Books vs. Blocks: Is the question “What to learn?” Or “How to learn and unlearn?”

A new study from the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) found that by the end of kindergarten, children who attended one year of what researchers defined as “academic-oriented preschools” outperformed their peers who attended less academic-focused classrooms. On average, the children who attended academic preschools ended up two and a half months ahead of their counterparts in math and literacy. This divergence in academic progress begs a few questions. First, what are each of these programs doing, or more importantly not doing, that differentiates them? And second, would a two and a half month difference matter in a child’s development?

The idea that academics and play exist on opposite ends of the teaching spectrum is tidy, but a myth. The difference may be less between a pendulum swing from books to blocks, and more between those children with well-trained and well-paid teachers and those without. Furthermore, our research has shown that children as much as six months apart in cognitive development are not really all that different from one another.  So the question here is not one of choosing sides; but instead to strike a balance between the skill building of qualities of academics and the brain boosting qualities of play.

The new study conducted by researchers at UCB monitored 6,150 kids from around the U.S., born in 2001, from birth to five years of age and was controlled for income and home environment. Language skills, along with growing understanding of mathematical and literary concepts were assessed in children’s homes at about two, four and five years of age. Researchers discovered marked gains when middle-class kids attended preschool classrooms where teachers spend considerably more time on spoken language skills, pre-literacy skills and knowledge of mathematical concepts. The New York Times and other publications are touting these results as a tug of war between “Free Play or Flashcards?” saying that the “New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools.” The article goes on to say that the best path forward puts children on course to read and do simple math problems by the end of kindergarten. The primary vehicle to such would be an academic focus.

Increasingly, Kindergarten teachers are being pressured to teach more, sooner. Researchers at the University of Virginia compared the views and experiences of kindergarten teachers in 1998 with those of their counterparts in 2010. Their findings discovered more sophisticated skills expected at younger ages. Generally, Kindergarten teachers now expect children to come in knowing much in regard to academic content and skills like math and literacy. The dramatic play area in the kindergarten classroom is a quaint thing of the past. This push down of academic expectations is being communicated in tangible ways to preschool teachers. They, too, are now responding with spending more of the day on academic instruction, leaving less room in the day for non-academic activities such as music, movement and art.

In an effective play-based, or “child-centered” classroom, children choose activities based on their current interests. The play-based classroom looks like the preschool of memory; a home or kitchen center, a science area and water table, a reading nook, and of course lots of blocks. While it may seem like the teacher’s job is a piece of cake; don’t be fooled. Good teachers are in the mix; appropriately encouraging kids to explore and scaffolding their knowledge all while facilitating social skills.

On the flip side, there are academic programs or “teacher-directed” learning, in which teachers instruct the children in a more structured way by leading them through each activity. For the most part, classroom time is devoted to learning letters and sounds, distinguishing shapes and colors, telling time, and other skills. However, not all children are ready for this in kindergarten. Asking them to do so can be unnecessarily stressful and a distraction from the more developmentally appropriate work of the brain in early childhood, like sorting and stacking.


In truth, my concern is less about what they “do”… the flashcards or the free play… and more about what kids “don’t” do. After all, childhood is short. There is only so much time to learn to play fair and share. If that precious time is spent on memorization in baby lecture halls, then it is not spent on pretend play and fresh air. We only have so much time to spend each day; each of us. Kids too. The time spent on “academically-oriented” activities is time taken away from other activities.

While flashcards may progress a 5 year old to 5.2 on the cognitive scale, maybe 2 months of growth in one area is not worth trading 2 months of loss in another. I wonder, would two and a half months of extra “performance” change a life? Our research says that developmental differences in young children as long as 6 months are 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. Two 5 year olds, one performing on cognitive scales at 5.5 and another at 5.7 look pretty much the same and suggest no differences in developmental ability.

In our long history of observing children, we at the Gesell Institute of Child Development have seen little change in patterns and pace of what kids are ready to learn; compared to the big changes in expectations of what kids should know and be able to do. Despite the push down in expectations, including academic work in kindergarten and preschool; our research and our experiences suggest remarkable stability around the ages at which most children reach cognitive milestones such as being able to count pennies or draw a triangle. While children may be able to “demonstrate” academic skills, even as complex as reading, it does not mean that they have built up the foundations of literacy that later translate into comprehension and application.

Reliable and objective developmental assessments allow teachers to truly know a child; so yes, we measure. But, as Dr. Arnold Gesell once said “a child is more than a score.” A useful assessment is comprehensive. We at The Gesell Institute of Child Development assess developmental growth over time, in a breadth of domains beyond beginning literacy and numeracy skills,  including physical/motor, language/comprehension, and social/emotional.  This whole child approach drives us to transition from a narrowly defined academic achievement focus, to one that promotes the long-term development of the child as a lifelong learner.  In this unpredictable world, skills and knowledge have an increasingly limited shelf life. Attempting to map out the competencies children will need in the future seems futile. Of all the skills we teach in early childhood, the most important is the skill to learn and unlearn.

All Children Are Not the Same

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Author: Rae Pica


It certainly seems to be one of those “duh” statements: all children are not the same. I mean, why would we imagine otherwise? If we accept that no two snowflakes are alike, why wouldn’t we accept that no two individuals – even of the same age and gender – are alike? It’s just plain common sense.

But common sense doesn’t appear to translate to education policies.

In an interview on BAM Radio Network, noted early childhood expert Jane Healy said, “We have a tendency in this country to put everybody into a formula – to throw them all into the same box and have these expectations that they’re all going to do the same thing at the same time.”

For the most part, that’s always been the case with education: expecting all children in the same grade to master the same work at the same level and pace. But since the inception of No Child Left Behind – and later with Race to the Top and thnature-people-girl-forest-12165e implementation of the Common Core Standards (common being the operative word) – it’s only gotten worse. The “box” has gotten even smaller. And the younger the children, the less room there is for movement inside it (play on words intended).


There’s nothing wrong with standards, or goals, per se. It makes sense to establish a certain level of mastery for children to achieve and to determine what students should be able to do and know over the course of a particular period of time, a school year, for example. But the standards should be realistic. It should be possible for the majority of students to achieve them, each at her or his own pace. That means the standards must also be developmentally appropriate and based on the principles of child development – designed with actual children in mind.

But they’re not. Standards are written by people with little to no knowledge of child development or developmentally appropriate practice. They’re written with too little input from people who do have that knowledge, such as teachers and child development experts. In fact, of the 135 people on the committees that wrote and reviewed the K-3 Common Core Standards, not one was a K-3 teacher or an early childhood professional.

Of course, along with developmentally inappropriate standards comes developmentally inappropriate curriculum. David Elkind said the following in another BAM interview:

We don’t teach the college curriculum at the high school. We don’t teach the high school curriculum at the junior high. We don’t teach the junior high curriculum at the elementary level. Why should we teach the elementary curriculum at the preschool level?…We have no research to support it; all the research is opposed to it, and yet we do it.

Teachers, more and more often, are being asked to teach in ways they know to be developmentally inappropriate. They’re asked to make demands of students whom they know are not developmentally ready for such demands. And, as Jane Healy noted, “When you start something before the brain is prepared, you’ve got trouble.”

If we’re to give the standards and curriculum writers the benefit of the doubt, we could admit that children these days appear to be smarter and savvier than they used to be. But, according to the research, children are not reaching their developmental milestones any sooner than they did in 1925 when Arnold Gesell first did his research.

boy reading
Photo Credit: Jersey Evening Post

As an example, demonstrating the large range of what is “normal” in child development, we know that the average age children learn to walk is 12 months – 50 percent before and 50 percent after. But the range that is normal for walking is 8¾ months all the way to 17 months. The same applies for reading. The average age that children learn to read is six-and-a-half, 50 percent before and 50 percent after. But that does’t mean policymakers and standards writers won’t continue to demand that they read before leaving kindergarten. (For more information, listen to Are Children Smarter, Learning More, Sooner, Faster? on BAM Radio Network.)

Anyone who understands child development knows:

  • It’s simply not possible for all children to do and know the exact same things at the exact same age.
  • All children go through the exact same stages in the exact same order but they do it at varying rates.
  • Each domain – cognitive, physical, emotional, social – has its own rate of development.

And here’s the big one:

  • A child’s development absolutely cannot be accelerated or hurried in any way.

All of this has been proved by research. But those with common sense – or kids – don’t need research to verify these facts. They simply need to look at any two siblings, even twins, and note the differences. When we consider the myriad possibilities for genetic combinations, along with various environmental factors, it’s clear that we can’t begin to envision the diversity in temperament, intellect, skills, and learning styles among a group of 30 children in the same classroom.

One of my favorite lines from the interview with David Elkind was, “Wrong ideas always seem to catch on more easily than right ones.”

The idea that all children are the same is definitely a wrong idea.

Rae Pica - What if Everybody


This piece is excerpted from Rae’s book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Improving Education and Children’s Lives, available in the Gesell Institute bookstore.

Rae Pica has been an education consultant since 1980, specializing in the education of the whole child, the brain/body connection, and children’s physical activity. She is the author of 19 books and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she currently hosts Studentcentricity: Practical Strategies for Teaching with Students at the Center. You can learn more about Rae at


Interested in reading even more about Developmentally Appropriate Practice? Check out NAEYC’s resources here:

Must be Present to Teach: The Mindful Educator

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Author: Peg Oliveira, PhD
Executive Director

How are you?


I have many teachers in my life, and come May (the third base of the home run of the academic year), this is predictably the answer I hear when I ask “How are you?” As a recent New York Times article put it “Teachers are Stressed, and that Should Stress Us All”

On any given day teachers are balancing the needs of their class as a whole, each individual student, and parents. They are juggling the demands of curriculum goals and administrators. When in class, they are “on” all day. Out of class there is planning to do, meetings to attend, homework to review and parents to connect with. On a good day they may have some space to acknowledge their own personal or family needs too.

For a short time this is, at a minimum, garden variety “overwhelm” – what we’ve gotten used to calling “stress” and swallowing as part of normal life. But in high doses, for long periods of time, without a feeling of reprieve or support, this is a recipe for burnout.  Burnout is not just when you need a vacation to recharge. It’s when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure.

Photo Credit: New Yorker Cartoon by George Booth

This is a problem for us all because anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years (that includes the nine and a half percent that leave before the end of their first year.)

Thankfully there are things we can do for ourselves. Practices that both train the brain to be calm in the face of chaos and to be resilient when life inevitably becomes overwhelming are essential to reducing the impact of stress and avoiding burnout.

A Culture of Mindfulness

Gesell Institute’s professional development starts with some version of “know yourself”. This includes reflective work like engaging in a self-evaluation process, developing an individualized professional development plan, and acknowledging and countering implicit bias. It also means implementing a pedagogy of presence and learning to manage difficult situations with contemplative practices, like mindfulness.

Outside of my life as the Executive Director of The Gesell Institute of Child Development, I also direct a nonprofit called 108 Monkeys. Its focus is very specific: we mentor schools and child care centers in creating a culture of mindfulness to enable teachers to teach and students to learn in a more calm and creative environment. Many such organizations have sprung up over the past decade – a sign of hope that a new generation of educators is learning to fight stress before it causes their flight from the profession.

Does a Pedagogy of Presence make any difference?

The research is young but extremely promising.

A recent report out of Penn State, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, examined the primary causes of teacher stress, its effects on teachers, schools, and students, and strategies for reducing its impact. Quality programs for mentoring, workplace wellness, social emotional learning, and mindfulness were all proven to improve teacher well-being and student outcomes.

Patricia Jennings is a professor and researcher at the University of Virginia. The Journal of Educational Psychology will soon publish a study of her work in New York City, teaching mindfulness to more than 200 educators in high-poverty schools.

Jennings says the teachers who received mindfulness training showed:

  • Reduced psychological distress
  • Reduced time urgency — which is this feeling like you don’t have enough time
  • Improvements in emotion regulation

In sum, teachers feel emotionally better, more satisfied with their work, better able to manage their attention to emotional matters, and conducted better classes. By practicing mindfulness in their own lives—and with their students—educators are setting the stage for a calmer, more focused learning environment, as a whole.

So what is mindfulness?

Put simply, mindfulness means being here, now. Clinical psychologist and founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) classes, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). 

mindfulness blog quote - peg - may 2017But mindfulness practices like deep breathing, meditation and yoga are simply the vehicle to the destination: a mindfully lived life. Functional mindfulness is the true goal. We “practice” the skills of mindfulness like  focused attention, increased self-awareness, responding rather than reacting, and observing the consequences of our actions with objectivity, because we want to strengthen our ability to do these things in our daily lives. To live mindfully.

Examples of mindfulness practice include:

  • Becoming aware of the breath.
  • Noticing thoughts as they pass through the mind.
  • Feeling the various physical sensations of an emotion.
  • Paying attention to the body at rest and in motion.
  • Noticing what happens in the body when you feel stress.
  • Paying attention to all the sounds in the room.
  • Feeling your stomach rise and fall with each breath.
  • Watching your thoughts that arise when you feel bored.
  • Choosing to respond rather than react to stressful situations.
  • Practicing sending kind thoughts and feelings to yourself and others (even the hard people).

How do I practice mindfulness, when I’m a stressed teacher?


When you picture someone practicing mindfulness, you might envision a person sitting cross-legged, meditating with their eyes closed, repeating “om”.  That is one way; but not the only way.  Taking small breaks every day to give yourself a little extra care and calm can make a big mark on relieving stress and improving overall mental health.  In September this makes a long day bearable. In May, this is the difference between sustainability and turnover.

Recharge Breaks that you can do anywhere, in just a few minutes:

  • Take a deep breath before starting an activity or responding.
  • Take a moment to feel the warmth of the sun on your face.
  • Walk from your car to the house with all of your attention on the bottom of your feet.
  • Sip water while doing nothing else.
  • Move your body.
  • Go outside and connect with nature.
  • Eat something without doing anything else at the same time, like one M&M.
  • Try an online meditation tool, like or

Exercises to Jumpstart Your Mindfulness Practice:

You can do these at your desk, walking to class, taking a break, or sitting in a meeting (don’t tell!)

Easy Breathing

Bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes. Start by becoming aware that you are breathing, and then pay attention to the process of breathing. Every time your attention wanders away (and it will!), just bring it gently back.

Even Easier Breathing

Sit with nothing to get done, and nothing special to do, for two minutes. That’s it. The idea here is to shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being,’ whatever that means to you, for just two minutes.  Just be.

5 Fingers Breathing

  • Inhale and open your hand.
  • Exhale, touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your pinky finger.
  • Inhale open your hand again.
  • Exhale, touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your ring finger.
  • Continue like that, until you reach your pointer finger then reverse the direction and go back, one finger at a time, until you land back at your pinky finger.
  • Repeat with the other hand.

Wishing you calm within the end of year storm

Further Reading:

Guided Meditations for Mindfulness Practice:

Mindfulness Videos:

Top Photo Image Credit: Vivian Shih for NPR

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Assessment and Young Children: What’s Really Important

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Author: Erin Akers, Director of Education and Development

Early childhood caregivers, teachers and parents alike continue to seek more information and insight about the children they care for. It is a daunting task, however, to obtain and translate information about these rapidly changing, fascinating little beings. Many find themselves searching for some type of assessment or screening tool that will guide them.

In their 2003 Position Statement, NAEYC stated that early childhood professionals have the responsibility to:

“make ethical, appropriate, valid, and reliable assessment a central part of all early childhood programs. To assess young children’s strengths, progress, and needs, use assessment methods that are developmentally appropriate, culturally and linguistically responsive, tied to children’s daily activities, supported by professional development, inclusive of families, and connected to specific, beneficial purposes: (1) making sound decisions about teaching and learning, (2) identifying significant concerns that may require focused intervention for individual children, and (3) helping programs improve their educational and developmental interventions” (NAEYC, Position Statement, 2003).

In short, we have to know our kids. The ultimate goal of an assessment for young children should be to gain as much information about the whole child as we possibly can in a developmentally appropriate format. This includes information about their background, parent input, school input (when applicable), and to be integrated in an overall plan for future learning and growth success. The assessment process should be variable, allowing for observation of many domains, as well as room for developmental contrast in children. Assessment should bring about benefits for all children, and be tailored for a specific purpose.

boy stacking

In the case of purpose in assessing children during the early years, the main objective is to monitor normal developmental growth over time in all domains: physical/motor, language/comprehension, social/emotional, and beginning literacy and numeracy skills as they approach 5 years.

In this process, we can identify inconsistencies, plan further evaluation as needed, target areas for continued growth, and plan environments and methods that best promote growth. This follows the principle that all assessment should benefit children, and assist their caregivers in ensuring they are providing for and meeting their needs appropriately.

As with all things concerning young children, balance is key. An ideal world would allow for us to receive parent feedback, have adequate time to observe a child, resources to reassess every 6 months to monitor developmental growth, and a standardized piece that has appropriate data support for peer comparison. Many early educators do not have a choice in the assessment tools they use. We all, however, have the opportunity to focus on observation and monitoring as we interact with our students and children.

boy writingHigh stakes measures, which typically require formal assessments, have become necessary for state and federal leaders to allocate funds and track quality programs. In light of this, we cannot lose sight of the most important factor, the growth of our children. Appropriate assessments are available, and can help us accomplish the goal of using the information to better the lives of our youngest learners.

“Assessing children in the earliest years of life—from birth to age 8—is difficult because it is the period when young children’s rates of physical, motor, and linguistic development outpace growth rates at all other stages. Growth is rapid, episodic, and highly influenced by environmental supports: nurturing parents, quality caregiving, and the learning setting.”

(Shephard & Kagan, 1998).

Our focus has to be: using assessment during the early years to gain as much information about the child at that moment, to help them grow in the most successful way toward the next stage…and repeat.


For more information on this topic, visit our website

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