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.

On the move in Finland

More Recess

Worried about passive, phone-tapping kids, Finnish schools are trying to get students moving, writes Tim Walker in The Atlantic. An American, Walker lives in Helsinki and teaches in a bilingual school.

Kids in Finland have short school days and frequent 15-minute breaks — typically there’s one after each 45-minute lesson. And even though the breaks keep them more focused in the classroom, they don’t necessarily keep them more active at school.

Under the “On the Move” initiative, his school has turned sixth graders into “recess activators” for first and graders. Older kids lead the younger ones in games, such as Banana Tag.

In the fall, a new schedule will combine short recesses into at least one 30-minute break. Students in grades seven through nine will choose activities, such as yogalates, floor hockey, or gymnastics.

Teachers also are looking for “strategies for getting students to be more active during lessons,” writes Walker. These include “energizers” (short breaks from sitting), allowing kids to complete work while standing or while sitting on large bouncy balls.

He’s replaced oral presentations, which tend to be dull and time consuming, with the “gallery walk.”

Students fasten their presentations to the walls of the classroom or hallway as if they were exhibiting their work in an art gallery. Each display is numbered and the children rotate from exhibit to exhibit systematically, spending a minute or two carefully studying each one. To make this experience more meaningful, students provide written-feedback to each other as they’re visiting each display. Before they start the active gallery walk, I hand out sticky notes in two different colors. On one color, my sixth graders write questions about the work for the presenter to consider and on the other, they jot down positive observations.

On the Finnish Report Card 2014 on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, Finnish kids received a “D” for physical activity levels, reports Walker, U.S. children earned a D- on the 2014 United States Report Card.

Law tells parents to limit kids’ tech use

Taiwanese parents are required by law to limit their children’s use of technology to “reasonable” levels, reports Kabir Chibber on Quartz. What’s reasonable? The law doesn’t say. But it threatens to fine parents whose children become “physically or mentally” ill due to overuse of digital devices.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends a maximum of two hours a day of screen time for kids, found in a recent study that 8-year-olds in the U.S. spend an average of eight hours a day with some form of media—and many child-development psychologists urge more unstructured play time.

South Korea now regulates “online games and e-sports as if they were addictive substances,” writes Chibber.

Worried about addiction to online role-playing games, China limits online gamers to three hours of play at a time, reports BBC News. Games are set up to limit a game character’s ability if the player exceeds the three-hour limit.

Mythbusters: Wonder and failure

Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters teaches through wonder and failure, writes Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic.

Hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman “have subjected nearly 1,000 cultural legends, historical myths, and internet rumors to the crucible of the scientific method,” she writes.

Her 11-year-old son, Finn is a big fan. The show has kindled his “sense of wonder about the cool stuff that exists out in the world,” she writes.

Each episode starts with a question:

Can eating pop rocks and soda cause your stomach to explode? Is running better than walking for keeping dry in the rain? Can you bounce a laser off the moon? Can an unamplified human voice shatter a wine glass?

As Savage and Hyneman explore these questions, they dive deep into the background knowledge required to understand the problem at hand. Consequently, they have taught my sons physics, geometry, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and history.

In a live show for the Behind the Myths tour, Savage ran a video of “favorite explosions and catastrophic failures” from over the years.  It was a “montage of exploding water heaters, cement trucks, and cannons made out of trees, complete with custom-made Dolby sound.”

In his teens, Savage became obsessed with juggling, he told the audience.

I used to practice juggling for hours in my upstairs bedroom, and the sound of me dropping the balls over and over again—thump-thump-thump, thump-thump-thump—as they hit the ground was the sound of my teenage years. I spent entire afternoons practicing tricks that just would not work. But as I slept, and my brain fermented on them overnight, the next morning they would suddenly work. I thought I was just learning how to juggle, but I wasn’t. I was learning how to learn.

That thump-thump-thump? That wasn’t the sounds of failure. That was the sound of learning.

“Play is simply a process of running experiments,” he said. “We do things because they are fun. And remember …” He paused, allowing the audience to complete his sentence: the classic Mythbusters catchphrase. “The difference between screwing around and science is writing it down!” audience members shouted, chanting along with Savage.

Kids need summer vacation

Summer fun is under attack from school reformers, writes teacher Michael Mazenko on Salon.

In A Teacher’s Case Against Summer Vacation, Cristina Evans calls for shortening summer vacation to prevent the summer slide experienced by low-income students.

While middle-class kids are going to camp, traveling with their parents or playing outside with friends, disadvantaged students may be watching TV or killing space aliens.

Instead of curtailing summer vacation, reformers should fund summer learning programs and activities, writes Mazenko. Make summer count by enriching the vacation, not eliminating it.

Black Girls Rock! is a summer enrichment program for New York City girls.

Poll: No unsupervised play for pre-teens

Sixty-eight percent of Americans think it should be illegal to let kids 9 and under play unsupervised at a park, according to the new Reason/Rupe poll.

Recently, a South Carolina mother was thrown in jail for dropping off her 9-year-old at a popular playground.

Forty-three percent of those polled said 12-year-olds shouldn’t be outside without a caregiver, writes Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids on Reason. “They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).”

Sixty-two percent of Americans agreed that “kids today face more threats to their physical safety,” the poll reported.

In reality, the U.S. crime rate is the lowest it’s been in decades, Skenazy writes. Some neighborhoods may be unsafe, but most are just fine.

“I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, anytime, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today,” says Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn.

9-year-old plays in park, Mom is arrested

A South Carolina mother faces neglect charges for letting her nine-year-old daughter play in a park while the mother worked at a nearby McDonald’s, reports Lenore Skenazy on Reason.

The daughter had sat in McDonald’s playing on a laptop while mother Debra Harrell worked. After the laptop was stolen in a home burglary, the girl asked to play at the playground.

(Harrell) gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park—a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade.

On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied.

Fears of kidnapping are wildly overblown, writes Skenazy, who’s known for her advocacy of Free Range Kids.

But in this case, the child was taken by strangers: The mother was jailed and Social Services took custody of the child, reports WJBF in North Augusta.

Star File Photo: Aarden Harper goes for a splash at Summerfield Park.

Scott Ott was horribly neglected as a child With his brothers, he’d roam the woods and fields, walking, biking or riding horses.

In case of emergency — like when somebody shot my finger with the BB-gun, or when Troy and I caught a groundhog and the varmint latched onto my brother’s thumb and wouldn’t let go — anyway, in case of emergency our only car was with Pop at work an hour away. Nan never had a driver’s license anyway. Our only phone was screwed to the wall in the kitchen.

We’d swim in creek, pond or canal. We played tackle football without helmets or pads. We’d cross fields where menacing cattle grazed, and climb the highest trees we could. We built dams, panned for “gold,” caught salamanders, snakes, turtles, crayfish and eels. We cracked spherical rocks searching in vain for geodes.

Sometimes, in our early teens, we’d carry firearms, but way before that we always carried weapons — bows, spears, cudgels, rocks and slings that we fashioned from natural materials.  Often we reenacted Robin Hood’s cudgel fight with Little John on a log over a stream. For a few years, we tended a trap-line before school in the morning, toting a .22 caliber rifle in the dark and facing some very annoyed raccoons and possums.

We’d swing from vines, engage in brutal snowball fights, toboggan through a stand of trees and bail out just before the barbed-wire fence. A pack of us would skate the unreliable ice of a farmer’s pond — when the farmer wasn’t looking — slapping frozen hockey pucks at the unpadded goalie who trembled between the boots that formed the goal.

Children as young as six played without adult supervision.

Because it was a rural area, an abductor would stand little chance of being seen, Ott writes. “An urban playground, crawling with dozens of appropriately-supervised children and police foot patrols” is much safer.

“Only the statute of limitations prevents posthumous prosecution” of his parents.

I grew up in the suburbs. We walked to school and played in the park from the age of five without adult supervision. It was the baby boom era, so our mothers were busy with younger children but there were other kids around nearly always. I think we started exploring the ravines when we were seven or eight. We played in the street, made garden stakes into bows and arrows . . .

Sharing or theft?

Beth doesn’t teach her kids to share toys, she writes on PopSugar. At her son’s preschool, each child plays with a toy, the swings or the monkey bars until he’s done with it. Then the next kid gets a turn.

(A friend) and her almost-2-year-old were at the park one day. He had brought a small car from home to play with. Another child, a little bit older, wanted to play with the car and was demanding that my friend’s son give him the car. A typical toddler scuffle ensued, and the other mother told her son, “I guess his mom didn’t teach him how to share.”

When someone asks you to share, you have the right to say “no,” writes Beth.

What about a public play space? Friday mornings, her local rec center fills the gym “with tons of Little Tykes climbing structures and those plastic cars they can drive around, tricycles, big balls, even a bouncy castle.”  Her son drove a red car, which he loves, for 90 minutes. A mother tried to get him to give her son “a turn,” but he ignored her. “There were a million other little cars for her son to drive, including one that was almost identical,” writes Beth.

I think it does a child a great disservice to teach him that he can have something that someone else has, simply because he wants it. And I can understand the desire to give your children everything they want; we all have it. But it’s a good lesson for you both to learn that this isn’t always possible, and you shouldn’t step all over other people to get these things.

Furthermore, this is not how things work in the real world. In your child’s adult life, he’s going to think he’s owed everything he sees. This is already happening in the next generation. I read a fascinating article about how today’s teens and 20-somethings are expecting raises and promotions at their jobs for reasons like, “I show up every day.”

I would have told my kid to try the “almost identical” car and let the other boy have a turn.

A McSweeney’s satire features Atlas Shrugged on the Tot Lot as a father explains why his daughter wouldn’t share her Elmo ball with another toddler. Read the works of Ayn Rand since birth, she’s proud of what she earned — for consistent use of the potty — “completely antipathetic to the concept of sharing.”

That’s why, when Johanna then began berating your son, accusing him of trying to coerce from her a moral sanction of his theft of the fruit of her labor, in as many words, I kind of egged her on. Even when Aiden started crying.

“Johanna shouldn’t be burdened with supplying playthings for every bed-wetting moocher she happens to meet,” he concludes.