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Whole Child Development Is Undervalued

Bo Stjerne Thomsen and Edith Ackermann

Researchers on children's play, creativity and learning.
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Four children climbing on a play structure

Child development should inspire lifelong learning across different spaces and communities.

Research suggests that "whole child development," not routine or standardized classroom-based learning, empowers children as creative and engaged citizens who can strengthen the wellbeing of a whole society. It is crucial, then, to nurture their creative abilities to express themselves, understand others, and navigate complex amounts of information so that they can confidently solve the problems of a world that's changing faster than ever.

The question is how to make such an approach both systemic and sustainable.

Whole Person

Socio-emotional, physical, creative, and cognitive capacities are deeply intertwined and equally important in ensuring a child's wellbeing, learning, and growth. (That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone studying or supporting children's learning.)

Nobel laureate James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has shown that the non-cognitive skills emerging in early childhood are among the strongest predictors of adult outcomes. And Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, has continued to emphasize the crucial role that soft skills play in character formation and building on persistence, curiosity, and even grit -- the "passion and perseverance for very long-term goals," according to psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth.

The development of these qualities, which rely on an individual's self-worth and self-control, critically outperform any other positive measures of children's long-term outcomes, whether academically or intellectually.

The most impactful way of supporting such skills is associated with helping children feel in control of their learning process. This can be done by talking with children about the best approach to a particular task and having them describe the strategy they intend to test, for example, or asking the child to consider what could go wrong and how they might improve a task if completing it again.

Using relevant playful and experimental activities in the classroom require the teacher not only to encourage the learner to plan, monitor, and evaluate his or her own processes, but also to support the learner with tools like storyboarding, mind maps, and narrative structures.

Whole Communities

Institutions like Reggio Emilia in Italy, or High Tech High in San Diego, California are grounding their pedagogy in approaches that integrate the resources of a strong, local community. They remind us that healthy human development is often achieved through a child's interactions and experiences in a stimulating environment.

The schools that are most effective take children to museums and art galleries, use the local environment, including local parks, and invite members of local business, sports, or arts communities to play active roles in children's experiences.

Harvard Professor Jack Shonkoff pulled together evidence a decade ago describing that a child's interaction with communities strongly influences cognitive development, and in particular, that the most significant influences on healthy growth and psychological wellbeing stem from attachment to parents and caregivers, the role of early exploration, and the transmission of beliefs and values from caring others.

The three most effective ways for educators to respond to children's need and support their connection to the surrounding environment are:

  1. Applying flexible use of time and space, as children need sufficient time to dive into an activity and work at their own pace without pressure
  2. Ensuring strong opportunities for peer collaboration by, for example, using meaningful group projects to build teamwork skills
  3. Building a respectful relationship between teachers and learners, where dialogue and inquiries are encouraged

New technologies and project-based activities greatly enhance these opportunities, like the Scratch platform from the MIT Media Lab, which allows for a safe community of peers to actively comment, support. and hack each other's creations. Also, a more radical shift toward the use of new digital communities for learning is illustrated by Michael Wesch. He says that there is no longer any real reason why young people shouldn't experiment with technologies as if they were researchers diving into the world of information, document what they do, and use social media as a pedagogical tool to receive feedback from peers and encourage critical thinking.

Whole Societies

At a societal level, these changes seem radical, but they fundamentally rely on how adults imagine the purpose of children in society. Phillipe Aries retraced the history of childhood, from the European medieval to the 20th century, and found that it was not until the industrial revolution that the idea of "childhood as we know it" settled in. Children were seen as fragile beings (to be protected and safeguarded), as unruly spirits (to be disciplined), as empty vessels (to be filled), or as incomplete adults (to be trained).

In modern society, we have to pay attention to children's own thoughts, needs, and rights as individuals. Children are eager to learn and participate, and should be considered citizens at the moment of birth -- they are born curious and competent, connected to the world with ethical thinking, and in a perpetual state of active learning. Maintaining early childhood's playfulness, curiosity, and experimentation throughout schooling is critical in developing the collaborative culture, problem-solving skills, and independent goal-setting that we expect from adults.

Educators and adults can support lifelong learning environments by following practical suggestions found in the recent Cultures of Creativity study:

  • Novel solutions should be encouraged, praised, and rewarded, and teachers and adults play a key role in modeling creative behavior.
  • Experts are key to learning but are less powerful than a learner's own desire to learn, and the ability to succeed in difficult circumstances; thus even experts need to remain open to new ideas and see things from the perspective of children.
  • Positive attitudes toward experimentation, risk-taking, and curiosity are key to opening an environment to new experiences that support the fundamental interest in learning new things.
  • Provide opportunities for children to express themselves -- and promote tools to document and present what they are doing.

Nurturing both desire to learn and effective ways of experimenting with things and ideas are at the heart of a whole child approach, but require a whole culture around the child to extend this into schooling and adult life.

Editor’s Note: This post is inspired by one of the eight patterns appearing in educators' innovative approaches in the Future of Learning report, "Equipping Adults to be Changemakers in Learning," by Ashoka and the LEGO Foundation.
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Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Matilda Clark's picture

There is much rich material here. I particularly relate to the foundational respect for children and their innate desire to learn about and engage with life. 'They are born curious and competent' - a great reminder for us all as we interact with and support our future generations.

Christopher Mayer's picture

This post speaks directly to the problem facing many school districts across the nation. We have been focusing so much on "teaching to the test" we have gotten away from teaching skills that are applicable for a life time. Children's ability to think critically isn't being developed because as teachers we are forced to meet the magic number for a test score. I am a teacher from New Jersey and the PARCC Exam has been an absolute disaster. I feel that much of my teaching is being geared towards reading comprehension (deemed "PARCC-like skills) and not shaping their understanding of the "big picture." This post can serve as a model for every district!

Judi Pack's picture
Judi Pack
Life long early childhood teacher and administrator.

In other words, we need to expand progressive education.

Veronika Overton's picture

This is an excellent article...but why no mention on Montessori...this type of work has been happening for over 100 years and is offered from toddler to highschool...we follow the child...it is such a privilege.

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Martyn Steiner's picture
Martyn Steiner
Head of Senior School and Science Teacher

This is a really great article - I completely agree about the role of PBL in moving the focus of study into a broader concept of the child, and the comments about the societal view of the child are right on the button. I actually blogged about something similar just yesterday and talked about how strange I find it that we view "childishness" as a negative, despite all the positives you mention of child-like perspectives.

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