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.
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.
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."
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.