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August 28, 2009

5Qs with Lisa Guernsey of Early Ed Watch

LisaBioPic Lisa Guernsey is a writer and researcher who has published articles in Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Although she writes on many topics, her true passion is children. As a mom, a writer, and a researcher she became interested in the intersection of media and young children and produced the book, Into the Minds of Babes, that I have mentioned here several times. She is a contributing blogger to Early Ed Watch one of Inside Pre-K's favorite blogs to follow. What has always struck me about Lisa's work is her balanced approach to every topic. Balance is hard to come by on the internet, especially in pre-k policy discussions (even on this blog but we try). I had the opportunity to do a 5Qs interview with Lisa and she happily agreed. So here it is:

How is preschool valuable to young children?

So you want me to take on the big kahuna right from the get-go? Happy to oblige. I could, of course, start recounting the research – the studies that so many readers of this blog can practically repeat in their sleep. There’s Hart & Risley, the renowned study from 1995 that showed us the wide gulf between the language environments of middle-class children and those of children raised in poverty, with the more-advantaged children surrounded by conversations about dinosaurs and Dr. Seuss while less-advantaged children are told to put on their shoes. Preschool – if it’s a language-rich environment –  can help tremendously on this front. Then there are the multiple studies on high-quality preschools in places like Tulsa, Chicago and Ypsilanti that show how much children gain in math, literacy and social skills compared to their peers who didn’t get to attend.


But I suspect you want me to go beyond statistics and peer-reviewed results. What is valuable about preschool? It’s the teachers. It’s the impact that comes from putting children under the guidance of a professional who doesn’t just know how to make young children happy and secure, but who also understands how to activate their brains, help them make connections, lead them to explore their curiosities, cause them to think a moment before grabbing or shoving, challenge them to try to answer their own questions and take their thought process to the next level.


In other words, preschool is valuable because it recognizes – no, it embracesthe idea that adults have a critical role to play in bringing learning experiences into children’s lives before they arrive in elementary school. We’ve all heard the argument that this is simply the role of parents, that parents should be the ones doing this for their kids. To that I say, pshaw and of course. Of course, parents need to, and want to, do everything they can to expose their children to new ideas, new words, new challenges. But that doesn’t mean we should encourage a mindset that essentially says to today’s parents: So you had a kid? Good luck, go at it. We’ve discovered so much over the past two decades – particularly in the land of cognitive science and developmental psychology -- about how young children take in and digest information, create their own knowledge systems and become motivated to learn. And psychologists continue to discover how different children develop these skills in different ways at different points through their growth as infants, toddlers and then 3, 4 and 5 year olds. These new insights offer a lot for parents to process and learn as they rear their children. As a mother of two young daughters, I’ll readily admit there is no way I could do it on my own. There’s a reason, beyond the modern-day realities of working motherhood, that parents with the means enroll their children in preschool. They want them to spend time with teachers who can draw out children’s natural abilities to learn, who are trained and who specialize in the best ways to engage young kids socially and intellectually, who know what they are doing.

What are some things you think would surprise parents about preschoolers and media that you learned writing your book Into the Minds of Babes?

Electronic media is not the enemy. Complacency about electronic media is the enemy. Parents and teachers are inundated with stories about all of the ills that come from TV and computer use, especially with children at young ages. So they figure, understandably, that they should just turn it off, ban it, keep it away. No question, there’s value in limiting media use with young children – in my house I’m very cognizant of whether my kids have been watching 30 minutes or one hour of PBS, and I don’t hesitate to turn it off or train them to turn it off as soon as a show is over. But I also have learned, from conducting research for this book, that I have a responsibility to use that media time to my children’s best advantage. That means not only choosing high-quality content, but also talking to my kids about what they’ve seen on screen, asking them what they did or didn’t understand, explaining how the show is made, watching when new shows or topics spark their interest and using what they see on screen as a jumping off point for new projects or trips to the library.


My mantra is to be aware, and think about, the Three C’s: content, context and your child. Content means the quality of the program and whether children of preschool age are getting anything valuable from it. Context means thinking about the environment around the TV viewing, including parents’ responses to it and whether it is just droning on in the background. And Your Child means exactly that: Is your child responding by clapping and dancing, asking questions, re-enacting and re-scripting scenes later, during times of pretend play? Or is he or she confused or upset -- or generally misunderstanding or not taking in the lessons or ideas on the screen?


There’s one other tidbit that was surprising to me: There’s no solid research showing that the sedentary behavior of sitting on the couch and watching TV causes obesity. There is, to be sure, research showing a connection between obesity in children and TV watching. But scientists and media experts are starting to examine a culprit other than, or in addition to, sedentary behavior: food marketing and the messages about food that children get when they watch kids TV. Children can watch one show after another, and one commercial after another, and never see a character or family sitting down to have a healthy meal or eat a piece of fruit. That strikes me as an area ripe for some intervention.  

What are some ways parents and teachers can support children as they interact with media?

Zoom in on high-quality shows and videos, and then, literally, zoom in on one particular moment in them. Pause the action. Point to what just happened. Ask children what they think might happen next. Consider art projects, journaling projects, science projects that give children a chance to record and talk about what they’ve seen, and why they think it matters.

What have you learned in your current focus on what makes the most impact for children in families of all income levels?


I’m learning more everyday about how much the lack of coherence, lack of connections, and lack of bridge-building among today’s hodgepodge of early childhood policies can stymie what parents really want to do for their children. Let me give an example. I met a woman at a Head Start fair in Alexandria, Va., registering her son for the fall semester. She was newly divorced and had just moved her son to Northern Virginia to be closer to family who could support her. She was looking for a job. The only reason she knew about Head Start was because a stranger on the Metro platform one day, with whom she had taken up a casual conversation, had told her about it. There’s problem number one: Finding high-quality preschool and childcare can feel like groping in the dark. Even I, with a decent level of education and membership on too many parenting listservs, felt lost when I started seeking out information on preschools and childcare centers. We need more systematic ways of getting information to parents.


Now, for the next problem: This woman I met was excited to sign her child up for Head Start. Her son, climbing over and under chairs in the registration room, kept asking when he would start. But it wasn’t completely clear that her family would actually qualify in the first place. Yes, she was unemployed for the moment, and so her income was clearly low enough to make her son eligible. But what was to happen, she asked me, when she got a job? What if the job paid too much? Where else could she go? And would she be able to find a place to enroll her son that would enable her to work full-time, until 5 or 6 p.m.? Would it be as good as Head Start at preparing her child for school? How expensive would it be? If she got a childcare subsidy to help her with the tuition payments, would she still be eligible for those discounts if she lost her job or her hours were reduced?


We don’t have good answers to these questions. Part of our work at the New America Foundation, particularly on Early Ed Watch, is to follow legislation that will, we hope, start to build better systems so that children’s education, yes starting at age 3 and 4, is continuous and interconnected between childcare centers and preschools and public schools, allowing for seamless transitions from one year of preschool to another and then from preschool to kindergarten and up through the early grades.

What can you tell us about the future of preschool education as it relates to technology? What do you see 3 - 10 years down the road?


The picture is fuzzy. Technology shouldn’t play more than a supporting role – it should be integrated into the classroom only to the extent that it helps teachers do what they want to do. And the preschool teachers I’ve met have many other priorities that don’t require high-tech gadgetry or TV screens. They want to promote hands-on, fine-motor skills, they want to promote weekly themes and projects that involve lots of picture books, they want to set up science projects that give children time to explore, record their observations and ask questions.


In other words, I don’t see a day when TV screens and computers, as we know them now, will become as essential to preschool classrooms as easels and construction paper. But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for video and interactive technology as hardware evolves to take different shapes and as multimedia stories become more integrated into the way teachers work. I’ve seen specialized kid-friendly microscopes that use a TV monitor to display magnified images of carpet fibers or skin pores so that kids can gather around and talk about what they are discovering. As a parent, I would love to give my daughters a chance to experience something like that, and I suspect many teachers would too.


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