Does your child have plenty of time each day to explore and build? According to
education expert Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, this kind of creative play is one of three
things that are essential for a child’s healthy development. Learn more on this
week’s Homeschool Heartbeat.
Diane Kummer: My guest today is Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige. Nancy
is an author and speaker with over 30 years of experience in early childhood
development. Her most recent book is called Taking Back Childhood: A Proven
Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids. Nancy, thank you for
joining us today!
Nancy Carlsson-Paige: It’s good to be with you.
The 3 pillars of healthy child development [0:41]
Diane: Nancy, your book focuses on three attributes that are
critical to a child’s healthy development. Can you tell us what they are and why
they are important for children?
Nancy: Sure. Those three attributes that I organize my ideas
around in the book Taking Back Childhood are based on
children’s needs, and of course there are many other needs than these, but these
are really primary needs of all young children.
One is to feel secure. What does that mean? To feel a sense of trust and that people
will respond to you in some kind of a caring way when you’re expressing a need.
And that happens from infancy, of course, through crying and non-verbal ways that
infants begin early to show us what they need. But that we respond and how we respond
and that that continues through childhood so that children feel within themselves,
“I am cared for,” and feel secure.
And then creative play is the engine, really of human development, [but] is
unfortunately not well understood and diminishing these days. So that’s something
I’d like to talk more about: how important it is to healthy childhood.
And then the third attribute is really for children to have strong and loving and
positive relationships. And that sounds easy, but that isn’t. But there’s a
lot that parents can do to create relationships that children experience as positive and
that feel strong and consistent. And a lot of doing that means for us to be able to
understand how children see the world, which is so different from how we do.
For example, if you have a 9-month-old who pours her milk on her high-chair tray, how
do we respond? Well, she’s learning how to pour and dump and work with liquids,
and there’s all kinds of interesting cognitive things in her mind. She
doesn’t know it’s a bad thing to pour the milk out. So do we respond in a
punitive way, or do we understand she’s got her own reasons from her point of view
of why that’s an interesting thing to do?
The case for creative play [2:44]
Diane: Nancy, what are the most effective ways for parents
nurture creative play in their children?
Nancy: I’m so glad you’re asking this question
about creative play, because it is truly the primary vehicle through which children
relate to the world in the early years. And unfortunately, we’re
seeing—verified by research, but certainly by my eyes, too—a diminishing of
play in children’s lives these days. And it’s such an extremely important
aspect because children, through play, they’re actually making sense of the world
around them, they’re building inner resilience, they take their experiences and
they reorder them, and they write their own scripts and stories and reenact them in a
way that’s helping them make sense of what’s happening around them in the
world. So it builds emotional equilibrium and a sense of inner security and inner
resilience. But play is also vital to cognitive development. And that’s something
not really well understood. But children build cognitive concepts in all kinds of
capacities, like self-regulation and problem-solving and imagination, through play.
So parents can do a great deal to foster healthy creative play: creating a time and
place for it to happen, having materials available that are open-ended. And what I mean
by that is materials children can use in their own ways and take their own ideas and
project them onto materials and invent how to use the materials versus having the
materials show them what to do, because today so many toys and objects we give children
are connected to other people’s stories—media and movies and TV shows and so
forth. And they’re also more single-purposed: a toy itself shows a child how to
use it. Versus, let’s say dress-ups, where you just put on furs and scarves versus
a toy that is already dressed and you just put on a different outfit. [They] bring out
very different things in children. Being able to provide the kinds of materials that
foster creative play and then the time and space for it to happen are crucial things we
parents can do.
Avoiding early education pitfalls [5:00]
Diane: Nancy, you have spent over 30 years studying and
researching child development. What do you see as the biggest problems in early
childhood education today, and how are these issues specifically harming our
Nancy: There are two big problems in early childhood education
that I see today, and both are kind of spilling outside of education as well.
One is that technology has just cascaded into all of our lives. It’s
influencing young children, even in infancy, because digital objects and media are
marketed to parents and often promoted as educational—they’re really not.
We’re really seeing an extreme exposure that is then interfering with other kinds
of experiences children should have in the world that are firsthand experiences in [the]
three-dimensional world of nature and human beings and objects. And that’s how
children learn, not by looking at the screen. The screen is always going to be a
mediated experience that won’t give them the full engagement of their bodies and
senses, which is what they need.
And the other big problem in early childhood education today, unfortunately, is an
overemphasis on academic learning that has happened nationally in the last 15 years, and
has pushed down to early childhood. And we’re seeing an overemphasis of focusing
on learning through academic skills rather than learning in the ways that children
actually do learn best and need to learn.
Diane: With all of that in mind, Nancy, what strategies, then,
can homeschooling parents employ to avoid falling into these dangerous traps?
Nancy: Well, one is to limit screen time and to be aware, of
course, of one’s own use of screens around children, because lots of times parents
themselves are distracted when they’re in the presence of their kids and their
kids experience that. To provide children with open-ended toys like blocks, building
toys, water play, paper, marker, paints, collage, dress-ups that are
open-ended—things to play with that are going to foster creative play and
firsthand experiences—experiences in nature, walking outside, observing things in
nature, collecting things in nature, and not focusing children on flashcards and
learning numbers and symbols and parroting back answers to specific questions. Because
it’s a long explanation, but children learn through building and constructing
their own ideas within themselves, and that’s a very long, slow process. And
learning to understand symbols and print and numbers, these have many forerunners to
them before children naturally understand letters and numbers and more academic skills.
So focusing on those skills too early can really undermine the ways that children
themselves know how to construct the foundational knowledge that will lead them to
really succeeding with academic understanding.
What does school-ready really mean? [8:09]
Diane: Nancy, an issue that every homeschooling parent faces is
the question of when to start formal education. Can starting too early or too late
significantly affect a child’s development?
Nancy: You know, I don’t think the question is really
“too early or too late,” especially in this education climate that we have
today where, as we said earlier, there’s an over-focus on teaching academic skills
to kids from a young age, and in a pretty restricted way. We’ve seen a narrowing
of the curriculum across the nation and across all grades.
So I’m personally supportive of early childhood education, if it’s a
play-based learning situation where children can explore materials, and there’s
child choice, and there are centers available for exploration, and a small teacher-child
ratio. I’m very supportive of that. But early childhood education that’s
drill-based and where children are sitting still and teachers are direct-teaching
them—no, that’s not the best kind of education for them, whether it happens
at home or in school.
Diane: Are there specific signs of school-readiness that
homeschooling parents can look for in their children?
Nancy: You know, this word “readiness” is used a
lot, and often, people mean a child understanding letters—can she say what the
numbers are? So let me say something about this.
The idea of a symbol—understanding what a symbol is, that a symbol is a
representation of something in the real world—let’s say a child, when
she’s 2, she’s looking at a book and she sees a picture of a horse and can
say “horse” or “cow,” she understands that’s a
picture—it’s not a real horse or a real cow. That’s the beginning of
understanding symbolic representation. There’s a very long process that goes on
for years with understanding symbols, and children start in their art, around
3-and-a-half or 4, to draw a symbol, to draw a cow or a flower or even to make something
that looks like a scribble but they say that it’s a cow or a flower. But
they’re building an understanding of symbols.
This process, that’s very long, leads up to understanding symbols like letters
and numbers. Those are conventional symbols that people who speak English all
understand. An N is an N, a B is a B, and it stands for this, and it operates this way
in the print system. But in order to understand it, there has to be all this
foundational knowledge that allows a child to really understand what symbols do and
getting to conventional symbols is a long process. So to jumpstart that and to try to
direct-teach, let’s say, letters (and this is true for also numbers) to children
before they’ve gone through the process of building this understanding in their
own minds is pointless, and it’s actually harmful. And it isn’t any
indicator of readiness.
So if I’m looking at a child’s readiness, I’m looking at:
“How independently can they move through the world? How can they define their own
problems and explore them? Are they starting to use symbols in their art, in their play?
Do I see them doing symbolic representation with blocks and play?” These are the
things that I’m looking for, not “Do they know the letter N?”
How technology affects a child’s development [11:26]
Diane: Nancy, the rise of technology in education has created a
unique set of challenges for parents and teachers today. Based on your experience and
research, what role do you believe the internet and digital media should play in a
Nancy: There’s a lot of pressure, often marketing
pressure, to use digital technology and then there’s this whole sense of
“You have to keep up with everybody by starting kids really early so they
don’t fall behind in their use of digital technology.”
But I think things have gone quite overboard, and the messages about what’s
really best for younger kids haven’t been getting out there as strongly as the
pro-technology messages have. Actually, there’s an interesting group, Campaign for
Commercial-Free Childhood, that people might want to look into to get more information
on the research of the harms of technology with young children.
But I feel that with younger children, there should be no digital technology in their
lives at all, unless we’re talking about, let’s say, Skyping with a
grandparent who’s in another state or a parent talking on Facetime who’s
traveling or something like that. I think those things are really positive for children
overall, although very young children can get upset by them, because they see their
parent but their parent’s not in the room and they don’t understand the
difference. So even that has its complexities.
But beyond just helping relationships, I think using digital technology is never as
good with younger children as firsthand experiences, because firsthand experience are
how children learn and give them the optimal amount of information they need to gather
from the world around them, through touching things and interacting with others and in
the world. That maximally contributes to optimal brain development, and cognitive
development, and emotional and social development. None of these things are optimally
accomplished through interacting with screens.
So I would say they shouldn’t play much of a role for young children and when
parents do choose it, I think it should be chosen consciously and then choosing only
some activity on a screen that seems to be worthwhile. A lot of children spend a lot of
time just with games; they’re kind of just mind-relaxing games, you know, on
phones and things. As long as parents understand this isn’t really
valuable—it’s entertainment and it’s relaxation more than it’s
engaging in learning—and if that’s something you are perceiving your child
needs for half an hour, maybe you’d make a choice to do it. But it’s not
really of much value.
How children see the world differently [14:14]
Diane: Nancy, that’s great information. If there’s
one thing that you think homeschooling parents need to remember as their teach their
children, what would it be?
Nancy: I think the most important thing for all of us adults is
to understand and really live with the insight that children do not think like we do.
They don’t see the world like we do. Their mental development means that they
perceive things very, very differently from how we do. For example, young children
don’t separate fantasy and reality easily. That’s why they can be scared by
something and think that it’s very real when we understand that it’s only a
pretend story. That’s why they believe in Santa Claus.
And they also don’t understand things beneath the surface in a logical way, and
what they perceive carries a lot of weight. What they see is really what they’re
influenced by. That’s we don’t want to show them violence in the media, for
example, because it can really have a very different impact on them than you and I. Or
advertisements—they really, you know, if a kid sees something on TV and
she’s 4, she yells, “I want that.” That’s exactly what the
industry wants her to say, because she doesn’t understand that someone has a
motive to sell her something, and that’s why that’s on there. It’s an
advertisement; she doesn’t know what that is. For her it’s no different from
So seeing things as children do, and if we can hold onto that and listen to them when
they talk to us, and try to understand what they’re saying to us, try to see it
from how they’re seeing it, and learn more ourselves about what that means, how
they see the world—that’s going to let us support them and help them trust
us and build positive relationships with them for their lives.
Diane: That’s so valuable, Nancy. Thank you for being
with us this week—I’ve really enjoyed talking with you, and I know our
listeners will benefit greatly from your insightful perspective on early education.
Thanks for tuning in, everyone. I’m Diane Kummer, and I’m cheering you