How Our Children Really Learn And Why They Need To Play More And Memorize Less

By: Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D.

Now that we know the scientific data about how children's brains develop, several lessons emerge. One is a cautionary note, and the others offer ways in which you can see the world differently and stimulate your child's brain growth in a more natural way.

Let the buyer beware! Don't let yourself be taken in by the messages about enhancing your baby's brain development that appear on flashy product lines. Just as sex is used in advertising to sell products to adults, marketers have figured out that brain development sells to parents. There is no evidence, however, that particular educational programs, methods, or techniques are effective for brain development.

For example, listening to Mozart is not bad for your child. That is, if you like Mozart, there is no harm in playing it and exposing your child to music. But you could just as well sing lullabies, play Simon and Garfunkel, the Indigo Girls, or any other band you like. Music is wonderful. There is no doubt about it. But the evidence from research says that listening to Mozart, Madonna, or Mama Cass will not make your child a math genius or budding architect, or even increase his general intelligence.

Think outside the box -- literally. Your child will learn more when you play with him than when you buy him fancy boxes containing self-proclaimed "state-of-the-art" devices with exorbitant claims to build his brain. So what is an appropriate way to use playtime? Take your cues from your children. By taking the time to notice what they are interested in, you can begin to see the environment in a whole new way, as a series of natural opportunities that are stimulating your children at all times. You can then build on these opportunities to make them even more enriching.

Switch from Sesame Street to Barney and Teletubbies. We love Sesame Street, but there are also lessons in slow-moving, repetitive programs like Barney and Teletubbies that children enjoy. The developers of the famous show Blue's Clues, for example, actually studied what children prefer in order to make their episodes maximally appealing. They found that children love repetition. Indeed, although it may be deadly for us (how many of us have fallen asleep midsentence?), children love to hear the same stories night after night -- they get something new each time and enjoy finding predictable patterns. Furthermore, recent research suggests that limited (1 hour a day) educational television actually has advantages for our children, and these advantages show up in later reading and number skills when our children enter school.

Here's your assignment: Watch an educational program with your children and see what they enjoy. Research indicates that children get more out of television when their parents watch alongside them. What does your child find exciting in the show? Use it to build on your child's interests. Perhaps take out some children's library books on those topics. These interests can also yield conversational material your child will love to talk about.

Move from memorizing to learning in context. If we really want to promote learning and brain growth in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, we must help them learn in context and not through flash cards. Memorizing does not do the trick and often is mistakenly thought to be true learning. One example of toddler "genius" comes to mind. This child was touted by his mother as an extreme intellect -- a child who could already read many words just after his third birthday. He was asked to visit the neighborhood psychologist, who happened to be me, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, to show off his academic talents. When he arrived, he showed me his Speak and Spell, and the mother proceeded to have him read each word (book, shoe, cup . . . the list went on). After the performance, I applauded and asked the child to go to my television, on which the familiar words "color, volume, channel" were written in large letters. I politely asked him to read these. After all, a child who truly knows how to read should be able to read any new word. You can read the nonsense word "thurld" because you know the sounds of the letters and how to combine them. However, the child got so flustered after looking at the words on the set that he fled, and the performance was over. He had learned how to memorize words, perhaps from their shape (for example, "ball" has two tall letters), but he had not really learned to read.

There is no pressing need to have our children read before they go to school. But if we read to them and for them when they ask us what is written on that cereal box or street sign, we are implicitly teaching that reading is fun and has utility. This is what we mean by learning something in context. The other "reading" is simply memorization and has little merit beyond the performance. Thus, some of the gadgets and gizmos on the market offer wonderful opportunities for performing, but fail to create genuine learning. Learning is always more powerful and lasting when it occurs in context.

Plan a field trip -- to your own backyard. It's great to travel to exotic locations or expensive theme parks, but we don't have to go there to build brains. We can get a tremendous amount of stimulation in our own backyards, where we can witness the miracle of blades of grass blowing in the wind, of ants building homes, of all that teaming life that lives right down in the dirt. The film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids illustrates the wonderful hidden life that goes on beyond our notice. For children, the yard is a world of bustling activity, science lessons, physics lessons, and lessons about nature and color.

While you're in the backyard, you can stimulate creativity in your 4- and 5-year-olds by asking them to imagine what it would be like to be the size of an ant. What would look different? What could you hear? What would you be afraid of? Children often love to imagine the fears others may have, so they know they're not alone.

And along these lines, ask them if they can hear the music of the backyard. Are there instruments to be made from sticks and stones? Whistles from leaves and rhythms from the raindrops? Bring out a blanket and lie down with your eyes closed. What can you hear? Do you hear the leaves rustling in the wind? A bee buzzing? A car grinding? The timpani of thunder? The chickadees' chatter and the mockingbirds' trills? Even 2-year-olds love these games.

Where do the animals and insects in your yard live? Discover each creature's home. In a wonderful book, A House Is a House for Me by Mary Anne Hoberman, the author asks us to think about a house for a bee and a house for a bird. How do the animals build their homes? Can our 4-and 5-year-olds build nests, too? Would they like to tell us about something they saw that we could write for them? Children love to tell stories as we type them into the computer. "Can we make up stories together about Irving the Ant and how he finds his friend Libby on the forest floor?" There are hours and hours of fun and games in each patch of backyard, no matter how small. And if you can find this much in your backyard, imagine the stimulating environment you'd encounter at the zoo. Or at a children's museum.

Move from city malls to tennis balls. Sure the malls are fun for us, but they are a buzzing and blooming confusion for our children. Imagine what it must be like to be in a world where all of the people tower over you, where the sounds and the colors rush by, and where adults are more interested in their friends than they are in you. There is no reason to exclude the mall, but we often fail to realize what we can do with everyday objects that surround us all the time. Furthermore, what do you do in the car as you travel to the mall? This is a wonderful time to play children's music on your tape or CD player and sing along. When your child is a little older, you can play the "I Spy" game. "I spy a . . . dog!" "I spy a . . . policeman!" Oops, mommy better slow down.

At home, an activity as simple as rolling a ball back and forth on the living room carpet can be fascinating to your young child. How do you roll it so that it lands near the other person? How hard do you have to push? What is the angle you have to use? Will the ball hit other objects along its trajectory? This is experience-expectant learning at its best, with physics and math concepts thrown in for free. And it costs no more than the price of a ball.

And before you spend $25 on that educational toy at the mall, think of all the things you have around the house that baby will find very stimulating indeed. Pots and pans and plastic containers are a blast in the kitchen and make a great symphony with a wooden spoon (we never said this would be restful). Laundry baskets on their sides are great for climbing in and out of, as are the large boxes that appliances arrive in. For some reason, children love hiding in and under things and climbing in and out. Blanket forts made by spreading a blanket over a few chairs can be fun for hours if you join in the make-believe and make it grandma's house. Adding a pillow and a few stuffed animals and books inside can make it a friend's house or a room at preschool. And why do babies always like to pull things out of drawers? To see what's inside! Take one low drawer and fill it with surprising and fun things (stuffed animals, books, cars, pictures of family members, and so on) that you change periodically, and let baby have a ball unloading it all. Never underestimate the power of ordinary objects when examined with a child's eye. For children, they are not ordinary at all. And these experiences -- free and fun and unfettered with concerns about doing something educational -- all build better brains.

Reprinted from Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn - And Why They Need to Play More And Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D. C 2003 Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

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