As an early childhood educator, I have been following the “First 2000 Days” project (a year-long Cleveland Connects initiative of Northeast Ohio Media Group, The Plain Dealer Publishing Co. and Ideastream), with significantly greater interest than I have been giving other media highlights. The research findings that frame the project, in fact, support very different predictors of achievement in the Primary years than the current trend in public education toward high-stakes testing and increasingly stringent curricular standards.
In listening to the team of impressive and articulate experts in the field of early learning encapsulate these findings in a special discussion at the Ideastream studios on October 19 (if you missed the PBS airing, you can check out highlights of the entire Cleveland Connects initiative here) I found myself mentally moving to a starting point beyond the first three years of a child’s life, and looking backwards—something like taking apart a nesting doll. For those of us in early childhood education, the question that we are perpetually left with as we watch our young students move on is, “Have we given them the tools they need to navigate the road ahead?” We are in the enviable position at Hathaway Brown, however, of being able to watch our EC graduates do just that, becoming joyful, successful learners as the school years unfold. So what were the early experiences that made the difference?
According to the “First 2000 Days” research findings (enthusiastically endorsed by our successful young EC graduates) our project-based learning model, which engages the children in purposeful, exploratory play, sets the standard for success. Panelist Katie Kelly, Director of PRE4CLE (Preschool for Cleveland), emphasized that “Children play to learn. We all play to learn.” Dr. Robert Needlman, pediatrician at MetroHealth, author of “Dr. Spock’s Baby Basics,” and co-founder of “Reach Out and Read,” (and former HB dad!) added simply that if you want your child to be a successful learner, “play more,” citing research supporting the importance of “deep” play that involves exploration, discovery, inquiry and collaboration (our experts noted, by the way, that electronic devices do not meet these criteria.)
The scientist who has studied the neural circuitry of play in greatest detail may be Jaak Panksepp, at Bowling Green University. Dr. Panksepp’s research findings indicate that play “fertilizes the growth of circuitry in the amygdala and frontal cortex,” significantly impacting cognition, as well as refining the ability to work collaboratively—in fact, “hurling children into sociability.” Dr. Panksepp further makes the point that this “social circuitry” of brain pathways results in a higher emotional intelligence, translating into a kind of charisma—adults as well as children are drawn to spend more time with those who have abundant practice playing.
Children, however, are unlikely to enter into play in a new situation until they are feeling secure and comfortable, any more than we would be inclined to jump into a conversation with strangers at a social gathering. Daniel Goleman, in his book, Social Intelligence, states that “our sense of security and our drive to explore are entwined—and the more daunting the goal of our explorations, the more we may need to draw on the support of our base.”
William Isler, Founder and CEO of the Fred Rogers Company, and a panelist on the October PBS “First 2000 Days” forum in Cleveland, brings it all back to the fact that “relationships are critical.” The most compelling learning environment, expertly designed to build a better brain, will be the equivalent of a party that nobody comes to if a child feels insecure and disconnected.
I stepped into an EC classroom today during rest time, when I never stay long, because the low lights and soft music affect me like the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz. All the children were asleep, except for one of the youngest, who was cuddling in a teacher’s lap with her blanket. “She misses mom,” the teacher said simply. I knew that a few weeks back, this same child would have been inconsolable at such a precarious time during her day, when the safe haven of home and mom is so reassuring. The fact that she was able to literally embrace her teacher as another source of comfort, however, meant that she could also begin to playfully and happily engage in the classroom—the kind of play, as Panksepp says, that is “the brain’s source of joy.”