The Science of Play: How Creativity Helps Your Child Develop: An Interview with Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige

August 21–25, 2017   |   Vol. 131, Week 12

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.

In this podcast, you’ll learn:

  • What the 3 pillars of healthy child development are
  • Why your child needs to play
  • How to avoid early education pitfalls
  • What real school-readiness is
  • How technology affects a child’s development
  • How children see the world differently

“The most important thing for all of us adults is to understand . . . that children do not think like we do. They don’t see the world like we do.” — Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige

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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 children?

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 child’s development?

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 a show.

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 on.

Nancy Carlsson-PaigePhoto of Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Nancy Carlsson-Paige is Professor Emerita at Lesley University where she was a teacher educator in child development for more than 30 years. She co-founded Lesley’s Center for Peaceable Schools, and she is also a co-founder of Defending the Early Years, an early childhood education advocacy organization. Nancy has written five books and numerous articles and op-eds on child development and education, media and technology, and peaceable classrooms. Her most recent book is called Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids.

Nancy has received many awards for her leadership and advocacy in peace and early childhood education. In 2013, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. Nancy is an advocate for education policies and practices that promote social justice, equity, and the well-being of all children.

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