Tag Archives: Play

Pittsburgh Levels the Playing Field

Last month we wrote about opportunities for learning in unusual spaces. One group we covered put up educational conversation prompts in grocery stores; another had kids read books to their barbers during haircuts.

A few weeks ago, a number of organizations were celebrated for similar efforts—but in their case, the focus was play. KaBoom announced the winners of its “Play Everywhere Challenge” in September, awarding funds to 50 projects—including three in Pennsylvania—that integrate play into urban spaces. Among the proposals selected by the play advocacy organization: a crosswalk that doubles as a hopscotch sequence, a set of solar-lit treasure hunt clues, and a bench whose clever design allows users to sit, climb, or walk across it.

“Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn,” Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, recently told The Atlantic.

In some ways, the relationship is intuitive. Imagine a classic game of make-believe; let’s say kids on a schoolyard are pretending to get lost in the wilderness. They’re developing their creativity when they determine the shady spot under the slide is the best place to camp out for the “night.” They’re learning to regulate their emotions when they divvy up their woodchip “dinner” equally, and learning to collaborate when they hash out the story together.

Play “is a natural tool for children to develop resiliency as they learn to collaborate, overcome challenges, and negotiate with others,” according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Play not only propels social-emotional growth, research shows, but can also build cognitive skills and improve behavior. In one study, teachers reported that students who had recess breaks behaved better in the classroom.

“Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn.”

Therein lies the challenge. As The Atlantic reports, over a third of school districts cut or eliminated recess in the wake of No Child Left Behind. (The roll-back, the author notes, coincided with new research endorsing the importance of play.)

The reduction of recess is one of several barriers to play which is faced disproportionately by kids from low-income families. In some cases, overworked parents, the stressors of poverty, or neighborhoods without playgrounds make it hard for those families to find time for free play. For KaBoom, the Play Everywhere Challenge is an attempt to, well, level the playing field. The “everywhere” piece acknowledges that low-income families in particular might have to incorporate playtime into long rides on public transit or hours spent at laundromats and doctors’ offices.

In Pittsburgh, there are many efforts underway to make playing a possibility for all kids in the region. For the past few years, the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative has worked to raise awareness of the importance of play and support public projects that expand opportunities for play. This group of local public and private education organizations takes special interest in “play-on-the-way” projects—those that make play possible without interrupting daily schedules.

Since the spring of 2015, the collaborative has worked on the Hazelwood Play Trail, a sequence of established and new opportunities for play for families walking through the Hazelwood neighborhood. Its most anticipated addition came to fruition in September this year. Volunteers of all ages gathered to erect a new playground in only one day.

Thanks to them, colorful climbing structures of various shapes and sizes now stand in an area that hasn’t had a playground in several years. Local youth have new opportunities for play and thus for creativity, invention, and problem-solving—skills that, some researchers say, are needed more now than ever.


It’s Elementary: Playtime Equals Learning Time for Young Children

With elementary schools nationwide adapting their curricula to jibe with the Common Core, some parents and teachers argue that the littlest learners should be better prepared for the academic standards they will soon be required to meet. Others counter that increasingly structured schooling makes it even more important for younger kids to have some time to play, explore, and get messy.

Earlier this month, some educators told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that this debate is misguided. They argued that those who pit play against formal education create a false dichotomy—an either/or that does not, or at least should not, exist.

When preschool teachers talk about “play,” they are talking about behavior that spurs neurological and social development, said Roberta Schomburg, early childhood education professor at Carlow University.

“Children are learning about math every day when they play and they’re probably learning about it in a more solid way than if they were manipulating symbols,” she said.

One obvious example is playing with blocks, where kids fit geometric shapes and angles together and experiment with size and quantity. But in all kinds of play, kids are counting, solving problems, and dividing toys among friends.

Psychologist Alison Gopnik has studied how imaginary play helps young children explore real-life situations and cultivate social skills and empathy. A study from her lab at the University of California, Berkeley, also suggests that playing “pretend” often engages kids in scientific thinking.

Most preschools strike a balance where activities are structured, but they are structured so that students have opportunities to explore and discover. Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of early childhood education for Pittsburgh Public Schools, told the Post-Gazette that her curricula are deliberately designed “so children can play, but they can play in a way that develops certain outcomes.”

Other teachers make a conscious distinction between unfettered free time and structured academics but make sure to offer both. When kindergarten became a full-day affair in Bellingham, Wash., the district required all classes to include 60 to 90 minutes of play per day.

Writing in USA Today in 2009, Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation, agreed that play and education were not diametrically opposed. “We have to find ways to relieve the pressure on kindergarten without reaching back futilely to the early 20th century,” she wrote, “when expectations were lower and the urban and rural poor were virtually ignored.”

Guernsey suggested that teachers needed more support and training to help blend play with effective learning. She also emphasized the need to make preschool more affordable for working families and to build a “bridge between preschool and kindergarten” to allow the experience to be better integrated for teachers and their students. It is advice that needs to be heeded today.

In Pittsburgh, out-of-school organizations have joined forces to preserve play in the daily lives of our city’s children. Distressed by the decline of free play nationwide, the city, the county, arts and health nonprofits, and foundations formed the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative to support one another in pressing for more opportunities for play.

Neuroscientists and educators have spoken: play is critical in younger years. But a focus on play does not necessitate the exclusion of academic learning. Instead, play can facilitate learning, whether kids are let loose in a costume box or on a playground, or guided by thoughtful instructors in semistructured settings. Presenting play as the antithesis to academics can only hinder us from creating the best environments for learning.


The Importance of Risk in Children’s Play

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are running wild through Laumeier Sculpture Park outside St. Louis, Missouri, with a pack of siblings and cousins. The 105-acre park is more like an open-air museum dotted with sculptures that tower 65 feet into the air and holes that fall several feet into the dirt.

As we played tag and turned the abstract pieces of art into our pirate ships and dungeons, we were acutely aware of the absence of “no touching” signs on many of the sculptures. No sign meant climbing or hanging wasn’t against the rules, right?

Looking back, I’m certain these memories stay in sharp focus because our play had an element of risk. Not danger, really—only a sense of exhilaration when climbing and sliding on sculptures slightly taller and unfamiliar than I was used to.

As I wrote earlier this month, since the mid-1950s, the time children have for free play has been steadily decreasing. The decrease comes from all sorts of factors: overscheduled afterschool hours, more screen time, and an increased emphasis on academic skill development at ever-younger ages.

Running parallel to these shifts are changes in how Americans parent and growing fears concerning safety. As journalist Hanna Rosin described in her Atlantic piece, “The Overprotected Kid,” many parents today are more worried than ever before about playground injuries or stranger abductions, although the rate of both has stayed approximately the same since the 1970s.

One consequence of these fears, as Rosin reported, is that parents aren’t letting kids wander alone or with peers in their neighborhoods as they used to. And playgrounds and public play spaces have gotten safer and more boring, robbing kids of the opportunity to take risks and to grow.

Last February, Susan Solomon, author of the book “The Science of Play,” gave a keynote speech on this topic at a community conversation hosted by the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The collaborative formed last year to educate community members about the importance of play in children’s development and to advocate for more opportunities for play in the Pittsburgh region.

Solomon said behavioral science has shown that to thrive, kids need opportunities to fail, keep trying, problem solve, and eventually reach mastery. Play can help give kids these opportunities.

But how, exactly, does this happen on a typical playground?

An article in the Wall Street Journal about playgrounds being “too safe” addressed a newer type of basket swing that fits several children at once and becomes an instant social event—undoubtedly requiring occasional conflict resolution. Another 30-foot-tall climbing pyramid made of net has only the appearance of risk—and it keeps kids coming back until they’ve figured out how to conquer it.

In her Atlantic piece, Rosin describes playgrounds in England on which kids have the freedom to build fires and build and launch their own canoes across a stream.

Cara Ciminillo, collaborative member and operations director at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, said risk is a key element in any learning —for both kids and adults.

“What we know about all kinds of learning is that if you take challenge out of people’s learning or children’s play, they’re not going to be interested,” she told me in an interview last fall. “You’ll lose their attention. What we know is that risk plays a really important role in moving people along their learning trajectory—it’s just, how do you look at risk as a challenge instead of a hazard or danger?”

Of course, thinking about letting kids climb higher, slide faster, and wander a bit farther is one thing—making it happen is quite another.

Marijke Hecht, collaborative member and director of education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, was co-teaching a course on play at the University of Pittsburgh last year. One night, after the class session devoted to risk, she turned on her cell phone to see several messages. Turns out, while she was in class, her 10-year-old daughter had fallen face first and broken her collar bone while playing outside by herself.

“The whole experience of working with the collaborative helped me say, ‘That’s ok, it’s a broken bone. Bones heal,’” Hecht explained. After she calmed down a bit, Hecht said she could focus on the fact that her daughter probably was going to learn a beneficial lesson from the accident (that is, do not run and jump in the dark). “It was one of those moments where I thought . . . ‘Ok I’ve got to walk the walk.’”

It turns out that even if Hecht’s daughter had been playing on a super-padded, plastic playground crawling with supervision, she may have been just as likely to have a similar injury.

David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, told Rosin in the Atlantic piece that new, softer playground surfaces like rubber chips haven’t contributed to children’s safety in the United Kingdom, according to injury reports. (The same is true in the United States.)

In fact, Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, more common than head injuries, are actually increasing.

Rosin wrote, “The best theory for that is ‘risk compensation’—kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that ‘we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.’”

As a culture, we should be shifting how we evaluate risk. Doing a better job of weighing its benefits could give kids more chances to be independent and practice risk assessment on their own—a key skill they’ll need in the future.

As Ciminillo put it, another generation of kids deprived of free play is a much riskier prospect than letting kids climb a little higher, slide a little faster, and take the chances they need to grow.


Making Pittsburgh Playful

Last February, a group called the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hosted its second community conversation at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The topic? The role of risk in children’s play. And although it was the dead of winter, more than 300 people registered for the event

It took the collaborative by surprise.

“This was the community conversation that surprised us the most,” said Cara Ciminillo, operations director at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). “It was such a thought provoking conversation starter that you really pulled in lots of people.”

The conversation drew educators, parents, city officials, nonprofit organizations, and even two grocery store owners who wanted to know what their role could be in supporting play in their neighborhoods.

Indeed, the conversation was thought provoking. But it’s only part of a wider discussion happening in Pittsburgh and throughout the country on the importance of play for children’s development and the roles of cities in creating more opportunities for kids to play.

“Since about 1955, children’s free play has been continually declining,” wrote psychologist Peter Gray, “at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.”

One study found that since the late 1970s, kids have lost 12 hours of free time per week. They’ve also experienced a 25 percent decrease in play and spend half as much time doing unstructured outdoor activities. This decrease comes from all sorts of overlapping factors: overscheduled afterschool hours, more screen time, and—after No Child Left Behind—an increased emphasis on academic skill development (in lieu of activities like art, pretend play, and recess) at ever-younger ages.

But play today is more important than ever. In addition to building necessary social and emotional skills, experts say play naturally fosters the types of skills needed for 21st-century learning—problem solving, creativity, self-regulation, and collaboration.

The organizations that make up the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative are harnessing their resources to educate and advocate for play throughout the city—in public spaces, in schools, and at home.

Collaborating for Play

The idea for a collaborative fist started in the early spring of 2013, just after construction workers outside the Carnegie Museum of Art installed the last piece of a long, orange tube that twists and turns and overlaps itself.

Called the Lozziwurm, the opening of the Swiss play sculpture kick-started a relationship between the museum and PAEYC. Eventually, 11 other groups joined, including the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

The play collaborative is drawing on the resources and partnerships of Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem—a large network of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, higher education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community working together in specific ways to support learning opportunities for kids throughout the community.

“We’re all able to support our individual goals without any mission drift at all—that’s very unusual,” said Marijke Hecht, director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “Play is the kind of topic that crosses many sectors.”

Hecht said each group in the collaborative speaks to a different audience and can advocate for play in different circles. But work with the collaborative has informed each individual group’s work as well.

For example, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a local nonprofit with expertise in working with Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, is in the middle of building a new environmental center at Frick Park. Part of the agreement reached with the city is that it will also manage the surrounding 115 acres.

“I think we have a real opportunity to look at where we can do some small-scale interventions in the park for natural play spaces,” Hecht said. Rather than a playground, Hecht and the conservancy are planning to rearrange natural materials in the park to create more opportunities for visitors to play. As families walk the paths, they might be able to balance on a log or hang from a sturdy branch.

“Some of these things happen naturally,” Hecht said, “but we have the opportunity in a park, which is a designed landscape, to make these more deliberate.”

Play Everywhere

The collaborative knows that for play to reach all kids, it has to be integrated into everyday life—not only at play “destinations” like playgrounds or museums, which take planning, packing, and driving to get to. (Plus, only one in five kids in the United States lives within walking distance of a park of playground.) In 2015, the collaborative is planning programming in the Hazelwood neighborhood to “activate” a new playground and other underused play opportunities.

Some national experts believe work like this could be key to making sure families stay in urban areas. National nonprofit Kaboom! recently released a report that found playful cities are more walkable, workable, and family friendly. In Chicago, 80 percent of business owners near “People Spots,” or parking spaces transformed into mini parks, said the spots brought more foot traffic.

With so much vacant space left from Pittsburgh’s population decrease, Hecht said Pittsburgh has a unique opportunity to keep play in mind as the city moves forward in figuring out how to redevelop these parcels.

“Because we’re a city that’s lost so much population, we have a lot of vacancy, and a lot of underused green space,” Hecht said. “We’re just thinking about how the idea of play everywhere fits into our open space plan.”

But before more widespread interventions can take root in the city, PAEYC’s Ciminillo says they’ve realized the very meaning of play needs to be reframed.

“We know there’s a segment of our work that needs to be about just educating around the word ‘play,’” Ciminillo said. And as of now, she says too many people think of it as frivolous and siloed off from anything truly beneficial for learning. “We know people see it as a luxury, and not as an inherent part of people’s lives.”

At the same time, so much discussion happening in education reform relates to the types of skills play fosters. Innovation? Problem solving? Risk taking? Ciminillo said learning advocates constantly talk about the skills that play naturally lends itself to—they just don’t use the word “play.”

“We sort of said, ‘Should we just not use the world play?’” she said. “But we all were like, ‘No! We’re using the word play. We’re taking back play. It’s ok!’”

To highlight the deep benefits of play, last April the collaborative hosted an Ultimate Play Day at Schenley Plaza and the Carnegie Museum of Art. The day’s activities were carefully designed to make them easy for parents to replicate at home.

Kids and their families could be found digging around in buckets filled with pine cones and wood, painting on the street with washable paint, and chasing giant cardboard soccer balls. Here’s to hoping it was only the first of many play days ahead.


Homepage screenshot/ Carnegie Museum of Art

Arts Education and Why It Matters Every Bit as Much as Science and Engineering

Thomas Südhof is an unlikely champion for arts education.

He’s a biochemist, a professor of medicine at Stanford, and last year won the Nobel Prize for his work on vesicle trafficking, which for those of you who, like me, are not prize-winning scientists, means how cells communicate with their environments.

But in a recent interview Südhof said he feels training in the arts can be just as important in preparing kids for scientific or technical careers as training in the sciences, “if not better,” he told Ryan Romine at Stanford. “Because the 
arts train a person in discipline, independent action, thinking, and in the need for attention 
to detail without becoming a prisoner of that detail. I absolutely don’t think there is a need 
for earlier math training—there is only a need for training the mind so it becomes fertile
 for future learning.”

As self-described “Chief of Confusion” John Seeley Brown said recently, “Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical.” Art and music, he argues, are some of the most important things to teach because of their ability to spur imagination.

We spend a lot of time on this blog touting the importance of STEM learning, the need for technical skills in the future workforce, and, well, bragging about the incredible work going on in the Pittsburgh region to advance student learning in STEM subjects.

But we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the arts, or why all of our students need an interdisciplinary education to be able to engage in systems thinking. Writing at the Atlantic in post titled “STEM Needs a New Letter,” Jessica Lahey argues that though the attention to STEM education is well warranted, “turning STEM into STEAM will make this effort even more worthwhile.” The new “A,” in case you haven’t figured it out, stands for the arts.

Lahey continues: “As Obama stated in 2011, ‘We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.'”

Perhaps there’s another thing that the arts—and the creative process—can teach us. As any artist knows, ideas don’t just come bounding in on demand like a well-trained dog. Artists learn how to get comfortable with waiting for that elusive “genius” moment to hit while also honing their ability to stay attuned to its possibility.

As Kathleen Costanza wrote here, “Working hard and learning to love the process while receptively preparing for a ‘genius’ is a bit like keeping your eyes peeled [on the sidewalk] for a dime and finding a dollar. It pays to always be looking—and being ready for creativity or luck to hit.”

In Pittsburgh we’ve been working to help kids develop these interdisciplinary skills in STEAM learning since 2009, with leadership from our public schools.

At Elizabeth Forward Middle School’s new Dream Factory, three classrooms that had previously been separated—the art room, the technology education room, and the computer science room—are now working in close collaboration. Students there are programming interactive games, building robots, and deciding whether they want to paint, use 3D printing to create a sculpture, or some combination.

“This is not a gifted program, this is not an afterschool activity” said Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent of schools. “Every kid is getting this at our school.”

Educators like Sue Mellon have been helping. Her 7th and 8th grade students at Springdale Junior and Senior High/Colfax School in the Allegheny Valley School District are developing a deeper understanding of poetry by playing around with robotics. She’s using hummingbird robotics kits originally designed at at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab.

“A lot of kids aren’t crazy about poetry,” Mellon said. “But we have to help them engage with it. After spending two weeks analyzing the poem and creating visual imagery and symbolism for their dioramas, they really understand the work and get quite passionate.”

Or the newly expanded STEAM center at Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, which is designed to get educators to collaborate across disciplines.

“STEM alone will not get us there,” John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design wrote in a recent post at Edutopia. “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead toward their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers—those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real.”

Maker Gifts to Inspire Young Designers

Kids don’t need an excuse to make something. That’s why the maker movement is picking up so much such steam; kids are natural tinkerers, and their love of building and creating also carries innumerable learning opportunities.

Even though they don’t need a reason, there’s a time of year when kids’ natural making abilities come out in full force—the holidays. And everyone knows the best gifts are handmade, complete with smudges, crooked edges, and hours of effort. But why not upgrade the typical craft session with all sorts of making this holiday season?

A visit to the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s MAKESHOP is a good place to start. As their new video demonstrates, making is an enormous confidence booster for kids. One young maker describes it this way: “That’s just when this ah-ha moment comes, and you look at this diagram and you’re like, ‘Oh! That’s why it’s not working. Let’s fix it.’”

“How many times have you heard a kid say, ‘Gee, I hope I don’t have to play anymore’? Well, it’s the same thing with making. Nobody says, ‘I hope I don’t have to make anymore,’” says Bonnie Dyer, curriculum and instruction coordinator at Allegheny Intermediate Unit, in another MAKESHOP video about the dispositions of makers.

If you’re not lucky enough to live in or visit Pittsburgh, MAKE Magazine has compiled a gift guide to inspire young designers. It suggests giving things like magnets, duct tape, knitting needles, and prisms. They’re presents kids might not expect, but there’s perhaps no better evidence of the affinity kids have for the simple things than the old cliché: You give kids a toy, and they end up playing with the box.

“Whatever gifts you choose, encourage your kids to take their toys and kits apart and use the pieces for other things. Bundle your science kits with books and materials that take the concept introduced in the kit, such as circuits or chemistry, into uncharted territory,” writes Michelle Hlubinka, who compiled MAKE’s guide.

The experiences kids gain from engaging in maker projects are more valuable than the products themselves.

Beyond traditional chemistry sets, consider looking into Invent-Abling kits. Designed by Carnegie Mellon University alum Deren Güler, the kits were developed to be gender neutral, and include projects like “activated origami”—mini paper circuits that light up—and move.

Of course, there are also GoldieBlox STEM kits for girls. The kits’ tagline is “toys for future inventors,” and they were developed to draw more girls into messing around and making things work. The company’s recent advertisement that features three girls creating an awesome Rube Goldberg machine with the discarded parts of tea sets and dolls went completely viral over the last few weeks. In the video, the young inventors sing: “It’s time to change/ We deserve to see a range/ Because our toys all look the same/ And we would like to use our brains!”

At the risk of sounding hokey, there’s a more important gift that comes out of making than projects like birdhouses, terrariums, boats, and circuits. The experiences kids gain from engaging in maker projects are more valuable than the products themselves. They can spark curiosity about the world around us at a time when traditional the classroom curriculum still fails to engage too many children. As education writer Annie Murphy Paul explained recently, “Tinkering is the polar opposite of the test-driven, results-oriented approach of No Child Left Behind: it involves a loose process of trying things out, seeing what happens, reflecting and evaluating, and trying again.”

Sparking a lifelong love of STEM? Now that’s a gift that keeps on giving.


Photo/ Alper Orus

Do Digital Tools Belong in Preschool?

In a preschool classroom in Washington, Pennsylvania, about a half hour south of Pittsburgh, a group of 2-year-old children are taking pictures of a tree using their school’s digital camera. The child holding the camera has been designated the “photographer of the day” by his teacher, Jill Fulton. This particular photo session is part of a year-long project to document how the tree is changing through the seasons.

“We have a VTech toddler friendly camera. So they can’t break it,” Fulton says. “They have full range of it. I get a lot of pictures of trees and grass. They are like little paparazzi.”

Fulton, who is a teacher in the toddler room at Just Us Kids, a care provider that serves children from infancy to age 12, says using the digital camera helps kids explore the natural world around them and observe the changing seasons. But, she says, her students love the toy cameras they have in the play area inside their classroom just as much. The toy cameras also help kids learn about their environment, though in different ways—through imagination and make-believe.

A young photographer at Just us Kids. Photo/Jill Fulton.

Early childhood professionals have long been cautious about introducing digital technologies into early childhood classrooms, fearing that screen media will displace time kids should be spending playing, digging in the dirt, or interacting with peers and adults—the kinds of hands-on engagement that research shows best promotes learning for kids of this age.

But some early childhood educators are starting to feel differently. Educators here in Pittsburgh may be on the cutting edge of using the newest technology with the youngest learners in ways that are developmentally appropriate for 2 t0 5-year-olds.  Educators aren’t simply sticking students alone in front of a screen to play around with the latest apps. Rather, they are, as Fred Rogers once said, “putting the children first,” thinking creatively about how to incorporate today’s technology in ways that match young children’s unique developmental needs.

“If Maria Montessori were alive today, the tools we would see in early childhood classrooms would look very different,” says Michelle Figlar who heads up PAEYC, Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the leading advocacy group for early childhood educators. “We think that digital tools absolutely fit into that environment in the same way building blocks and water tables and sand tables do.”

Figlar tells educators to always keep their goals front and center and remember not to get blinded by technology’s “bells & whistles.” “Technology is always just a tool to help us get there,” she says.

From 1968 to 2001, Pittsburgh was home to Fred Rogers, who filmed his pioneering TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the city, using the technology of his day to promote learning in the early years. Today, the Fred Rogers Center and NAEYC are helping early childhood professionals imagine new possibilities for their classrooms that include today’s latest interactive technology.

In 2012, the Fred Rogers Center partnered with NAEYC to release a position statement on using technology and interactive media in early childhood programs.

“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” -Rita Catalano, the Fred Rogers Center.
“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” says Rita Catalano, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center. The position statement therefore included some important caveats. Namely, it recommends limiting passive screen time (such as TV) for children ages 2–5, and avoiding it entirely for children under age 2. And they warn that if technology is provided without guidance and education, “usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development.”

The Rogers Center is drawing on child development research to help professionals and parents define quality media experiences for young children. They see potential in interactive touch screen media, and have compiled examples for how to use technology tools and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways.

Technology, for example, can help add insights to a hands-on experience. PAEYC’s Michelle Figlar says a colleague once described a group of 3-year-olds working in the block corner, building houses modeled on their own. Their teacher used the iPad to show the children pictures of their actual houses using Google map’s street view, zooming out to show the children their street and neighborhood. The experience, she said, was a perfect example of an optimal use of an iPad in an early childhood classroom.

“It brings it to where the children are. It’s intentional. It’s totally integrated. ‘I can see where my house is, what it looks like, and I can show my friends.’ It’s social studies. In this instance, the iPad helped to make a real life experience tangible for the children.”

The Fred Rogers Center is also working to support teachers with professional development programs and their Early Learning Environment (Ele), a web-based support system designed to offer resources and guidance in early literacy and digital media literacy to under-resourced parents, family childcare providers, and early childhood educators.

Jill Fulton is one of hundreds of educators who have attended workshops led by the center this year. She says she’s not a techie in other areas of her life, but the professional development sessions have really helped open her eyes to how to use technology appropriately with 2-year-olds.

For example, Fulton displays photos and video from her classroom each day in a digital frame so parents and children can look at them together at the end of the school day. A similar project, Message from Me, adapts existing technologies like email, digital cameras, and microphones, to enhance parent-child communication about what happens during the school day. Kiosks placed in classrooms enable children ages 3 to 5 to record their daily experiences and send them to their parents. The project is a partnership between the CREATE Lab, the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University, and PAEYC.

“The technology is great,” says Figlar. “But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary.

Especially in very low-income neighborhoods, where we know from the research that learning vocabulary is very important—that is a beautiful way of using technology.”

Photo/Brian Cohen

Pittsburgh is home to a growing cadre of design professionals, artists, and technologists who are creating partnerships with educators to design better technology for kids.

“It’s always about the children and everyone puts them first,” Figlar says. “They are not just looking to make the next best app they can make money off of. It’s a very reciprocal relationship.”

PAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center are also both working with organizations like Common Sense Media, and with librarians and museum educators in Pittsburgh to make sure that children have developmentally appropriate learning experiences across their community.

A lot of families come to the library to have access to a computer, according to Mary Beth Parks, the coordinator of children’s services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. So librarians have an important role to play in helping families and educators use computers and other digital tools in ways that promote learning and literacy. At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh librarians are incorporating iPads into storytime, making developmentally appropriate iPad apps like interactive books and educational games available to children and caregivers.  Parks says this way of using technology is important because it not only “provides access to technology but also models instructional methods and techniques that can be used by the child’s first teacher—their parent or caregiver.”

Similarly, partnerships with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh are helping to make sure young children in the region have plenty of opportunities to experiment with technology in a hands-on way. The museum’s innovative MAKESHOP is an exhibit space where kids and adults can experiment with physical materials and digital tools. Hands-on play with technology, the museum’s director Jane Werner says, is important to help children begin to grasp at a young age that they can be creators, not just consumers, and that technology is something they can have control over.

The museum hosts classroom visits and two Pittsburgh Public School Head Start classes in the museum itself.

Werner concurs that the partnerships that take place on behalf of children in the region are unique.  “We tend not to get territorial,” she told me last spring. “There’s so much work to be done, we all realize it, and we all work together.” Fred Rogers would be proud.

How Physical Activity Can Help Kids Do Better in School

Preventing and combating childhood obesity won’t just help kids live longer, healthier lives. Research has found exercise helps kids learn better, too.

As reported in a New York Times post, a study published in The Journal of Pediatrics matched nearly 12,000 Nebraska students’ timed runs and BMIs against their standardized test scores. The researchers found that higher levels of aerobic fitness corresponded with better academic performance. Interestingly, a child’s weight or BMI didn’t matter—it was their level of physical fitness that corresponded to the better scores.

Another study published in PLOS One asked two groups of 9- and 10-year-olds to memorize fictional places on an iPad map. One group was physically fit (as determined by a treadmill test), and the other was not. When asked to remember the locations after straight memorization, the fit kids scored an average of 43 percent. The unfit kids scored an average 25.8 percent. The study’s authors concluded, “fitness-associated performance benefits are largest in conditions in which initial learning is the most challenging.”

These aren’t the first indications of the amazing ways exercise aids our brains. Researchers have long been working to pin down how exactly exercise impacts retention and learning. Over and over, studies have found even light exercise increases memory, mood, and ability to perform well on tests, as this other in-depth post from the New York Times explains.

If helping kids live longer, healthier lives wasn’t enough, this learning boost is just one more incentive to promote physical fitness both in school and out.

However, since No Child Left Behind was implemented in 2001, nearly half of all schools have cut significant time from physical education classes to make more room for reading and math instruction, according a report from Institute of Medicine. The PE cuts and reduced recess times have only compounded the childhood obesity epidemic that has brought the country to a tipping point—one in three kids is overweight and one in six is obese. Due to many factors—such as less access to healthcare, safe parks, and grocery stores that stock healthy foods—the childhood obesity rate is not distributed evenly. Forty-five percent of overweight kids ages 10 to 17 come from families living below the poverty line.

Research has also linked excessive media use to the obesity epidemic. Today’s kids often lead a more sedentary lifestyle than children have in the past, often due to video games and computers. When kids spend about seven hours a day with screens, not much daylight is left for the one or more hours of recommended physical activity.

There’s evidence that some of the efforts to get kids to run, do yoga, and just get moving are working–the obesity numbers have recently been leveling off or decreasing.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign and Let’s Move Pittsburgh have raised awareness about the benefits of healthy foods, decreased screen time, and increased physical activity for children.

Like so much in the ever-changing world of technology, healthy habits require balancing time spent with technology. Research done in Boston with low-income families showed simple interventions, like removing TVs from bedrooms so kids get more sleep, had positive effects on obesity.

Another way to balance screens and fitness is to harness technology to motivate activity. Take Fitwits, for example. Based here in Pittsburgh, this multi-faceted research project focuses on obesity prevention and health literacy. Spearheaded by Carnegie Mellon University design professor Kristin Hughes, the project runs out of schools, doctor’s offices, and community centers. The project’s website serves as a hub of resources, from game instructions to printable snack cards.

Digital Salad has a similar blend of technology, art, and nutrition education. The nonprofit introduces kids to farming and harvesting, and allowing them to create artistic, digital responses to their experiences.

Although projects like Fitwits or Digital Salad aim to give kids more agency in their health, the reality is kids have limited control over their diet and lifestyle because they’re not footing the grocery bill.

That’s why fitUnited Pittsburgh, a United Way initiative, engages adults first to teach kids through example. Through events, competitions (with prizes like family health club memberships), and volunteer opportunities, fitUnited is mobilizing a network of adults to increase Pittsburgh’s wellness.

Schools are strapped for time and resources, but creative ways of getting kids moving, with or without tech, might just make the rest of the day’s learning more efficient.