Playtime! Possibly the Best Learning of All

February 22, 2012

Children need more unstructured playtime in their lives. They need time enough to get bored. If they’re going to learn and grow and achieve as much as they can in the long run, they need ample opportunities to develop their self-regulation, imagination, self-awareness, and other important life skills.

Over the past few decades, playtime has become more about things—toys, educational puzzles, electronic games, etc.—than about imagination and activities that children invent for themselves. It’s also become a lot more adult-directed, with an eye on academic learning and productive use of children’s time, a lot less child-directed and apparently aimless. Instead of being filled with spontaneous improvisation and discovery, children’s time is increasingly being scheduled by adults and gobbled up by electronic devices.

While many parents think that an increased focus on the productive use of their children’s time will give their kids a leg up in the competitions to get into the best preschools, schools, and—eventually—colleges and universities, there is increasing evidence that it does the opposite. By robbing kids of ample time for imagination, exploration, and collaborative invention, we are taking away essential opportunities for them to develop the skills prerequisite to real achievement and fulfillment over time.

Self-regulation skills include managing and controlling one’s feelings, moods, behaviour, and intellectual focus. Like self-regulation, collaboration skills and self-awareness are key components of emotional intelligence, which is a much better predictor of academic, career, and other kinds of success than IQ or other intellectual or academic ability scores.

Kids who spend good chunks of their time building forts, playing house, or constructing narratives of pirates, paupers, cowboys, and circus clowns are more likely to take ownership of their own learning and their own environments. Interestingly, they’re also more likely to co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period in preschool. In an interview on National Public Radio in the USA, child development expert Laura Berk reported, ‘Children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that [clean-up] responsibility with greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting.’ (To see the complete article, go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514)

Although it may look like they’re wasting time or doing nothing much at all, kids involved in imaginative play may be investing their time as productively as possible for the long run. When they’re making up their own rules and their own games, they’re learning about themselves and others, exploring and finding out what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others. So, let’s not insist on giving kids the scripts and the props we think they need for their play, but rather, let’s allow them to find and invent their own ways of playing and learning, at least for good parts of their day.

Children do need planned stimulation and enrichment opportunities—classes, clubs, puzzles, building toys, educational activities, museums, performances, outings, etc.—but their lives shouldn’t be so jammed with these good things that there’s no time left for imagination and unstructured playtime. Somewhat counter-intuitively, too much focus on enrichment and achievement can actually impede their cognitive and emotional development. Do-nothing times can be the most productive times of all.

What Does It Mean If a Child Is ‘Scary Smart’?

January 17, 2012

‘People have told me that my little girl is “scary smart”. Is that going to be a problem for her as she gets older?’

‘Kids shouldn’t be allowed to get ahead of themselves. If someone’s already great at math, let him learn about reading or develop his social skills.’

‘I’d rather be normal than super-smart.’

In my work with families and schools over the years, parents have sometimes confided that friends, relatives, or even teachers have described their kids as ‘scary smart’. I’ve also heard similar ideas from teachers or parents who question whether or not it’s okay to let children learn more than what’s expected for their age levels, and from kids who experience being unusually smart as meaning they’re ostracized by other kids and even adults.

A lot of things can underlie observations and questions like these, but very often, what people are really talking about are their own concerns. They wonder if they have what it takes to parent their energetically curious child who surprises them with what they know, teach students who have IQ scores higher than their own, or “be” extremely bright. Sometimes they’ve encountered critical reactions from friends and family members, and sometimes they’re worried about the praise, suspicion, envy, or expectations that can come when kids are noticeably ahead of ‘normal’.

My response to observations, questions, and concerns like this is to talk about what very high intelligence is, and what it isn’t. A lot of people think it’s a mysterious gift that some people are born with, and that others aren’t. But, the more that scientists learn about how the brain develops, the more it turns out that intelligence is actually an ongoing process that depends very much on the temperament and will of the individual child, as well as the environment that the child experiences at home and then, later, at school. Intelligence-building does involve genetic predispositions, but it is also dependent upon all those moment-by-moment environmental influences and learning opportunities that make up infants’, toddlers’, and older children’s experiences of life and the world. It’s not nearly so mysterious – or frightening – as some people seem to think.

From where I sit, highly intelligent or unusually “gifted” children are not scary creatures at all, but rather they are young people who are actively engaged in interesting developmental processes that are more complex than—but not as mysterious as–often imagined. They are experiencing what’s been called a ‘rage to master’, and they’ve been blessed with the kinds of social support and opportunities to learn that they need in order to pursue whatever it is they are raging to master. In my opinion, exceptionally high intelligence is a healthy and positive developmental process, and totally ‘normal’ within the context of particular circumstances. By looking at it this way, fears and concerns about kids who are ‘scary smart’ melt away, and parents, teachers, and children become free to continue engaging in enjoying learning together.

For more thoughts on this topic, go to www.raisingsmarterkids.net

Children, Gifts, and Holidays

December 17, 2011

Another holiday season, another reason for buying presents. Or not. Another reason, maybe, to think about the kinds of gifts we’re already blessed with, and those we have to give, without buying much at all. There’s nothing new about this anti-materialistic perspective, but when I look around me, I realise it’s a timeless message, and one that bears thinking about once again this year.

Christmas is a stressful season for most of the people I know who grew up in a Christian tradition, certainly including myself. My friends and relations who come from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and other traditions seem to have an easier and happier feeling about this holiday season. Many of them can say—without irony or wishful thinking—that they actually ‘like’ Christmas. I find it far too loaded with memories of Christmases past—times of sadness, loss, longing, and disappointment, as well as happiness, joy, excitement, and pleasure—as well as with perceived expectations and need for preparations, so that no one will be sad or disappointed this year—to feel anything as clean and simple as ‘liking’ for it.

One of the big seasonal stressors concerns gifts. Adults worry about finding the right gift for each of the people on their list. They worry about the price of everything, and how they’re going to pay for it all. In the hustle and bustle and stress of the season, they sometimes don’t see that their children can be worried, too.

There are children whose only worries concern whether or not they’ll be getting what they want for Christmas—the right doll, toy, bicycle, building set, or something else— but a lot of children have the same worries as their parents: will they be able to find just the right thing for each of the people on their list? And if they find something right, will they be able to afford it? And if they buy only what they can reasonably afford, will they look cheap? Will others think they don’t care? And I’ve also known a surprising number of children who worry deeply about people who don’t have so much.

By thinking creatively about what we give our children, we help free them from some of these worries. By providing a model of thoughtful expression of the spirit of Christmas –love, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit—we can help them relax a bit, and maybe even enjoy the season. What are some of the possibilities?

Gifts of presence. One of the best gifts we can give our children at this time of year is the reassurance that they are the biggest gift of all. That their presence in our lives is the biggest and best present they could ever give us.

Gifts of our fully present time. We can give them discussion time, to talk about and find out what they might like to do, and then do it with them. It might be time to take a walk together, do some cooking, go to an art gallery or zoo or museum or movie or bookstore together. Time to take a trip together, whether it’s to see the Christmas displays in the downtown store windows, or to somewhere else you’ve both been wanting to go. And then to be fully present to them during that time – we snatch the gift out of their hands if we’re irritable or impatient, or spend some of our together-time on a phone or iDevice.

Gifts of developing gifts. My professional life has focused on developing giftedness in children – finding children’s passions, interests, and abilities, and then looking for ways their parents and teachers can support them in developing those gifts. One of the best gifts to give children at this time of year is to acknowledge what it is that makes them special and unique, even if it is only a dream. It’s even better if we can also give them something to help make their hopes and dreams become real — a computer for the wannabe writer, ballet lessons for the child who loves to dance, paints and brushes for the child who is interested in art, a chemistry set for the aspiring scientist. And when money is tight, to look for ways to provide access to these opportunities in ways that don’t break the bank or overtax the budget.

Gifts of sharing.  In our family, we’ve stopped buying presents for each other, except for the smallest children. We still get together to share the season, enjoy some great food together, and be present to each other in ways that reflect the reason for the season –love, generosity of spirit, acceptance, forgiveness. Several of us also choose this time of year to give something—time, money, or something else— to a cause that helps others who aren’t doing so well. Children can derive huge pleasure in thinking about others at this time of year, and finding ways to make the world a brighter place for people who are struggling.

Gifts of doing. I remember one Christmas, one of my daughters gave me a package of tickets she had carefully printed out in her eight-year-old hand. The parcel included tickets for folding the laundry, being nice to her sister, going to bed when asked, clearing out the dishwasher, and a number of other gifts of doing, things she knew would ease my daily life. What a delightful and thoughtful gift that was, and one that kept on giving for many months.

Gifts of making. I’ve always treasured gifts that people have made for me—baking, sewing, woodworking, knitting—and I try to give handmade gifts myself, as much as time and my creative imagination allow.

It may be inevitable that Christmas is bittersweet for those of us who come from a Christian tradition– that the joy, the laughter, the food, the music, the expectations, the happy holiday gatherings—will always be shadowed by thoughts of absent friends and family, awareness of people who are having a hard time of life, and memories of sad and disappointing Christmases past. One burden we can let go of, though, and relieve our children of, is the need to spend a lot of money on gifts at this time of year.

 

The Intelligence Edge

December 3, 2011

We come back to a theme we’re encountering a lot these days: parents – stressed by the demands and insecurities they’re experiencing in their own lives— wonder how they can ensure their children will have the intelligence edge they’ll need in this fast-paced and rapidly-changing world. What can parents do to support their children’s ability to cope successfully with—and even welcome— the challenges they will inevitably encounter?

So much is changing so rapidly in the world right now, and in individual people’s lives. Very few of us feel as confident about the future as we once did, and when so little seems stable and predictable, it is easy to become overwhelmed by worries. Parents I talk to are concerned about the stresses in their own lives, and have questions like these about raising their children:

How can I make sure my children aren’t damaged by the sex and violence that surrounds them–in advertising, computer games, music, cartoons, television, and more?

Is it okay if my child has no interest in reading?

I’m feeling uncertain about my own job. How can I possibly prepare my child to earn a living one day?

The bottom line for these and many other questions concerns how parents can best prepare their children to thrive in a fast-paced and rapidly-changing world.

The answer to most of these questions is surprisingly simple, although not always easy to implement. The single best way to give children an intelligence edge—a well-developed ability to cope successfully with and even welcome the challenges they will inevitably encounter –is to spend time with them.

Listen patiently and respectfully to their concerns. Discuss your ideas and theirs, and do some problem-solving together. Convey a confidence in their ability to figure things out—with your help, as needed, and only in those areas where they have some reasonable age-appropriate control over the situation. Be present to their fears, their hopes, their worries. Help them see that managing change and meeting challenges can feel good.

There is more than this to being a good parent, of course, including supporting your children in developing habits of mind like perseverance, hard work, critical thinking, creativity, and flexibility; and in having character traits like honesty, kindness, loyalty, and integrity. Children need lots more than just being listened to — love, for example, and guidance, patience, social interaction, physical play, sensory stimulation, and intellectual challenge.

Joanne Foster and I discuss all these important things at length in Raising Smarter Kids, but if given the time and opportunity to make only one suggestion to a worried parent, it is almost always about the intelligence edge their children will have if they have someone with whom to communicate openly—someone who they can trust in order to share their perspectives and ideas. And, that is truer today than ever.

When the world is rushing along madly, children need to feel a sense of sanctuary, attention, and respect at home.

Wisdom in Children?

October, 2011

Although wisdom is often associated with later adulthood, its seeds are planted in childhood. The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives. That means taking others’ needs into account, as well as one’s own, and doing that explicitly, sharing the reasoning processes with children.

“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of wisdom in coping successfully with turbulent times, and realising that wisdom is as important for children as it is for adults. Although it is often associated with later adulthood, the seeds of wisdom are planted in childhood. More than ever, now is a time for parents and teachers to help children learn to make calm, reasoned sense of what’s happening around them, and to make wise decisions in their lives. This is always true, of course, but the urgency of thinking and behaving wisely is accentuated in times of stress.

Think, for example, about the British campaign asking citizens to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ during the bombing raids of the second world war. This was an appeal to people’s wisdom, and the collective ability of the British population to respond positively to this message was almost certainly a factor in the outcome of the war.

Practically speaking, what can parents do to support the development of wisdom in their children? Because wisdom is an abstract idea like love or compassion, it’s a good idea to start with what it looks like in practice: ‘Wise people do not look out just for their own interests, nor do they ignore these interests. Rather, they skillfully balance interests of varying kinds, including their own, and [others’]…Wise individuals realize that what may appear to be a prudent course of action in the short term does not necessarily appear so over the long term.’ (from Explorations in Giftedness (2011), by Robert Sternberg, Linda Jarvin, and Elena Grigorenko)

So, we’re back to the question that motivated this blog: how can parents support the development of wisdom in their children? The quote at the top of the blog from Martin Luther King provides a clue: wisdom requires well-developed thinking skills (or intelligence), as well as a strongly developed character. I have addressed elsewhere the ways that parents and teachers can support the development of their children’s intelligence, and focus here on the ‘character’ component of wisdom. This is where Sternberg’s description comes in, suggesting that wisdom includes a focus on skillfully balancing interests of varying kinds, including one’s own as well as others’; and an understanding that one needs to consider the longer term, as well as immediate and short term, effects of a decision or action.

The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom and character in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives, sharing the reasoning processes with children, as they become able to understand some of the factors that are involved. ‘Others’ here is broadly inclusive, from immediate family members, out through extended family and friendship networks, and community, national, and global interests. That means, for example, thinking about the environmental effects of one’s actions. It means treating others the way one would like to be treated, and also being as good to oneself as one is to others. It means making a habit of asking, ‘What would happen if everyone behaved as I do?’

Modeling wisdom also means thinking about the long term consequences of any behaviour or action, as well as possible immediate and short-term consequences. It might be alright to eat one more chocolate bar right now, but in the longer term, too many decisions like that will prove unwise. The family might be able to afford an expensive holiday this year, but perhaps that will mean depleting resources, and having trouble if the roof starts leaking or the car needs repairs. Sometimes a holiday is badly needed—whether for physical or emotional or family-building reasons –and is the best possible way to spend the family savings. Knowing when it’s a good idea to push the limits, and when it’s a good time to conserve, is where wisdom comes in.

Second to modeling wise decision-making, the most important thing that parents can do is include their children in decision-making processes, as appropriate to the child’s age and abilities. This is best if it starts small and personal – should Maria do her homework when she gets home from school, for example, or can she wait until after dinner? By the time a child becomes a teenager, decisions are getting more complex and have bigger consequences, so it’s great if some wisdom has already been acquired. Because children of eleven through fourteen are going through extraordinary internal and external changes, they go through a stage when they may appear to have lost any wisdom they’d already gained, so it’s important that they’ve already consolidated some basics of wise decision-making before that.

Raising kids who are not only smart, but who are also wise enough to make the decisions that will lead to a sense of fulfillment and happiness across the life span, is a serious challenge faced by all parents. This is the challenge that Joanne Foster and I address in our work together, most explicitly in Raising Smarter Kids. We write there about what we think parents’ ultimate goals for their children should be. This includes a feeling of well-being, and, ideally, happiness. Integrity. The recognition that change and challenge can be good. The ability to welcome adversity, and to cultivate resilience in the face of hardship. The ability to think, communicate, and act coherently, responsibly, creatively, and decisively. A collaborative spirit. Ample capacity for fun and relaxation. And, a lifelong love of learning, fueled by a calm, self-assured motivation and drive. Wisdom, in other words.

As with creativity and intelligence, parents have a much larger role in their children acquiring wisdom than many realize. Parents can make a difference by providing the kinds of environments, challenges, role models, and social supports that increase the likelihood of their children making wise decisions, both in the short term, and in the longer term.

What if We Don’t Label Smart Kids ‘Smart’?

October 8, 2011

When children are ahead of their peers in their learning needs, their parents usually have lots of questions about what to do next. How do they make sure their children get an education that is challenging enough, without being stigmatized?

“I want my child to have the more challenging education that she needs, but I’m worried that the gifted label will lead to other kids bullying her or treating her differently.”

Joanne and I get a lot of questions from parents who want their children to be challenged in their learning, but are concerned about the gifted label, or about sending their children to segregated programs for high-ability learners. We’ve written about this in many places, including in Being Smart about Gifted Education, and Raising Smarter Kids. For a brief summary of some of our thoughts on this topic, including the pros and the cons, you might be interested in a paper we’ve posted to the Resources page of this website: “Label the person, or the program?”

Labeling and segregation is a hot topic for many parents. Earlier this week, Maureen Downey, an education writer and parent in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote a blog questioning the categorizing process that too often happens. She pointed out some of the problems, and offered an alternative suggestion: “I prefer that we get rid of gifted labels and instead make classes more fluid, moving students into higher grades when they show great aptitude.”

She also suggested that schools “consider raising the bar for all students, and treat everyone as a high achiever.” As evidence for this idea, she described Duke University’s Project Bright Idea, a five-year study of 10,000 students in the early grades. All the children were taught (independently of test scores or eligibility for gifted programming) in classrooms that used techniques recommended for high-ability students (which include more challenging learning opportunities, and an emphasis on higher order thinking). About 20 percent of these students were later identified as being academically gifted, as compared with 10% of similar students who were taught in regular classrooms, illustrating the remarkable effect of raising the bar for all children.

I’ve known many parents who are convinced that gifted labeling and/or programming saved their children’s lives in one way or another. However, I have also seen too many children on both sides of the artificial ‘gifted’ divide who were hurt by the fact of the divide. I agree with Ms. Downey—there is probably a better and more inclusive way of making sure that kids get all the challenges and support that they need to learn at the highest levels. To see Ms Downey’s blog:

http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2011/10/03/were-going-to-disney-and-youre-not-the-have-and-have-nots-in-gifted-education/

 

The Times They Are A-Changin’

August 28, 2011

The world is changing rapidly all around us, in large ways and small. As I write this, Hurricane Irene is raging up the east coast of the United States, the rebel fighters appear to be making advances into Tripoli and bringing down the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, countless new electronic devices and approaches to health are being invented that will someday change my life, and my daughter has just given birth to my first grandbaby. And who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Joanne and I are putting some finishing touches on some new collaborative work, thinking about the impact of change on the roles and responsibilities of parents. The bottom line for parents, I think, is that although the world around us is changing at a breathtaking speed—we hardly get a chance to recover from one set of changes before the next set presents itself to us—the basic principles of raising children are the same as ever. Children need their parents’ love, guidance, attention, support, and rule-setting.

At the same time, there are specific practical tools that parents can use to help children learn to adapt well to change. That’s very much the focus of Raising Smarter Kids. It’s also the focus of an article I wrote with Rosanne Menna a few years back, called ‘Solving Problems Together: The Importance of Parent/School/Community Collaboration at a Time of Educational and Social Change’. You’ll find that article under ‘Reflections and Opportunities’ in the Resources page of this website.

The Broom Is More Powerful Than the Baseball Bat

August 14, 2011

Late this week, across England, brigades of mostly young people gathered, carrying brooms, in areas where looting had destroyed their neighbours’ shops and homes over the previous few days. The broom brigade came together in the same way that the gangs of looters had come together with baseball bats a few days earlier, using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, to let people know what was happening, and encourage them to get involved.

There’s been a lot of talk in the wake of the looting about the role of parents – should parents be held accountable for their children’s antisocial actions? Should parents be evicted from their community-subsidised housing if their teenagers set fire to a shop, or steal from one?

This turmoil across England, and the ensuing community-minded clean-ups, echo socially disruptive and cohesive activities happening around the world, in the Arab Spring, in China, and elsewhere. They provide an opportunity for parents to think about the values they’re living out themselves, and what they’re teaching their children about a person’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in society. Parents can take this chance to affirm the importance of each of us taking an active part in investing in creating a civil society, especially in times of stress and turmoil.

In response to many requests from parents for advice on how to support their children through troubled times, Joanne and I wrote an article several years ago that has been reprinted several times, in newsletters and other publications around the world, called ‘Troubling Times: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Understand and Confront Adversity.’ In it, we recommend that parents help their children see their own roles in making the world a better place, one manageable step at a time. In short, we recommend that parents show their children by their own example how much more powerful is the broom than the baseball bat.