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Forget flashcards, let's play!

PlayWorks, a new wing at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, emphasizes discovery over right answers.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2006


Behind the steering wheel of a boxy blue bus, 3-year-old Nova Robbins takes the lead: "Everyone – let's go!" she shouts. Instead of passengers, she'll have to settle for a few back-seat drivers: This bus was built with multiple steering wheels so toddlers wouldn't have to wait to drive.

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Nova was among the first to preview PlayWorks, a new wing for the 4-and-under set at the Children's Museum of Manhattan (CMOM). Opening to the public today, it highlights how learning happens naturally as children create, explore, and role-play.

The connection isn't lost on Dave Robbins, watching his daughter at an air-tube exhibit. Nova takes a hose that gently blows air and inserts it into a hole on the side of a box. Inside, the wings of a toy bee begin to spin. Along the wall, objects made from plastic and foam react differently to the air. "That's just really smart," Mr. Robbins says. "It shows the kids cause and effect.... I'm an engineer at heart. I just love this stuff."

The drive to keep American education competitive on the global stage has led some parents and preschools to drill toddlers with flashcards. But many early childhood experts, rebelling against that tactic, are on a mission to swing the pendulum back toward play. Play is more conducive, they say, to the flexible thinking and lifelong learning demanded by globalization.

"For preschoolers, learning has become 'Learn the one right answer,'... So we have a lot of toys built for passive children," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychology professor and an adviser to PlayWorks. Rather than see children as empty vessels, developmental psychology has for decades endorsed the idea that "children need to be active explorers in their environment," adds the coauthor of the new book "Play = Learning."

While many children's museums dedicate a place for young children to learn through play and discovery, PlayWorks has taken innovations to the next level and incorporated research on child-development into every detail.

With trays of moldable sand, illuminated art tables, and areas for building towers and gadgets, siblings can play together and learn at their own levels. At the family kiosk, a parent and child can record a voice clip about what they did and e-mail it home with a photo, to keep a developmental log.

"A lot of the things we designed are open-ended," says Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the nonprofit CMOM. "[With] young ones, every three months they're really a different person ... so as they grow, they go back to the same thing and do it differently."

PlayWorks is also designed to nip achievement gaps in the bud. "In one part of the South Bronx that we're working [to bring similar exhibits to], an estimated 40 to 50 percent of children arrive not ready for kindergarten, academically or socially," Mr. Ackerman says. PlayWorks will enhance the programs for shelter residents and Head Start teachers. And low-income families can get a $5 yearly membership through various community groups.

Through handouts and signs in both English and Spanish, PlayWorks aims to illustrate for adults the important connection between play and learning. It's something the designers hope parents and teachers will carry beyond the exhibit by pointing out geometric patterns on the sidewalk, for instance, or the mathematics of distributing snacks. It's "the power of the ordinary," says Ms. Hirsh-Pasek. "We can close the gap by recognizing more of those opportunities.... You don't need to buy the $50 toy."

To build literacy skills, a centerpiece character is Alphie, the baby dragon. Children take a block from the "letter garden," see a letter and a picture, and then feed it into the dragon's mouth. In a gender-neutral, nasal voice, Alphie responds with the matching word: "A is for Apple." Alphie is also climbable, which shows parents that children don't always have to sit still in order to learn.