Blocks are the anti-app

One child's stage is another student's obstacle course. Preschoolers at Bing Nursery School play with outdoor blocks.

After one preschooler tired of building a stage, others turned it into an obstacle course.  Photo: Eric Westervelt, NPR

Wooden blocks are the anti-app, writes Eric Westervelt as part of NPR’s series on the iconic tools of early schooling. 

Measurement. Balance. Math. Negotiation. Collaboration. And fun. The smooth maple pieces need no recharging, no downloading.

He visits Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus, where four-year-olds are working together to “balance and secure two semicircular wooden blocks atop two long, straight ones.”

The tower collapses to the carpeted floor at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School.

They work the problem.

It is Silicon Valley, after all. Fail early, fail often, kids. Iterate. Collaborate.

Jacques makes a pitch for stability.

“Corinne, I think if we just put a little on each side and used the right amount where mine was, it would work,” he says. “OK?”

“OK, let’s try,” says Corrine. “OK!”

The tower grows.

Then, to paraphrase Homer, the tower falls thunderously and the blocks clatter about.

“It keeps falling down! Maybe a little higher,” Jacques says, resisting the urge to lose patience.

Wooden blocks, designed in 1913 by a progressive educator, teach mathematical thinking, says Todd Erickson, a head teacher. 

For example, 4-year-old Yuri uses large, hollow outdoor building blocks to create a stage. “She looks at the spaces between two sides and starts to grapple with different sized pieces to bridge the gap,” writes Westervelt.

It’s the start of algebra, says Erickson. 

“Essentially they’re solving for X,” he says. “They’ve got one piece on one side and one piece on the other and a distance to fill. So what is that amount going to be, what does the length of that block have to be to bridge, to sit at both edges of the block. It’s the beginning of mathematics, really.”

When Yuri loses interest and runs over to the swings, two other girls “turn Yuri’s half-built stage into a makeshift obstacle course,” writes Westervelt.

My sister and I had wooden blocks when we were kids. My sister figured out how to build a domed ceiling with them.

How to parent like a German


Photo by Metro Centric

Parenting like a German means giving kids more freedom, Sara Zaske writes in Time.

The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?

Despite the stereotypes, Germans are mellow parents, she writes. “Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone.” It’s not called “free-range parenting.” It’s normal.

Kindergarten is considered a time for play and social learning. Children are learn to read in first grade, but “academics aren’t pushed very hard.”  A half day of instruction includes two outdoor recesses.

German children play outside every day. If it’s cold, they bundle up.

Starting first grade is marked by a big party called Einschulung.

 In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

There’s another big party when a child turns 14.

Core kindergarten: It’s not that hard

Common Core isn’t too hard for kindergarteners, argues Robert Pondiscio in Education Next.  

The Core’s call for kids to learn fundamental literacy skills will push out play-based learning, argues a report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose.  That could harm children.

There’s nothing new about expecting kindergartens to learn the alphabet or know that print is read from left to right, says Pondiscio. The report complains about only one Common Core expectation: By the end of kindergarten, children should be able to “[r]ead emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”

That means kids about to enter first grade should be able to read “I am Sam and I am an ant,” writes Pondiscio. We’re not talking Proust.

 Most kids can already read simple texts by the end of kindergarten. And those who struggle early tend to continue to struggle—both in school and in life. The authors are absolutely correct that telling stories, reading from picture books, singing songs, reciting poems, activity centers, and imaginative play all help build literacy skills. That’s why none of those are discouraged by Common Core.

The report suggests the Core forces kindergarten teachers to turn their classrooms into “joyless grinding mills” with all work and no play. That’s silly, writes Pondiscio. “Nothing in Common Core—not one blessed thing—precludes schools and teachers from creating safe, warm, nurturing classrooms that are play-based, engaging, and cognitively enriching.”

If kindergarten teachers don’t know how to use songs, stories, games and activities to introduce children to early reading skills, teacher education programs should show them how, he writes.

Most parents teach these skills at home. Their kids are far beyond “I am Sam” by the end of kindergarten. Other children need to be taught in school.

Teaching preschool doesn’t pay

Child-care workers earn about $10 an hour, according to a new Berkeley report, “Worthy Work, Still Unlivable Wages. That’s more than fast-food cooks but less than animal caretakers. Preschool teachers earn 40 percent less than kindergarten teachers.

Pay preschool teachers like they matter, argues Laura Bornfreund in  The Atlantic. Early-childhood educators can make a big difference, research shows.

 The adults working in early-childhood programs set the foundation for future learning, developing essential knowledge in their young students as well as the skills, habits, and mindsets children need to succeed later in school and flourish in life. And the quality of interactions between teachers and children is especially important when it comes to sustaining the gains children make in pre-k programs.

 It will be hard to hire and retain smart, skilled preschool teachers if they’re paid like babysitters. 

Kindergarten reading: Is it bad for kids?

Teaching reading in kindergarten could be harmful to kids who aren’t ready, argues a new report by Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood. Furthermore, there’s no advantage in learning early, the writers argue.

Common Core State Standards call for children to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding”  by the end of kindergarten. That pressures kindergarten (and some preschool) teachers to use “inappropriate” teaching methods instead of “the active, play-based, experiential learning that we know children need.”

In my day, kids were introduced to Dick, Jane and Sally in first grade. Parents were told not to teach their kids to read earlier, lest they “do it wrong.” (My sister taught me when I was in kindergarten and she was in first grade.)

These days, what used to be the first-grade curriculum is taught in kindergarten and first grade has turned into second grade. That’s great for some kids, not so great for others.

Smarter babies, word by word

Building a baby’s brain starts at birth, the Thirty Million Words Project tells brand-new mothers.

Hours after giving birth to her first child, Bionka Burkhalter agreed to listen to two women talk about the importance of talking to Josiah. The 21-year-old single mother, who has a GED, “heard about tuning into his cues and responding when he cries, and about giving him a chance to communicate back to her, even if just through eye contact,” reports Sara Neufeld on the Hechinger Report.

xx talks to newborn Josiah

Bionka Burkhalter talks to newborn Josiah, after hearing a Thirty Million Words presentation. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

“Obviously, language can in itself be a key part of building a child’s brain, but the parent relationship really is the basis for all of child development,” said founder Dana Suskind, 46, a widowed mother of three school-age kids and a pediatric surgeon.

A long-term study will compare the effects of six months of home visits: Some mothers will get advice on communicating with their babies while the control group will hear about nutrition.

Suskind’s team will follow 200 Chicago children to measure their kindergarten readiness.

 Parents will be taught to weave back-and-forth conversation into daily activities, from diaper changing to cooking dinner, and to explain to children why they are being asked to do things, rather than just directing them. They’ll be urged to go on a “technology diet,” since children need human interaction; their brains don’t build connections with televisions and computers. And they’ll be prompted to praise their children’s efforts rather than the outcomes of their actions so they won’t be discouraged from taking chances when something doesn’t work out. (“I love how hard you worked on that!” would be preferable to “You’re so smart!”)

“The ultimate answer is the whole society understanding how important parents are in their children’s development,” Suskind said. In low-income communities, “they’ve been told the opposite, that they’re not powerful.”

Shakira will tweet on early ed

As part of the White House Summit on Early Education, Shakira and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be tweeting on early education this morning, starting at 10 am EST. Shakira, a native of Colombia, is a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The hashtag is #ShakiraEdChat.

Here’s Shakira performing one of her hits, She Wolf.

Shakira’s Barefoot Foundation — started when she was 18 — has built and funded schools in Colombia, Haiti and South Africa to help poor children and their parents, reports CBS News.

The singing star has more credibility on early childhood ed than Duncan, writes Cato’s Neal McCluskey. The White House PR on preschool’s effectiveness “is deceptive, or just plain wrong, as largely documented in David Armor’s recent Policy Analysis The Evidence on Universal Preschool.”

Libros for los ninos

In the San Jose neighborhood where Cesar Chavez got his start, immigrants’ children struggle with reading, reports National Journal.

A group called Somos Mayfair has organized parents — poorly educated, Spanish-speaking gardeners, cleaners and restaurant workers — to share children’s books. This month the En Nuestras Manos (In Our Hands) campaign organized reading circles at a local park and in someone’s driveway.

“Cesar Chavez Elementary School is among the lowest-performing schools in California,” according to National Journal. This is untrue. On the state’s most recent Academic Performance Index, the school’s scores are slightly above average — way above average compared to schools with similar demographics.

Mayfair is in the Alum Rock elementary district, which has a number of high-performing charter and district schools. It’s the most-improved district in Silicon Valley.

The case against universal preschool

Preschool for all is politically popular, writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. But it’s not the “panacea” that President Obama and other advocates claim it is, say researchers. It may be counterproductive.

Making it universal is “a very bad idea,” says Ron Haskins, a preschool expert who co-directs the Center on Children and Families at the left-leaning Brookings Institute. “Invest (government dollars) where they’re most needed and that’s with low-income kids. (This) is going to waste a lot of money on families that don’t need it.”

“You have to look at the trade-off,” said Darleen Opfer, the education director at the RAND Corporation. “If you have a state that can’t afford high-quality preschool for everyone, where does the investment really make sense?”

Intensive early-learning programs — done well and at significant cost — can help the children of poorly educated parents develop develop language skills, most agree.

But that won’t “inoculate them” from the effects of mediocre schools, says Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley researcher.

Head Start’s benefits fade in elementary school. “Preschool has been oversold,” says Cato’s Neal McCluskey. “People too often speak as if it’s a certainty that preschool has strong, lasting benefits.”

I’d like to see more investments in helping parents improve their parenting skills.

Texting parents helps preschoolers

A very cheap intervention — texting low-income parents with literacy tips — improved preschoolers’ language skills significantly in a Stanford study.

Half of the parents received thrice-weekly texts for eight months with messages like “By saying beginning word sounds, like ‘ttt’ in taco & tomato, you’re preparing your child 4 K,” or “Let your child hold the book. Ask what it is about. Follow the words with your finger as you read.”

. . . The other half of the parents received one text message every two weeks with simple information about kindergarten enrollment or vaccinations.

Parents who received the literacy texts were far more likely to report pointing out rhyming words or describing pictures in a book to their children than those who received the more general texts.

. . . And when the children were given tests of letter and sound recognition, those whose parents had received the literacy texts had scores that indicated they were about two to three months ahead of those children whose parents had received only the general information texts.

The program cost less than $1 per child because 80 percent of the families already had unlimited text messaging plans on their cellphones, notes the New York Times. “That compares to home visiting programs that can cost close to $10,000 per child and require that families devote a considerable amount of time during an intensive period.”