Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has a mission to transform the urban environment to make it more child-friendly © Pascal Perich/FT
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Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has a vision: she would like to see children all over the world waiting at bus stops with puzzles embedded in the benches, then riding to parks installed with life-sized board games, past street lights that project glittering animated stories on the pavement.

Her ideas are informed by the latest research in the field of early childhood development. One of the foremost authorities in the US on human development and child psychology, Dr Hirsh-Pasek is at the vanguard of a movement to transform how children learn. Its approach is to adapt their environments and reach them at younger and younger ages, with special focus on those growing up in disadvantaged circumstances. What is more, she says, it is going to be fun.

“Once you start thinking this way, it just changes the whole way you think about the potential of cities,” she says, at the Temple University Infant & Child Laboratory near Philadelphia, where she is co-director. “It’s mind-blowing, really — and so, so darn exciting.”

Much of the infant and child lab’s work is focused on the Philadelphia area, where, working with the city, local non-profit organisations and schools, it is starting pilot projects to redesign libraries, parks and bus stops to make learning an integral part of children’s everyday experiences.

The lab works with children in early childhood (up to the age of eight) who take part in tests that help researchers evaluate their language, spatial and social skills. Researchers have created a tablet app that teachers can use in schools to measure and improve students’ language skills and are now working on one that tests spatial skills, which are important for maths and science learning.

“Language is the single best predictor of later academic skills, even social skills,” Dr Hirsh-Pasek says. “The kids who are more social are the ones who can talk and be understood and be communicative.” Seventy per cent of families are expected to live in urban areas by 2050, she says, and children spend 80 per cent of their waking time — and therefore learning time — outside school. The idea is to make that time stimulating, in a playful, fun way.

Early childhood development was not always considered an important, or even a genuine, branch of science. Dr Hirsh-Pasek notes that, in the middle of the last century, even Benjamin Spock, the renowned writer on child-rearing, believed that babies were not thinking much at all.

Thanks to more recent research, “the paradigm has shifted”, Dr Hirsh-Pasek says. “We now know that babies are indeed noticing patterns, and thinking and recognising mothers’ voices from the get-go. We also know that when babies have a good start in life and high-quality, engaged environments, that helps to build the foundation that’s going to carry them all the way through life.”

Brick by brick: The Ultimate Block Party took place in Central Park in October 2010 © Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In 2010, Dr Hirsh-Pasek helped organise The Ultimate Block Party, an event that attracted 50,000 people to New York’s Central Park for a day of science-inspired activities, involving building, puzzling and arts and crafts. She has also published several books, including Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less (2003), which she co-wrote with Roberta Michnic Golinkoff and which champions the role of play over academic learning.

Dr Hirsh-Pasek says computers have killed the age of rote memorisation. “Who’s going to be better at memorising facts?” The computer — “hands down”, she says. Instead, “for the businesses of the future we [had] better realise what humans do best: we’re really good at patterns. We are really good at putting things together in new ways. A computer does that randomly; we do it thoughtfully and strategically.”

“We’re fundamentally social creatures,” she says. “When we try to drive [creative], problem-solving, social [elements] out of the equation, then we are destroying the entrepreneurial class of our future, and the United States can’t afford that.”

For now, the infant and child lab’s pilot programmes are on a small scale, mostly funded by government grants and organisations such as the William Penn Foundation, a Philadelphia-based philanthropic organisation, and the Bezos Family Foundation, which is run by the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Dr Hirsh-Pasek says the schools she works with are usually very receptive. One game the lab has introduced involves encouraging children to act out a story using puppets, guided by their teachers, who use a script and materials provided by the lab. The researchers spent a year designing the programmes with the teachers before going into the classroom.

Get out and play: The pilot Parkopolis project in Lausanne, Switzerland © We Are Play Lab

Another initiative involved putting up posters in supermarkets to stimulate educational conversations between parents and children. The prompts were simple: “Find something that starts with ‘A’” or “Why do we keep certain foods in the freezer?”.

Then there is Parkopolis, a life-sized board game the lab has designed for use in city parks as an adjunct to early Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) learning. It incorporates a version of hopscotch that teaches inhibition skills (tuning out stimuli that are irrelevant to a task). Research suggests such skills are predictive of later maths and science ability. The game has a set of musical pipes designed to teach patterns and special dice, including one with fractions instead of digits.

It is this unorthodox way of looking at the world that drives the lab’s work, Dr Hirsh-Pasek says: learning need not be dull and play does not have to be frivolous. “We put in the bus stop and all of a sudden people got off their cell phones and started talking to their kids,” she says, “Wow”.

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