Play on the Brain

Over at , where journalist Annie Murphy Paul writes about how we learn, she zeroes in on a recent bit of legislative activityin New Jersey. Apparently, the Senate’s Education Committee has approved a bill, sponsored by State Senator Shirley K. Turner, which mandates a minimum of 20 minutes a day of recess for children from kindergarten through fifth grade.

New Jersey’s children are lucky to have a play advocate in the state capitol, one who’s been doing her homework, as Paul notes:

‘Studies show that recess provides students with core skills needed to succeed in the classroom and in life. Not only does it help students develop cognitive skills, and teach them teamwork, cooperation and communication skills, but it also is essential for the health of our children,’ said Senator Turner, a Democrat and Vice Chair of the Education Committee. ‘It is important that we stop thinking of recess as something that takes time away from learning in the classroom and instead as part of a curriculum that will help our students stay healthy, as well as develop important skills.’

has long been an obsession among the early childhood cognoscenti—and rightfully so.  The benefits to children are many, and its disappearance from their overly structured, frenetic lives is an incalculable loss, with serious repercussions that we’ve only begun to understand.  I’ve weighed in, myself, on “Moving Play up on the Policy Agenda,�? paying homage to the long, and growing, list of advocates in defense of childhood.  But I have to confess that I left a major light out of the picture: Melvin Konner, whose magnum opus, The Evolution of Childhood, which he labored over for three decades, I recently discovered, and hope to get around to reading, athough it threatens to cut into my own play time: a beach book, it’s not.

As Benjamin Schwarz wrote in his Atlantic “Editor’s Choice�? review,

Konner is especially interested in play, which is not unique to humans and, indeed, seems to have been present, like the mother-offspring bond, from the dawn of mammals. The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together. Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.�? It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

When will we ever learn?

Caption: A still photograph from Spirit Ship, a short film by Kristin B. Eno, which showcases the original stories children make up as they go along their journeys, both real and imagined.

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Paid Family Leave: A Work Unfinished

I recently talked with Charles Bruner, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Policy Center in Des Moines, Iowa, a former state legislator, and one of the architects of the initiative, which mentors states in their efforts to design and implement comprehensive early learning systems that best serve the needs of young children and families.

“Families are complex things,�? he told me.  “They don’t fit into regression equations very well. You’re building capacity, but its impact is not always visible.  You have to keep your eye on how… this relates back to the children and their families.�?

What we do know is that the stresses faced by young children and families are increasing—exponentially.  In an released last summer,  Bruner’s Policy Center documented a host of social and demographic trends affecting Iowa’s young children, including population growth, single parenting, poverty, parental education and workforce participation.  As the report points out: “The largest impacts on healthy development are ecological, that is relating to the home and community environment, and the consistency and quality of nurturing.�?

As goes Iowa, so goes the nation?  Such trends are rampant, and our social policies, wholly inadequate.  From birth on up.  Did you know that the U.S. stands with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland in its ?  Here’s the lowdown, from a Spotlight on Poverty commentary, which I co-wrote with Curtis Skinner, director of Family Economic Security at the National Center for Children in Poverty (based on our , released in September, 2012):

In most U.S. households, all adults are in the workforce, two-thirds of dual-earner couples work a combined total of more than 80 hours a week, and nearly 60 percent of women with children under the age of three work outside the home. These demographics starkly highlight the juggling act of contemporary parents, in which job demands increasingly compete with children’s need for care.

This conflict is especially acute for low-income parents, whose jobs offer few family-support benefits. In 2011, just five percent of private sector workers earning in the lowest quartile of wages reported access to employer-sponsored paid family leave. The highest ten percent of wage earners are six times more likely to have access to paid family leave than the lowest ten percent of wage earners.

In a nation where a staggering 44 percent of children live in low-income families and more than one child in five lives in poverty, the repercussions for family well-being and workforce productivity are serious and demand our attention.

Families were front and center earlier this month, as a host of policymakers and advocates marked the 20th anniversary of the , signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Clinton, himself, penned an , touting the economic benefits of paid leave.  “The best antidote to poverty is simple—a paycheck.�? noted , author of .

A heady, self-congratulatory time for all.  But we’re not done yet.

Just before the celebration, in the , Jonathan Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, laments America’s falling fertility rate, and its consequences for the “sustainability of human capital.�?   Among his solutions: “smart pronatalist policies,�? including flattening the tax code, the elimination of universities as credential-making machines, and the improvement of the highway system and opportunities for telecommuting. Huh?  “If we want to continue leading the world,�? he concludes, “we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.�?  James Heckman’s clearly not on Mr. Last’s night stand.

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Head Start Leads the Way to the B.A. Babysitting, You Ask?

The value of the B.A. remains a hot-button issue in the early childhood community, as I was reminded by Lillian Mongeau, over at EdSource.  Forty-eight percent of Head Start lead teachers in California now hold the degree, she reports, up from 27 percent in 2007, the year Congress last re-authorized the federal preschool program for [... click post title to read more ...]

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