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What do all children need to become successful learners? What are some characteristics of quality playtime? What is cognitive conflict and why should it be ‘promoted’?


  • Read Chapter 3  
  • Use complete sentences to answer the following questions. Each response should be at least a 5 sentence paragraph
    • What do all children need to become successful learners?
    • What are some characteristics of quality playtime?
    • What is cognitive conflict and why should it be "promoted"?
    • What are motor skills and how to they support a growing child's development?

C hapter3

C hildren's B

rains at W ork:

F rom

N ursery to Schoolroom

, A ges T

w o to


O ne m

orning w hile I w

as observing a prekindergarten class in a top-ranked school, a little boy's parents w

ere also taking a look, trying to decide w

hether they should enroll him the follow

ing year. W

hile he delved happily into the sand-and-w ater table, they

circulated around the room . I sensed som

e skepticism about w

hat they saw

, and I guessed the reason. T his program

for three- and

four-year-olds w as designed to prepare children for a high-

pow ered academ

ic setting-but it looked like too m uch fun!

In one corner children intently m easured sand and w

ater as they engineered a dam

. N earby, in the block area, tw

o boys and three girls w

orked on a "W hite H

ouse" w ith a sliding ram

p to capture "bad guys." A

teacher in the art corner helped children classify w

obbly clay anim als for an im

aginary zoo, and several youngsters in the dram

atic play area discussed their shopping list for a pretend T

hanksgiving dinner. N o w

orkbooks w ere present in the literacy

area, but an aide read a story aloud and engaged a rapt group of children w

ith questions, predictions, and evaluations. O ne sm

all boy spent the entire free play tim

e fondling and talking to the class's pet rabbit.

I could see the visiting m other peering hopefully into the five-

year-old room next door. W

hen she again found no desks or w

orkbooks, she gave up. N udging her husband, she w

hispered, "This school isn't w

orth the m oney. They don't do any w

ork here!" As adults, w

e have a pretty clear idea of w hat constitutes "w

ork" and "play." M

ost of us believe that in order to learn som ething, w

e m

ust w ork hard at it, and too m

any have forgotten that the process of m

eaningful learning can be fun, exciting, and even playful. Y et

the hum an brain changes during developm

ent, and the "w ork," as

w ell as the fun, that is appropriate for teenagers and adults is not

right for young children. Those w ho believe that "valuable tim

e" is being w asted or that their children w

ill "get behind" if they are allow

ed to

learn in

a developm

entally oriented,

creative curriculum

-w hich often looks like "play" even w

hen carefully planned-are sadly m

istaken. A s w

e shall see later, highly creative and successful adults are often those w

ho once learned to play w ith

objects and now play w

ith ideas and innovations. In this chapter w

e w ill look at the exciting developm

ents that occur during the preschool and early prim

ary years. Parents and teachers w

ho understand the unique and dynam ic nature of this

age period are best qualified to guide the process.












rain-B uilding E

nvironm ents for T


Studies show that the right kind of "enriched" environm

ents prom

ote brain grow th and lay good foundations for a lifetim

e of learning. B

ut w hat does "enriched" m

ean at different ages? First of all, good nutrition continues to get top priority. V

arious parts of the brain seem

to resppnd to different nutrients; as just one exam

ple, recent studies indicate that adequate

iron is

im portant

both for

m yelination

and for

a specific

region (hippocam

pus) that contributes to m em

ory. M any such specific

relationships w ill continue to be found, so it is w

orth the tim e and

effort it takes to help your child learn to m ake good nutritional

choices. "Enriched" w

ould include stim ulating playtl1ings that becom

e increasingly im

portant for cognitive developm ent after age one.

Interesting and challenging play m aterials in children's hom

es after the first year predict later IQ

and school achievem ent in

reading and m ath. A

s in infancy, a child's firsthand involvem ent

w ith objects and experiences is a catalyst for brain grow

th. In a m

arket of num bing electronic glitz, the fact rem

ains that sim

ple, open-ended toys are still best. A toy should encourage the

child to m anipulate, interact, or figure som

ething out. W hen there

is only one "right w ay" to play, or if toys try to "teach" routine

academ ic

skills, opportunities for

experim entation

and new

discovery are lim

ited. C om

m on household objects such as tools,

cooking utensils, and gadgets provide great possibilities for

creative problem

-solving and im

aginative play.

N esting


58 of 330

stacking toys or objects, containers for dum ping and pouring, art

m aterials, and stringing or sorting different sizes of beads and

buttons, for exam ple, all require active handling by the child and

teach about relationships: top, m iddle, bottom

; sm all, big, bigger,

biggest. W ooden unit blocks in graduated sizes and shapes are all-

tim e w

inners. Toys that encourage m

anipulative play help higher levels of the brain develop fine m

otor control and sequencing, w hich are

related to later attention and self-control skills, handw riting, and

proficiency in the arts. L arge m

uscle activities integrate hands, eyes, and m

uscles (as in throw ing and catching a ball, or clim

bing a jungle gym

) and prom ote coordination of both sides of the body

-im portant for building intellectual skills based on connections

w ithin and betw

een the tw o sides of the brain. A

ctivities involving balance, spinning, or som

ersaults exercise the cerebellum , w

hich also contributes to academ

ic learning later on. B etw

een the ages of tw

o to four, the m otor cortex has a m

ajor spurt in activity, so this is a tim

e for new physical challenges-

as long as they're m

anageable and fun. L

ook also for toys that encourage children to pretend, such as a dress-up box, toy tools and utensils, or sm

all play figures. It is discouraging to hear reports from

early childhood teachers that m

any of today's m edia-saturated youngsters are so full of other

people's plots and im ages that they can't pretend or im

agine. D on't

let this happen to your child!

G uidelines for C


O ther factors are also critical in determ

ining the quality of preschool environm

ents. In a day-care setting, research show s the

m ost positive outcom

es, both for intelligence and behavior, are related to sm

all group size; a close, affectionate relationship w ith

the caregiver and other adults; language stim ulation; and the level

of education of the caregiver. H ere are further research-based

ideas that any adult caring for your child should heed:

• M aintain reasonable rules so iliat the child's safety needs can

be m et w

ithout discouraging exploration.

• C hild-sized furniture, easels, and chalkboards give a com

forting feeling of control.

• Try for

em otional consistency and

a reasonably stable

em otional clim

ate. •

A void

harsh physical

punishm ent

or overly

restrictive discipline, and help the child feel successful.

• A positive em

otional clim ate also includes giving children

insight into the feelings of others ("T im

is crying because you took his ball." "Sarah feels sad because her puppy is sick, and w

e should be especially kind to her today.") C

hildren w ith better developed

em otional and social com

petence at ages three and four show

better adjustm ent in kindergarten. This "theory of m

ind" also helps children m

anage their ow n em

otions; it should be evident by about age five.

• Let the child take the lead in play. Show and guide; don't direct

or boss. Be open to new w

ays to play or use m aterials.

• D on't "protect" your child from

m aking a few

m istakes-

and learning from

them . C

om plim

ent process ("Y ou're trying hard")

rather than outcom e (''Y

ou w on!").

• Even toddlers can m ake sim

ple decisions. "W hat color Play-

D oh w

ould you like today?" "W hich book do you choose to take in

the car?" O ffer uncom

plicated choices that you both can live w ith

-an d

then stick to them .

• A t this age it is appropriate to start suggesting that the child do

som e self-evaluation. "H

ow did I do?" "D

id I finish?" Encourage the child to m

ake positive statem ents about him

self. "I stuck w ith

it." "I thought of a new w

ay and it w orked." "I did it on m

y ow n."

• Provide varied sensory stim ulation and m

any opportunities for active m

ovem ent and exploration. A

llow plenty of free play as w

ell as planned and m

eaningful play experiences. • T

he sensory aspects of play can be linked w ith language. "H


does that

look/sound/sm ell/taste/feel?"

T his

is a

good opportunity for vocabulary building (e.g., sm

ooth, bum py, sharp,

delicious). • Encourage the child to talk about her play. Show

that you are interested by listening and asking questions. Encourage her to guide her play by talking about w

hat she's doing. • A

s the child gets older, select a w eekly topic for play exploration.

For exam ple, you m

ight put out a m agnifying glass, collectingjars,

sorting boxes, and picture books for nature study. Let the child's interests guide you.

• Ideas for creative projects m ay be found in m

any m agazines.

Focus on the child's involvem ent, not on the finished product.

• A void w

orkbooks or other purchased "learning" m aterials that

"teach" rote-level academ ic tasks of letters and num

bers. T hese

w ill com

e later. • K

eep electronics to a m inim

um . R

eal intelligence and social com

petence com e from

real experiences and real people. • Easels and paints, clay, sand, Play-D

oh, fingerpaints, w ater,

construction paper, glue, and m ud are exam

ples of m aterials that

help refine and organize sensory intake system s. If you tend to be

a fanatic about cleanliness, close your eyes and im agine synapses

connecting inside that m uddy head.

I once saw a little boy w

ho becam e alm

ost panicky w hen he

spilled som e m

ilk on the table in his day-care center. Later his teachers told m

e they w ere w

orried about his learning. "H e's

sm art," they said, "but he's so afraid of m

aking a m istake that he

never tries anything that looks hard." H

elp your child risk the adventure oflearning.

Security to L earn

C hildren w

ho feel safe because they can depend on an adult are able to reach out to new

experiences. C hildren w

ho are secure as babies and toddlers tend to be better learners later on: m

ore playful, m

ore curious, m ore responsive to adults, and able to focus

attention m ore effectively. In our zest for stim

ulating children's m

inds, w e shouldn't forget that a loving and safe hom

e is alw ays

the first order of business. If you find your concerns about your child's intellect getting in the w

ay of sim ple affection, stand back

and ask yourself, "W hat's really im










? A

ges an d

Stages from T

w o to S


C hildren's thinking ability undergoes several m

ajor changes along

60 of 330

the route to adult-level reasoning, paralleling the m aturation of

new netw

orks in the brain. T he years from

tw o to seven are

characterized by cycles of m yelination and synapse refinem

ent that lead to

new stages of learning,

so dram

atic shifts in

understanding can seem to occur very quickly-

although a child m

ay regress until the connections are firm . D

ifferent types of studies have indicated so m

any different "spurts" or "w aves" of

grow th that it is hard to find a tim

e w hen this brain is not actively

developing som e sort of ability. By age seven, sensory system

s have becom

e m ore integrated, language has m

ade m ajor leaps, and

m aturation of higher-level association areas enable the child to

reason m ore logically and reflect on questions and ideas. By the

end of second grade, w e hope to have basic foundations in place

for reading, m ath, and handw

riting as w ell as an ever-expanding

grasp of facts and concepts and a solid basis of attention,

m otivation, and independent problem

-solving. A

t each stage in this process, certain types of experience are im

portant. Since later developm ent builds on earlier experience,

a child w ho gets the brain food he needs at each stage has a better

chance of reaching the top of his cognitive ladder. T he speed of this

clim b is partially related to innate intelligence, but life experiences

and individual developm ental tim

etables also play m ajor roles.

A ccording to w

ell-know n theorist Jean Piaget, the child creates his

ow n intelligence at each level by puzzling out inconsistencies

betw een his bits of know

ledge, or "schem as," and the reality of his

daily experiences.

D ifferen

t H ook


If you and your child w atch a TV

program on the w

orkings of the brain, chances are each of you w

ill learn very different things from

it. A n adult can "get m

ore out ofit" by hanging the new inform

ation on to

previous pieces

of know ledge-m

ental "hooks" about

biology, psychology, and years of practical experience w ith one's

ow n brain. The term

"schem as" w

as~sed by Piaget to describe these m

ental hooks, the bits oflearning that com bine to form

each person's structure of thought. T

he better the fram ew

ork and the bigger the hooks, the m

ore w e can rem

em ber and learn from


new experience.

Since your child's fram ew

orks are sm all and im

m ature, her

learning in any situation is qualitatively different from yours. Y

ou can try to lend her your schem

as by explaining them , but if she

lacks the personal experience, your w ords w

ill fall right off her incom

plete hooks. T his theory m

ay explain w hy each generation

seem s to have to m

ake its ow n m

istakes instead of taking the good advice of its elders!

W hen you talk w

ith your child or student, you can help bridge the schem

a gap.

1. A s you solve problem

s together, talk through your ow n

questions. "I w onder how

I should start." "A re these tw

o alike?" "C

ould I put them together?" "Is it w

orking?" "W hat's going to

happen?" "H ow

did I do?" 2

. A sk your child sim

ilar questions. 3. G

ive the child plenty of tim e to think and answ

er. 4. Let the child reenact each solution several tim

es in order to understand it.

5. E ncourage understanding. A

sk, "W hy do you think that

happened?" "W hy did/didn't that w

ork?" 6. A

s a teacher, I learned that if things w eren't going w

ell, I needed to ask m

yself, "W hat am

I assum ing about this situation

that the child doesn't yet understand?" It helps to ask w hat the

child is thinking or seeing, and then listen carefully to her answ er.


m all P

iece o f L


I once had a conversation w ith a six-year-old that taught m

e about one child's m

ental "hooks." D uring the first snow

storm of the year,

the level of classroom excitem

ent rose steadily until dism issal

tim e. A

s the day ended, M arcy lingered behind, staring at the still-

barren grass outside. "W hy isn't the snow

sticking on the ground?" she asked. N

ot w anting to deprive her of the chance to do som

e thinking (and learning) for herself, I replied, "W

hat do you think?" "W

ell," she replied, "I don't know because snow

is supposed to stay there after it com

es dow n-w

hy isn't it?" "It does seem

to be disappearing," I acknow ledged. "D

o you know anything that w

ould m ake snow

disappear?" M

arcy thought for a m om

ent. "N ot really. Snow

is cold and it stays. W

ell, m aybe if you put w

ater on it." A

t this point I realized that M arcy's notion of snow

w as both

inaccurate and incom plete, so there w

as no w ay she could grasp

the principle involved. Instead of trying to explain it to her, I took her outside, grabbed som

e snow flakes as they fell, and w

e w atched

them turn into w

ater. Finally w e felt the ground tem

perature and M

arcy drew her ow

n conclusions. She enlarged her "snow " schem

a to include her observation that w

arm th m

akes it m elt, and she w

as forced to change her ideas to accom

m odate this new

inform ation.

It is through countless such firsthand experiences that children develop know

ledge and the ability to m anipulate it m

entally. For this type of learning, parents or thoughtful caregivers are the.first and best teachers.

A s schem

as develop and enlarge, they are com bined into m

ental operations, or patterns, that enable the child to think about relationships in m

ore abstract w ays. For exam

ple, a tw o-year-old

m ust line up blocks in order to see w

hat they look like; an eight- year-old can think about lining them

up w ithout actually doing it,

and a fifteen-year-old m ay be able to m

ake com binations in his

m ind to test scientific relationships am

ong them .

L evels o

f P rocessin


D oes experience alone account for these changes? A

child's ability to com

bine new ideas also results from

m aturation of three special

system s in the brain that neuropsychologistA

lexander L uria called

"functional units." A s

the child

handles m

illions of bits of

experience, chains of neurons link together-first w ithin and then

betw een different brain areas. In a sense, the thinking child m

akes his ow

n brain fit together. Low

er-level netw orks com

e first. A t the bottom

are reflex responses and directing attention, then com

es the ,.eception of countless pieces of incom

ing inform ation and association of the

pieces w ith each other for understanding. W

hen enough pieces have been taken in, the child finally begins to inte1·p1·et them

and plan responses.

63 of 330

H ow

does L uria's m

odel w ork in a real situation? Let's say you

are trying to get your child to leave the TV set.

T he first functional unit regulates consciousness and initial

attention. T o be consciously processed and rem

em bered, the

inform ation m

ust cross the attention threshold. "O

ops, I hear M om

's voice." O

nce the m essage gets into conscious aw

areness, it is directed to a specialized reception area w

here the second functional unit converts it into a m

eaningful signal and sends it to the appropriate part of the cortex, in this case the centers for auditory processing. First it m

ust be received and sorted out from other auditory

stim uli:

"W hat did she say?"

then sent to higher-level system s to be analyzed and organized into

som e sort of m

eaning: "W

hat does she m ean, 'C

lean up your room '?"

and finally, associated w ith inform

ation from other senses or from


em ory for com

plete understanding: "O

h, I rem em

ber, I left m y clothes and toys all over the floor and

she's having com pany tonight."

O nly after all these steps are com

pleted can the thirdfim ctional

unit, corresponding to the prefrontal lobes of the cortex, do its w

ork of evaluating the inform ation and planning behavior:

"G uess I'd better pick up that stuff as soon as this program

is over."

For m ost parents this particular exam

ple proves L uria's point

that the m ere presence of a neural structure does not guarantee

that it can (or w ill) be used! Practice is the essential ingredient,

and it takes all of childhood and m ost of adolescence to perfect and

connect all the system s.







: T H








M ak

in g C

on n

ection s

A child's first m

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