Taking Risks at Recess

New Ark Adventure Playground

At Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand, what started as a research experiment ended in a permanent policy change. In a decision that sounds truly foreign to most American educators, the school eliminated all rules during outdoor recess. Instead, children run free and play however they choose, even if that means more risky activities like skateboarding or tree climbing. The school has seen so many positive benefits in attention, social interaction and even serious injury reduction they have decided to adopt the policy for the foreseeable future.

For many American educators and parents, that may sound like a breath of fresh air, even if it’s one we take with hesitation. After all, research consistently shows that choice and free play are absolutely essential to children’s growth across developmental domains — in free play, children develop problem solving skills, self-regulation, oral language, socio-emotional abilities, physical and spatial awareness, and more. They also learn perseverance and confidence. As a professor who worked on the Auckland experiment explains, “children learn how to deal with risk only by facing risk.” And perhaps even more powerful than the evidence from research, many adults cherish fond memories of their time running free outside as children, making some mistakes, and learning more than we will probably ever realize along the way.

In other words, if the children in our lives suffer the occasional scrape or bruise, we need not panic. Of course, in our daily routines, it is much more complicated than that. Parents live with the powerful instinct to protect their children in all circumstances. Educators face increasing pressure to structure the outdoor time provided during the school day. Even when free play is allowed, it is often closely supervised with strict rules in place. As such, we must ask ourselves important questions: how can we advocate for the (true) free play opportunities all children need while ensuring their safety and well-being? To put the question a different way, how can we cultivate environments that protect our children and students from serious harm while still allowing them to take meaningful risks and develop a sense of perseverance? After all, children from Auckland to Houston have a lot in common: they all need the chance to experientially learn what it means to have a body that moves through space – and all the risks that come with it!
Read the full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/recess-without-rules/283382/

Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Community Bridges Intern, Rice University School Literacy and Culture

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What is SLC Reading This Summer? Part 1

“Communicating through language is the crowning achievement of the human species.” Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D. and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D.

how babies talk

We are excited to share with you the first professional reading in our three part series, “What is SLC Reading This Summer?” If you are familiar with our work, you know that we spend a large portion of our time talking with teachers about the importance of oral language in a young child’s development.  Lev Vgotsky, a prominent early childhood theorist, stated that oral language is the “universal tool.” He believed that language is a “primary mental tool because it facilitates the acquisition of other tools and is used for many mental functions.” Thus, language is the basis of all learning for humans (“Tools of the Mind,” p. 18). We agree with Vgotsky and the authors of our first featured text, “How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life,” that oral language is foundational in early literacy development.

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, well-respected researchers and professors, wrote “How Babies Talk” in an effort to help parents, caregivers and teachers understand not only the importance of language development of children in the womb to age three, but also to help them understand exactly what a child knows how to develop their oral language skills at every stage. As the authors say, “We begin with the fetus who is listening in on our conversations and then turn to the newborn who, in his own subtle way, is already taking part in these conversations. We will look at the four to eight month old statistician who cannot say a word, but who accurately analyzes our speech for common sounds and patterns. Then it’s off to the nine to twelve month old who charms us with her points, her demands and her questions – all without saying a word.  Eventually, we work our way up to the knowledgeable three year old who talks in full paragraphs, rarely stopping for a breath.” (“How Babies Talk,” p. 4)

The book is organized for easy reading with chapters organized by the age of the child. Each chapter is further divided into two large sections: “Language Milestones,” which details for the reader what children know about language at each age, and “Scientific Sleuthing Pays Off,” which explains how scientific findings can be used to enrich interactions with children.  Best of all, there is a third, smaller section interspersed throughout each chapter called, “Try This” with specific activities or interactions for parents, caregivers or teachers to try with children to boost their language. It doesn’t get much better than this: explanations of what children know at each age, why we know they know it and how to enhance it!

“How Babies Talk” is absolutely a text we’re putting on our “favorites” shelf of our professional development library! Get a copy from our Amazon bookshelf, read it, and let us know what you think.


If you are interested in ordering any of the books on School Literacy and Culture’s summer reading list, please visit our Amazon store at: http://astore.amazon.com/schlitandculr-20?_encoding=UTF8&node=26

Authored by Jordan Khadam-Hir, Rice University School Literacy & Culture

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Looking for summer activities? Look no further, just let them play!

Branch Out

We loved this timeless article published in The Atlantic a couple summers ago: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/for-better-school-results-clear-the-schedule-and-let-kids-play/373144/.  And, we agree, free play is in fact the best summer school for children.  Read the full article for a detailed description of how a child’s executive function skills are built through play and an explanation of why free play is so critical to a child’s development!

Authored by Jordan Khadam-Hir, Rice University School Literacy and Culture

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Baby Talk

“… Verbally engaging with babies—listening to their gurgles and coos and then responding, conversation-style—may speed up their language development more than simply talking at them or around them.”

baby talk

Babies sometimes have the magical ability to make adults tongue-tied. How does one respond to a baby’s vocalizations? A recent study in Infancy by researchers from the University of Iowa and Indiana University has revealed that responding “sensitively” to a baby’s vocalizations increases their language development. Rather, babies’ language development can benefit from parents “pretending to understand” and carrying on an adult-like conversation in response to baby sounds.

Having these conversations with a baby is thought to be integral to a baby’s understanding of vocalizations as a means of communication, not just a method of fun sound-making. “The infants were using vocalizations in a communicative way, in a sense, because they learned they are communicative,” study author Julie Gros-Louis claims.

This study suggests that there is likely no secret formula for talking to babies, but rather the best way to communicate with them is as if they were adults. Just as it is important that parents talk to babies frequently, it is also crucial that they talk to them in a way that benefits their language development.

Read the full article from The Atlantic here: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/pretending-to-understand-what-babies-say-can-make-them-smarter/379324/?utm_source=SFFB

Read the study’s abstract here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/infa.12054/abstract

Authored by Cassy Gibson, Community Bridges Intern, Rice University School Literacy and Culture

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Great Expectations: Are We Expecting Too Much From Pre-Schoolers?

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their ‘work’ before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations.”

baby math

A visible shift has occured in kindergarten classrooms across America. Ericka Christakis, author of “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups,” notes that the walls of these classrooms are covered in text and charts instead of crafts and artwork. With this change in scenery comes a change in the focus of a child’s kindergarten education. In a study entitled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” researchers determined that between 1998 and 2010, kindergarten teachers’ expectations for students grew from expecting 30 percent of their students to read to 80 percent. The research also noted more classroom time spent on workbooks and worksheets than music and art.

As curriculum changes, the purpose of kindergarten as a “gatekeeper” for elementary school becomes devastatingly apparent. The expectations that were formerly placed on 5- and 6-year-olds have now been shifted back even younger.

“As a result,” says Christakis, “expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.”

How do parents feel about this? Christakis says the parents she’s talked to seem to be all for an education shift into overdrive: “They fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option.”

As an early childhood educator and scholar, Christakis warns against the negative effects that a more strict pedagogy might have on America’s children. The focus should not be placed on reading words off of a page, but fostering unstructured interactions with language.

“The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening,” Christakis says. “We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding.”

Christakis contends that we are doing a disservice to our children by measuring their achievements based on their progression along a scripted program: “… The preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors…, while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.”

Christakis’s plea for conversation- and listening-based education for preschool-age children is not unheard of. Part of our mission at School Literacy and Culture is to bring literacy education to children on their terms, by listening to them, talking to them, and fostering a natural love for language and reading.

Read Erika Christakis’s full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/01/the-new-preschool-is-crushing-kids/419139/?utm_source=SFFB

Written by Cassy Gibson, Community Bridges Intern, Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture

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