A Creativity-Focused Agenda for Early Childhood Education Policymaking

Addressing the shortcomings of the K-12 education system requires that we devote a lot more attention and resources to early childhood education. We must have the foresight to lay a solid foundation of lifelong learning skills.
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For many of the families we serve at the Children's Creativity Museum, this time of the year marks the annual ritual known as, "back to school." Families crowd the school supply and backpack aisles of retailers in search of everything on their list. Dedicated parents and kids await grocery shoppers outside stores for their receipts and box tops. Families scramble to learn new routines to get everyone up and ready to head out the door in time to drop off everyone at school and for Mommy or Daddy to get to work on time (but not without the requisite tantrum, spillage of food or milk or rush back home because someone forgot something in the mad morning rush).

This back to school season, however, families with young kids were greeted with one more hurdle: The inability of a deadlocked Congress to resolve the debt-ceiling question last spring has resulted in automatic cuts to federally-funded early childhood programs, like Head Start, and consequently, fewer spots and program hours for kids in these programs.

Like most policymaking, these government cuts were put in place based on a particular understanding of what returns public dollars would yield in the educational system. Yet it seems that educational policy is not in sync with new research-based understandings of child learning. For us to have a more effective and holistic approach to educational policy, we need to better understand the role that early childhood education plays in the overall learning of a child.

In our "race to the top," it is understandable that we would choose to invest our limited public dollars in programs targeting older youth, which have the highest likelihood of an immediate economic return on investment. Yet, as James Heckman opined in, "Lifelines for Poor Children," in the New York Times last week, we need to understand the true costs that early childhood programs have on the long-term strength of our economy and our growing focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and innovation.

First, we need to better understand what the costs to the individual child are when early childhood educational programs are cut, and consequently, the cumulative effect of those cuts on what I call the "next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs." Recent breakthroughs in the research of brain development help us to begin to understand the importance of the social and cognitive development a child experiences during the formative preschool years (three to five years old).

At the Children's Creativity Museum, we focus on the three Cs of 21st-century skills -- creativity, collaboration and communication -- as essential to a child's ability to work in a hyperconnected, digitally-networked world. Simply put, how a child learns to play in the sandbox eventually informs how they choose to communicate and collaborate in teams at the office in the future.

Creativity -- long seen as a gift with which a privileged few are born -- is indeed a cognitive skill for which all kids have a natural disposition. Children are able to explore, take risks, learn from trial and error and generate out-of-the-box ideas fairly easily compared to adults. Then, as Sir Ken Robinson so aptly points out in his famous TED talk, schools kill this natural creativity. In the process, kids learn that conformity is, "good," "crazy," ideas (even if they have the potential to be world-changing) are deemed "bad."

These kinds of creativity, collaboration and communication -- as The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has argued -- are the foundational skills for lifelong learning. Heckman asserts that our youth are at a disadvantage when a child does not have this solid foundation in place. The achievement gap that exists between poor students and students of color and their affluent and white counterparts doesn't actually start when math and reading scores drop. Rather, it begins even earlier when kids are not given the foundational skills necessary to be effective learners equipped to make sense of the content they are taught in the classroom.

If we are to truly tackle the structural inequities that arise when early childhood programs are cut, we need to have a better understanding of the value of preschool and toddler learning. First, we need to connect more directly K-12 education policymaking to early childhood education. We need to understand how the development of broad foundational skills in the preschool years contributes to academic success.

Second, those interested in early childhood education would do well to support those of us engaged in research and inquiry into early childhood brain development. The more we understand how the young brain works, the more we can transform our pedagogy to address how the young brain naturally works.

Third, we need to re-focus on those learning opportunities that contribute to the development of the three Cs of foundational skills for lifelong learning. That means considering the role of arts education in the creative development of a young child. (I'm especially proud that the California Arts Council is taking up an effort to develop a "creativity index" that would measure the development of this cognitive skill in the public-school classroom, much like we have content standards for math and language arts.)

It also means getting a better handle on the use of technology in the critical preschool years. Partners, like the George Lucas Educational Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, have done a great job at conducting research into the role that digital media -- in particular, video games -- play in extending learning. Yet, we know very little about the role that digital media plays in early childhood. Until we do, we run the risk of a blanket ban on screen time without considering what are the true costs to early childhood learning of completely unplugging our kids from any and all digital devices.

Addressing the shortcomings of the K-12 education system requires that we devote a lot more attention and resources to early childhood education. We must have the foresight to lay a solid foundation of lifelong learning skills that will support youth through their school years and into our digital economy.

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