Shael Polakow-Suransky & Nancy Nager: Playful Classrooms are Our Smartest Investment

“It has long been noticed that the smartest mammals—primates, cetaceans, elephants, and carnivores—are the most playful,” anthropologist and neuroscientist Melvin Konner wrote in his epic work, The Evolution of Childhood.  But as all early educators know: these are tough times on the playing fields.

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The work of children is disappearing, the casualty of trickle-down education reform policies that have foist worksheets, drill skills, and standardized “bubble” tests on our youngest students.  This process is by no means a new phenomenon,  but the pace has accelerated mightily in the years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  And the damage to the developmentally appropriate practice that early childhood holds dear has been well-documented.

It’s always been tough to convey what this practice looks like to untrained, skeptical eyes, of which, alas, there are many. How and what are they learning, everyone wants to know. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the new president of Bank Street College of Education—a bastion of progressive theory and practice—and Nancy Nager, a longtime member of the school’s faculty, have done a masterful job of describing “what it looks like” in their essay in the New York Times.  Here are some snippets, but read the rest:

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.

The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).

I don’t know about you, but I’m a happy camper today.


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Bill de Blasio’s Pre-K Expansion: A Model for Other Cities?

Universal prekindergarten is a hot topic these days, stirring up big emotions. Do we target scarce resources to those children most in need? For about a year, I was stalked on Twitter by a woman who fiercely believes that’s the way to go.  Anytime I mentioned the words “universal,” or “preschool for all,” she was there, haranguing me for my wrong-headed response. This was often, as you might imagine.

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Or do we make preschool available to all? Many argue that the only way to ensure sustainability is to get buy-in from middle class parents.  This policy debate has been long-standing, and vociferous.   But ever since Oklahoma began offering free, voluntary access to preschool programs for all 4-year-olds in 1998, we’ve been trying to find the answer.

Now all eyes are on New York City, and the panic is palpable.  What happens if we fail? We need a big win with impeccable implementation and outcomes, the naysayers warn.  We’re putting the whole enterprise of early childhood education at risk.

But where’s the long view?

Education and social reform efforts play out differently over time and space, their trajectories singular, and outcomes indeterminate.  All politics, as the saying goes, is local.

Bill de Blasio’s prekindergarten initiative is a bold experiment, the star element of a strategy to combat inequality.  Not surprisingly, he’s on the hot seat.  Critics say there’s no method to his madness; they predict a train wreck, the result of a rapid scale-up—a sacrifice of quality for access.  An emergent early childhood workforce must be educated and certified. Real estate is at a premium, leaving little space for the system’s four-year-olds, many of whom are educated in community-based organizations in the most segregated school district in the country.  It’s a “big lift,” in the words of Richard Buery, deputy mayor of strategic policy initiatives, one in which “there will be lots of things we won’t have solved.”

But those waiting for derailment ignore the state’s history and context.  They also leave out New York City’s parents, including those in the middle class, whose budgets are strained by preschool fees on par with college tuition.  Universal early education has languished on a starvation diet since 1997, when Republican Governor George Pataki enacted legislation. De Blasio has tapped into a vein of need and dissatisfaction, seizing the moment.  Whether his method is replicable is anyone’s guess; it may well be beside the point.   He is exporting a model of government as a force for change in a time of political sclerosis, confirming early childhood education as a public good.

A version of my answer to the question posed in this blog’s title was published in The Weekly Wonk, a digital magazine and podcast at the New America Foundation.  For my response, and those from other “wonks,” you can check in right here.

P.S. I would love to hear what you all think about the universal vs. targeted question, and how de Blasio’s initiative and other pre-K efforts across the country are playing out on the ground.  Let me know!


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The Case Against Summer Vacation: Something Smells Fishy

This week, as kids and adults were wilting in the heat, Christina Duncan Evans, a high school teacher in Baltimore, made the case against summer vacation.  “With so many huge education-reform ideas under discussion,” she asks, in a piece at Education Week, “why isn’t altering summer vacation on the table?”

Evans talks of the loss of [... click post title to read more ...]


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