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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.

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There's a display of classic art images, placed low so tots can see and touch. Below a picture of the Mona Lisa, a child can feel her hair. Below a picture of a Degas sculpture, he can feel the fabric of the dancer's skirt. "Kids who don't have banks of visual images can't scaffold new knowledge," Ackerman explains. "One of the reasons kids have trouble reading is ... they don't know what the words mean because they haven't had that type of experience."

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On preview day, the model firetruck is a hit. Indy Herrera discovers that when he points the hoses at three screens with fake flames, a laser makes the flames disappear, and reveals letters that spell rhyming words like "cat" and "hat." "Let's do it again and see what the letters are now!" he says excitedly to his mother, Ann Marie Prevost.

In the art area, Ms. Prevost watches Anna, one of her 2-year-old triplets, "paint" on a wall-mounted screen that produces bright colors wherever she runs her fingers. It's impressive, Prevost says, because Anna is visually impaired. "This is very cool – she is seeing the colors. Anything with lights is just great for her."

Researchers advised the museum and will be able to use a classroom with a two-way mirror here to build a better understanding of how young children learn. With a $3 million investment to develop the 4,000-square-foot PlayWorks space – a combination of federal and local funds and private donations – Ackerman says the idea is to use it to foster educational collaborations throughout the country. In New York, talks are already under way to see if aspects of PlayWorks can be replicated in community centers and residential buildings. Such efforts are part of a movement to build better bridges between early childhood development and K-12 education.

"It's important for early educators to be intentional in their play, so that while it may look like play, there's content to it," says Harold Leibovitz, a spokesman for the Foundation for Child Development in New York. At the same time, he says, teachers tend to focus more on content than on "the nature of how children learn."

Some universities, for instance, teach child development in the psychology department rather than in the school of education. "You've got 'silos' there that inhibit cross-fertilization," he says. But at a recent roundtable sponsored by the foundation, he was struck by the fact that a dean of an education school, a psychologist, a trainer of early educators, and an expert on learning disabilities all agreed on the need to blend the two worlds.

Among parents who are keenly aware of the learning potential of the early years, there may be a craving to slow down and remember that learning can be fun.

One sign is Wondertime, a new quarterly magazine. Editor Trisha Thompson says that rather than featuring articles on problem-solving (the top 10 ways to toilet train, perhaps), it aims to show parents how to tap into kids' curiosity (as in, how does the toilet flush?). So far, she says, "what we've heard loud and clear from reader mail is the trend against the flashcard- parenting mentality.... We're not thinking about how to get our 2-year-olds into Harvard. The point is to let them explore."

Just having museums where children are allowed to touch is a big relief for parents, Ms. Thompson says. That could explain why people would be willing to pay $9 each for a visit to CMOM.

PlayWorks, with its sophisticated color palette and noise-absorbing ceiling panels, is supposed to be a place where parents can feel relaxed and inspired. There's even an infant area featuring lullabies from around the world.

As her 18-month-old daughter dances to the sound of the Brahms Lullaby, Kathy Powell notes a parent-pleasing detail: "I like the way it's set up so that the kids have to listen to the whole song before playing another one."

Maia Ridberg contributed to this story.