Large open spaces encourage valuable running and rough and tumble play, while contained spaces encourage equally valuable focused and dramatic play. A mix of these two spaces is ideal.
  • Time: children need long stretches of uninterrupted play. 30 to 50 minutes (at least) are recommended for preschool and kindergarten students.
  • Materials: different ages demand different developmentally appropriate materials, but there is one constant: simplicity rules. A plastic car has a single intended purpose, but a cardboard box can be a million things.

2. Know when to step in and when to step back

  • Step back and let play unfold – Play should be child-directed. Enjoy watching the imagination, creativity, and innovation of children.  Let the play of children inspire you.
  • Step in to engage – if you notice children are unoccupied, bored, or timid step in and initiate play. Ideally this play grow to include other students and you can fade back out.
  • Step in to add challenge – play is an important time to practice and gain competence, but it is also a time to try new things. If play remains static step in and propose a challenge. To remain open-ended this challenge should always take the form of a question. i.e. what would happen if…. I wonder what… could you try…

3. Be playful yourself

  • Laugh! – Play is fun, and children pick up on your reflection of that fun. Laugh! Be silly! The fun need not stop with the children.
  • Play along – Have you heard of the zone of proximal development? Children’s play is advanced by those around them. Provide that next step by modeling it!

Do you have other tools to promote play? Thoughts on the decline of play? Other comments? Questions? Please let me know.

To bookend with an applicable quote:
“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” – Joseph Chilton Pearce

The Most Useful Internship in the World (this is not sarcasm)

by Rachel Levinson
Education Intern

“The idea of being a teacher is that you’ve gotta pass it on. You learn something. You develop some insights. Your experience can be transmitted and that is the nature of civilization.”
– Milton Glaser

Let me start off by saying that I have a passion for education, art, and technology that built me into a strong enough candidate to score the opportunity to be an education intern this summer. The museum drew me in with their San Francisco vibe of forming an open creative community for visitors and staff alike. I am a local student majoring in Art History with a specific interest in museum educational programming. I think  that technology has a way of engaging visitors on a higher level than normal, even if said visitors aren’t as twitter-savvy as the high school tour group in the next gallery. It is hard to know where to start in educational programming, but the CCM internship program gives us the Intro 101 course.

Basically, we are tasked with the duty of creating workshops for visiting groups each week. A workshop is normally held in our Birthday Party room and is an activity that can easily be done within 30 minutes by someone five-years-old and under. Give them a coloring book, you say? Sure we could do that. But how is that activity engaging and challenging enough to push their creative ideas into a new realm? See, this is the programming that I vastly underestimated when I took this internship on.

I have never had to even think about writing a lesson plan before, especially with material and time limits. It is intimidating to tackle these workshops without any previous experience. I applied here in order to get a better grasp on these issues and I want to share some of the main obstacles we face weekly during workshop planning.

One of my favorite workshops (workshop being a group activities station for visiting summer campers 1st grade and under) would have to be the Animal Mix-up. The basic idea is to do a modified Exquisite Corpse by having the kids draw a full animal upon a template, then cut it up into three pieces, and lastly, tape three pieces together to make a new mixed-up animal. Our goal was to help kids focus on fully creating a single creature and then use the mix-up as a way to physically see the benefits of collaboration (even if the collaboration is not direct).

Even though every visitor had a blast drawing and mixing up their animals, there ended up being four distinct problems to our workshop:

  1. Trouble viewing project through to the end: Many times the visitors would not want to cut their animal up show it to others. They still wanted to make a mixed up creature, but did not enjoy the idea of trusting their group members to provide an awesome animal section. This could be attributed to age, but also has ties to the fact that our workshop has more parameters than normal. Throughout the weeks I’ve learned that the less steps in a workshop, the better.
  2. Overwhelmed/Intimidated: We thought that we had planned enough for this problem by doing “ten second animals” three times before introducing the project. Ten second animals is, for example, when you tell them to draw a Buffalo and then they only have ten seconds to achieve a doodle that looks like a Buffalo. It was helpful to show by example rather than sitting around waiting for them to become comfortable with an idea.
  3. Comprehension: It wasn’t too complicated of an idea (from our perspective) since the worksheets we handed out had predesignated thirds with guidelines on where to fit your animal. Wrong again! Drawing an animals body to fit certain points was a hard concept to grasp. Overall I learned, the more freedom with a project, the better.
  4. Organization from Staff: This one is completely on our side (as were the previous three). We had figured it would be easy to switch the heads, middles, and ends but not when the kids decided to switch all at once! This was more of a “Logistics with Children 101” moment that we learned from each time a new group came in.

I realize that some of this blog’s readers are educators and parents, so all of these revelations come to no surprise to you. I, on the other hand, have almost zero experience with educating children and have found each day spent at the CCM as an enormous learning experience. There have been learning moments in educational programming, interacting with visitors, logistics, and professionalism that I would be hard pressed to find in any other type of institution. I almost wish it would be mandatory for business majors to spend a summer doing this kind of work in the same way that I should spend a summer learning accounting as an art history major.

I am truly starting to appreciate not only the amount of work that the education staff does every day but also the work of every teacher/professor I’ve had before.  Basically, my point is that teaching anyone something takes a lot of effort that goes beyond the specific time you spend with them. As with everything, we get better when we learn from our mistakes and I cannot wait to see how my experience here will shape my projects in the future!

Sensory Sensibility: strategies for focusing young minds

By Emmy Brockman

The world is awash in sensory stimuli. Something to see and smell, or touch and taste, in every encounter. It can be overwhelming. An example: last Friday, a friend and I walk into a crowded and cramped cafe.  The kitchen is open and heat radiates from the broad grills. Music plays loudly, while conversations amplify to compete. We are seated in view of 3 televisions – each broadcasting a different channel. The food is scrumptious, subtle, and ample. The crowd, the heat, the music, the conversation, the televisions, the meal. Sensory saturation! In such situations, focus shifts sporadically, the mind wanders, and conversation is taxing. This example begins to illustrate the barrage of sensory input experienced by young children at all times.

According to Maria Montessori, creator of the Montessori education method, young children experience several “sensitive periods” from birth to age 6. Sensitive periods are broadly defined as important times of childhood neurodevelopment. Skills acquired during these periods include language, coordination, and the ability to sort sensory stimuli. This post will focus on that last one, the sorting of sensory stimuli. Montessori notes,

“A child takes in information about the world through his senses. As the brain develops, it becomes able to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant sensory stimuli. The most efficient way to accomplish this is for the brain to pay attention to all sensory stimuli. The most repetitive (and therefore most important) of these will strengthen neural pathways, while the less common, although initially detected, will not provide enough brain activity to develop sensitivity to them.”

In other words, young children (roughly birth to age 4) indiscriminately take in whatever sensory stimuli they are exposed to. Imagine being attuned to every sensory input in your environment, no filter. As adults, our brain’s filter is firmly in place, however, here is an interesting sensory exercise to try. Pause during your day and take stock of each of your senses. Notice what your immediate mind has filtered: perhaps the feel of the chair beneath you, or subtler smells, or sounds of cars passing in the background. Now, imagine doing this exercise in the crowded cafe scenario from the previous paragraph. That is akin to the experience of a 2 year old.

Through this thick mist of senses we, as parents or educators, sometimes want young children to focus. In fact, we often want young children to focus. We struggle with it, stress about it, and are constantly strategizing. Respecting a young child’s sensory exploration while wishing them to focus on a task – putting on their shoes for example – can be a challenging balance. Keeping this in mind, the rest of this post will discuss CCM tested strategies to gain and maintain the attention of young children in a sensory saturated world.

  • Troubleshoot before trouble starts
    • As an educator, I attempt to carefully curate program spaces to mitigate distractions. Reggio Emilia and Montessori education philosophies both stress the importance of a child’s physical environment to encourage learning. Keeping this in mind, program/play spaces can be bright, inviting, and rather austere. There is no need to pack the space with toys, as children need space to move around and the fewer items, the fewer distractions.
  • Out of sight out of mind
    • The immediate sensory input of young children is so engaged that their minds really operate on a “out of sight out of mind” principle. Often grabbing the distracting object and simply sitting on it or putting it on a high shelf will refocus the child’s attention. On countless occasions I’ve wordlessly taken a sharp stick or oozing marker or noisy whistle from a child, stuck it in my shirt, and handed them something else (anything else) in return. Generally the child barely registers the exchange, particularly if they’ve dropped the object before you remove it. The real treat is discovering all these items tucked in my clothing at the end of the day!
  • Make yourself the distraction
    • At Children’s Creativity Museum I lead music and storytelling programs for young children. In hopes of holding young children’s attention, I try to make myself the most interesting thing in the room. Moment by moment this can be accomplished by being highly dynamic:
      • Fluctuate voice pitch and volume
      • Make large body gestures
      • Employ exaggerated facial expressions
      • Play an instrument or switch from a speaking voice to a singing voice
  • Be consistent
  • Manage your expectations and be flexible
    • When planning activities for young children I ask: Is this activity age appropriate? Can I reasonably expect a 2 year old to do this? What is my plan if this does not work? What is my second plan? And third plan?

As CCM’s Early Childhood Specialist, I use these tools everyday, and everyday I am surprised, foiled, outsmarted, and constantly adopting new strategies. Do you have strategies for holding the attention of young children? Leave a comment! I’d love to give them a try!

It should also be noted that this advice is directed primarily at children birth to four years old. Do these strategies work for older children? How might they be adapted for a school aged audience? How is the sensory experience of older children different? What new challenges accompany those differences?

The Praise Problem: A Case for Saying “Goodbye” to “Good Job”

By Emmy Brockman

Good job, you’ve come to the CCM education blog! I like how you clicked all the way here! You did an awesome job navigating! You made it!

How does this praise make you feel? Personally, I find such saccharine statements condescending. Receiving unwarranted praise makes me feel like a small child. I suppose this makes sense, because this is exactly the type of praise we often heap upon children. When enthusiastic praise is encountered in the adult world it is laughable.  For example, a two year old I babysit says, “good job! You did it!” every time I pee in a public restroom. Inevitably, this elicits chuckles from the adjacent stalls. I agree the situation is humorous and absurd, but this young child is merely parroting back what she hears every day.

It was only two years ago that I was shown just how parasitic our “good job” culture is. Prior to this I was your standard praise pusher, and still struggle to find constructive ways to comment on the actions of children. In this post I will discuss the problems with praise as chronicled in several books and articles, issue a call to consciousness about the language we use with children, and finally offer some time tested “good job” alternatives. It should be briefly noted that I approach this topic as the museum’s Early Childhood Specialist, however, I consider these points important at all stages of development and education.

The problems with praise have been discussed in several excellent written works. Alfie Kohn, noted education scholar and author of “Punished by Rewards,” wrote an article for Parents magazine in 2000 entitled, “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job!”. He posits that over praise can serve to: 1. Manipulate children, 2. Create praise junkies, 3. Steal a child’s pleasure, 4. Cause children to lose interest, and 5. Reduce achievement. Before we bring the hammer of doom and gloom down on praise, an important disclaimer must be issued. In the words of Mr. Kohn, “the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely.” Praise, particularly the odious specter of “good job,” is indirect, automatic, and meaningless. Take a child going down a slide for example. I witness this action everyday, and as the child comes squealing down the slide my impulse is to applaud them and issue a smiley “good job!” What purpose, however, do these words serve? The child is accomplishing something well within her ability, having great fun doing it, and she does not require approval or interjection. Isn’t it preferable for a child to feel a personal sense of achievement rather than an external affirmation of “goodness?” The more articles I read about the plague of praise (I recommend these two: Kohn and Dionna) the more I feel like a candy-coated criminal. This is why I have undertaken the challenge of eliminating “good job,” and other such empty vessels of praise, from my vocabulary. I invite and entreat all of you to join me in this challenge.

Adjusting to a “good job”-less world is a challenge, and it can feel like you’re failing to support children. Kids, however, do not need praise. What kids do need, according to Mr. Kohn, is, “unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. ‘Good job!’ is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.” So, if we agree to collectively vanquish “good job”, with what do we fill its ample void?  Below you’ll find several ideas, culled from personal experience, talks with educators, and other blog posts, articles, and books:

  • State what you see
    • I noticed…you used a lot of brown color, you spun around on just one foot, your play dough sculpture feels sharp, you’ve been jumping for more than a minute, etc.”
  • Ask questions
    •  “I wonder…if this square block would fit in your tower?”
    • Can you tell me about…your creation? Your dance? Your song?”
    • Did you notice…the red and blue are mixing together? You climbed higher than my head?”
    • “Do you have a favorite part of your creation?”
    • “What was challenging about this project?”
  • Say simply “you did it!”
    • The accomplishment is the reward. Children should be proud of themselves, not of our approval.
  • Focus on the action
    • “You’ve been working really hard on that drawing”
    • Wow! It seems like you’ve been really practicing…”
    • “That’s not easy
  • Engender empathy
    • Instead of “Good job sharing!” try, “Look at Max, he seems pretty happy to be playing with your truck.”
  • Say “thank you”
    • Not only is “thank you” what we often really mean (“thank you for helping me clean up” rather than “good job cleaning up”) but children mimic the language they hear adults use and “thank you” is a powerful phrase to have on heavy rotation.
  • Remain silent
    • By stepping back we allow greater independent exploration and creativity. This is reward enough.

Do you have other alternatives to good job? Particular techniques you’ve found successful? Other relevant articles? A counter-argument? Please join the conversation.