Story Time From Space

Story Time From Space features astronauts reading books that encourage a love of exploration and science. From the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins reads Max Goes to the International Space Station by author and astrophysicist Jeffrey Bennett.

The overprotected child

The author’s 5-year-old son, Gideon, playing at the Land playground in North Wales. (Hanna Rosin)

Overprotective, safety-obsessed parents have “stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer,” writes Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic.

The “adventure playground,” which gives kids a chance to explore and challenge themselves, is growing in popularity in Europe, she writes. She visited The Land, a Welsh playground.

“Playworkers” keep an eye on children, but try not to intervene. Parents usually don’t come.

It’s still morning, but someone has already started a fire in the tin drum in the corner, perhaps because it’s late fall and wet-cold, or more likely because the kids here love to start fires. . . . Nearby, a couple of boys are doing mad flips on a stack of filthy mattresses, which makes a fine trampoline. At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the younger kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets—just for the fun of it, or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure.

. . . there are . . .  no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek). . . . the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.

A generation ago, mothers were more likely to be at home, but less likely to arrange playdates or drive the kids to swim lessons, Rosin writes. Children had free, unsupervised time. They figured out what to do with it.

On weekdays after school (her mother) just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. In 1971, 80 percent of British third-graders walked to school alone, a study found. “By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.” (When I started kindergarten in 1957, two generations ago, my mother let me walk with the other kids — no parents — from the first day.)

Children need to explore, argues Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education in Norway.  “When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience.”

Paradoxically, Sandseter writes, “our fear of children being harmed,” mostly in minor ways, “may result in more fearful children .”  Children who injured themselves falling from heights when they were between 5 and 9 years old are less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18, a study found.

Erin Davis has made a documentary about The Land.

Will ‘drill and grill’ replace kindergarten play?

Rigorous new Common Core standards endanger young children by requiring “long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math” and more standardized testing, argue Edward Miller, a teacher, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a retired early childhood education professor, on Answer Sheet.

. . .  “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens.

. . .  Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other crucial areas of young children’s learning: active, hands-on exploration, and developing social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills—all of which are difficult to standardize or measure but are the essential building blocks for academic and social accomplishment and responsible citizenship.

There’s little evidence academic instruction in the early grades leads to later success, they write.

Miller is the co-author of Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.  Carlsson-Paige is the author of Taking Back Childhood.

Children should play — but not with straw men, counters E. D. Hirsch, a stanch defender of Common Core State Standards. The new standards don’t dictate how teachers should teach, writes Hirsch.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing.

Some educators are misreading the new standards, writes Hirsch, citing the New York Post story on kindergarteners expected to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”

But the status quo isn’t good enough, he concludes.

Touchscreen toddlers

Interactive screen time can be educational for toddlers, writes Lisa Guernsey in Slate.  But . . .

Seventy-two percent of iTunes’ top-selling “education” apps are designed for preschoolers and elementary school children, according to a recent report.  Yet we don’t have much research on interactive apps for preschoolers.

A 2010 Georgetown study found children 30 to 36 months old were better at remembering where puppets were hiding if they had to touch a space bar to spot the puppets (or saw a live puppet show), compared to toddlers who watched a video of the puppet show.

In earlier studies, slightly younger children—24 months—struggled with these “seek and find” tasks after watching non-interactive video, unless they had a guide on-screen, a person or character, whom they felt compelled to respond to or communicate with. Even easier tasks, such as pointing to an object introduced a few minutes before, are more difficult for very young children after watching video compared with being taught face-to-face. It is this “video deficit,” which has cropped up in numerous other studies with infants and toddlers, that partially informed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation against screen time among children younger than 2. (The AAP has other concerns, too, such as whether parents are replacing human-to-human connections with screen time.)

The pediatricians were focused on “passive” media, such as TV and videos, not interactive media, Guernsey notes.

Still, interactive may be more distracting than educational, Guernsey warns.

. . . the wow factor of the device and the presence of interactive “hotspots” on e-book pages may interfere with children’s ability to recall the story line of the book. This isn’t just a problem of electronics. Even traditional print-and-cardboard pop-up books can lead children at 2½ and 3 years old to learn less from the story than they would have otherwise, according to research at the University of Virginia conducted by Cynthia Chiong.

Most education apps now on the market dictate how children will play, Guernsey writes. Instead of exploring, kids must follow the program. However, new products are being introduced that encourage creativity, such as “DoodleCastItzaBitza and in-development computer programming software for preschoolers called Scratch Jr.

This is off-topic, but fun:

Dangerous, educational, fun

The dangerous things you should let your children do include whittling, throwing a spear, playing with fire, climbing a tree, cooking with weird ingredients and taking equipment apart. Danger has been defined down. A not-very-brave girl, I did most of these things. (I never threw a spear, but I made bows and arrows out of garden stakes and used them in our games of Pony Express.)

However, I’ve never licked a nine-volt battery.

The classroom as ‘exploration studio’

The Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, imagined by Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeainova of NAC Architecture in Seattle, is the winner in Slate’s contest to reinvent the American classroom.

In their classroom, small student learning teams share a common area. Students can work alone, work together on projects and view web and video content from their stations.

The entire class shares a central project area in their studio that is equipped with a variety of seating and work surface choices.  This area contains a wet area with 2 sinks for science and art projects, as well as adjustable height tables, tables for group projects, and soft seating for informal discussions or private reading.  A large “smart board” computer screen between the sinks along the window wall can be used for student presentations, lectures by the teacher, or to connect to other classes in other parts of the world via Skype or similar programs.

Arranged around the perimeter of the room, the student stations and computer screens can be seen by the teacher at a glance from the center of the room.  Mirrors placed behind the computer screens and tilted up slightly allow teacher and student to make eye contact without the need for the student to turn around.

The trapezoidal shape of the room reduces noise, creates a base location for the teacher and “allows natural light from the windows to penetrate deep into the room.”  The studio is connected to other studios by a shared project/large group area.

Outside, students can use a covered plaza for experiments.

On one side a door and windows connects students to the exterior, while on the other side a roll-up glass garage door can be opened on nice days allowing class activities to spill out to the exterior.  A story telling circle and a garden for growing food nudge into a natural landscape which includes native vegetation and a water course so students can study their environment.

More than 350 entries were submitted, writes Linda Pearlstein.

To what extent can classroom design improve learning? I’d guess it falls fairly low on the priority list.

Columbus Day (boo, hiss)

Columbus Day has fallen out of fashion, reports AP. Some schools will be open today.  Others are teaching lessons that emphasize a darker side of Columbus. He didn’t “discover” America because the natives got there first. And the Europeans’ arrival turned out very badly for the native peoples.

In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the “Columbian Exchange” — which consisted not only of gold, crops and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.

In McDonald, Pa., 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, fourth-grade students at Fort Cherry Elementary put Columbus on trial this year — charging him with misrepresenting the Spanish crown and thievery. They found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.

“In their own verbiage, he was a bad guy,” teacher Laurie Crawford said.

I went to elementary school in the benighted ’50s, but we knew that Columbus had “discovered” for Europe a world that had been discovered previously. We knew he was so lost he named the place the “West Indies.” And we knew that most of the natives had died from diseases for which they had no immunity. We also honored his courage.

Update: Columbus, Ohio no longer holds a Columbus Day parade, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Jay Greene has an interesting take on indigenous peoples and land theft.