The Ideal Learning Environment

BH yard
An OK place to play but not an ideal learning environment

Most early childhood education centers do an adequate job of providing an outdoor play space. That said, these environments are not ideal learning environments. This is somewhat strange because teacher generally learning during their education process the basic principle of how children learn but then don’t fully put this knowledge into practice when developing their outdoor play space. If they did, what would that look like?

Until the ‘70s was the consensus of childhood researchers like Piaget was that children’s brains were “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. Ten years ago, Alison Gopnik and her colleagues Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl published The Scientist in the CribMinds, Brains, and How Children Learn. The main thesis of the book is that children are born with very powerful brains and do a lot of thinking. They are like scientists who are constantly creating predictions about their world and how it works and refining those predictions based on experience. Her analogy was that they are like a computer with tremendous computational power and loaded with sophisticated programs but until a person sits down and enters information, they are not functional. Another way of saying this is that kids are born with complex templates and these are adapted and filled in as the child gains experience. For example, from the moment of birth children are listening for words and they learn the specific language that they are born into, they have a template for language which they fill with the local dialect.

Another point that is brought out in the book, which I don’t think has gotten enough attention, is that for the most part learning is promoted by two key components, action, and social engagement. Babies give rapped attention first to the parents, and as they mature, to other people they encounter. They are also moving almost constantly when they are awake. It is through motion in a social context that the child’s intrinsic templates get adapted to their environment, i.e., this active play is the optimal condition for learning.

In the decade following the publication of The Scientist in the Crib researchers have been able to actually peer inside children’s brains and can now verify that the book’s contentions are correct. They can see the parts of the brain that light up in response to specific stimuli. They have shown that for the first two years children are primarily learning how to operate their bodies. The term we often hear used for this process is sensory integration. The main player in this process is the cerebellum. The interesting finding has been that the cerebellum had been thought to be essentially a movement computer like the self-driving computer in a Tesla. It turns out that the cerebellum is constantly creating a model of the whole world of the child and anticipating what will happen next. It then adjusts this model based on the accuracy of those predictions. To do this it talks to the right cerebral cortex to assess how best to make adaptations, i.e. the right cortex is the diver in this analogy. So, far from just learning how to move, for the first seven years, the cerebellum and its partner the right cortex are the main areas of learning about everything in the child’s world including emotions.

Let’s make a list of what the current research has established the ideal learning environment for children from 2 to 7 years of age:

  • There are other players in the setting, preferably with a mix of ages
  • The space allows for lots of movement, especially large gross motor activities
  • Children in the space are able to experiment, test limits and to fail often
  • Children will have essentially unlimited ability to change the elements within the space
  • The elements in the space have more than one function, preferably they can be used in many ways
  • The optimum learning space will be primarily outdoors
  • The space promotes immersive and emergent learning that is indicated by very long play episodes

While still rare, there are schools that embody all seven of these criteria. For example, AnjiPlay schools in China, the increasingly popular “Forest” schools, and many Reggio Emilia schools.


anji yard2
The many AnjiPlay sites have ideal playspaces

It is fair to say that than most schools in the USA fail at providing the ideal learning environment. There are many reasons for this, the push for academics, the need to provide a “safe” environment, the lack of teacher training for operating in such a learning space, and parent expectations of what a “proper” school should look like and teach.

The fact is that for the majority of programs being able to have an ideal learning environment is hampered by the lack of well-designed equipment. Indeed Cheng Xueqin, the Director of the Office of Pre-Primary Education had to invent from scratch the apparatus they use in her program. Most other schools that meet these criteria have access to naturalistic spaces and hand-make whatever else they feel they need to support the children’s learning.

It is no wonder that few schools can implement an ideal learning environment. For example, one need only look at what outdoor equipment is currently available for early childhood educators to see that large motor apparatus is invariably fixed in place, has a single function and cannot be changed by the children.

In my next blog, I will explore ideas that can offer new options for creating the ideal learning environment.

In the meantime check out this great article by our friend Peter Grey – Children Educate Themselves

Dogs, Neuroscience and STEM Education

In my lifetime I have been the human for six wonderful dogs. I was just six years old when I got my first one. I wanted my pet to be the best, so I enrolled in an obedience class for Coalie, named for his coat color, as well as several of my subsequent companions. One of the most important things I learned in those classes was that the better-trained dogs required the fewest words. Indeed, if you attend sheepherding or agility trials, you will rarely hear a command spoken, and yet such animals display a large repertoire of learned skills. These days when I see someone verbally instructing their pet, I laugh, usually not out loud, because I know that dogs respond to gestures and body language and not so much to words.

As a play advocate, I’ve recently become aware of the breakthroughs happening in the neuroscience and developmental evolution. I’ve studied how intelligence progresses from fish to primates and have learned how the smarts of my dear Coalie are not that far off from humans. Indeed, for the first few years, kids and dogs are relatively closely matched. That means that their learning is primarily through gesture, body language, and movement.

The use of fMRI has given us the ability to see living brains in action and allowed a much more actuate view of learning. For example, it was a cannon of psychology that the role of the cerebellum was the center of motor control. While that is still mostly true, the cerebellum is far more complex and important. Take this fact for example. The cerebellum contains 69 billion neurons while the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that we tend to think of as where all of our smarts resides, only contains 16 billion neurons.

It is also interesting to note that initially, the cerebellum communicates primarily with only the right half of the cerebral cortex. That’s the side that deals mostly with imagination, empathy, and intuition. The left half deals with facts, numbers, and letters are ignored during the early years. What do these findings tell us about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education for young children?

The genius of Gary Larson captured this idea perfectly in this Far Side cartoon. Notice that we laugh at the truth of this when the subject is dogs, but the situation would be much the same if we were talking about children. In a very real way, trying to have kids learn STEM ideas verbally is a fool’s errand. Knowing this the developers of most STEM education focus on hands-on projects — all well and good. But wait, what does neuroscience say about the efficacy of that approach?

First, hands-on is good, but body-on is many times better. Early childhood learning progress best during full body engagement, i.e., play. For it is during play that the feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphin flood the brain and significantly increase the rate of neuron myelination which marks the structural changes in the brain that results in learning.

Second, both dogs and kids already know many of the basic principles of STEM. There are interesting studies that show that babies act surprised when they see something that violates fundamental physics. Or take the fact that if you load one glass with 5 M&M’s and another with eight, kids will invariably select the glass with the most candy showing that they understand the notion of quantity. So, what does this tell us about “teaching” STEM to young children?

To start with they are smarter and know more than we assume. Kids also “understand” intuitively and not intellectually. Maria Montessori understood this, and it is the basis of her educational system. Unfortunately, the teaching methods that embody her insights have become viewed by many as sacrosanct and held to dogmatically rather than being a wellspring of creativity.

The other issue with Montessori and much of STEM education is that there is a single known outcome to the materials presented to children. Whereas, what is far more critical is fostering curiosity, creativity, and experimentation. Kids are very quick to figure out that adults have provided a lesson to be learned and that real play is not on the agenda. Soon kids just look for the embedded lesson rather than being free to explore.

What dogs, kids and the new findings in science teach us is that learning is best when it is full-body, active, fun, and open-ended. Children at very young ages can learn the underlying STEM information best when it is presented in a form that integrates well with those areas of the brain that are in the process of development.

Here’s a taste of the science:

Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

The Association Between Childhood Motor and Cognitive Development

From Movement to Thought: The Development of Executive Function

Optimizing Early Brain and Motor Development Through Movement