Activity for kids outside of school time is an oasis in a ‘learning desert’

    Children spend only 20 percent of their waking time in the classroom. What are they doing during the other 80 percent?

    For some, the other 80 percent might look like after-school sports, trips to the park or the children’s museum, or, more recently, a few minutes engaging with an educational app. For many, the other 80 percent is a learning desert — devoid of enriching opportunities to point children toward a brighter future. Every day that children from disadvantaged backgrounds step onto unsafe streets without fun, educational alternatives is another day that we close the door on their potential for a bright future.

    At a recent meeting between a team from Temple University and residents of the West Philadelphia Promise Zone — including concerned parents, grandparents, and community organizers — community members unanimously lamented the demise of after-school programs and summer enrichment opportunities. They talked about the loss of book clubs that used to exist in their local libraries. They wondered what happened to the tennis program or the after-school basketball clinic that they had attended when they were young. They asked if local hospitals and universities within the Promise Zone could spend a day or two showing the neighborhood children what it meant to be a doctor, a lab assistant, or even a professor. Just knowing what is possible, they suggested, opens doors that many children cannot even imagine.

    These parents, grandparents, and caregivers want what we all want — a brighter, safer, future for their children. They are hard-working members of the community, and they want to see their children reach their fullest potential.

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    To date, we have spent tremendous and important effort on early education reform, most recently including President Obama’s Preschool For All initiative and the Free Library of Philadelphia’s READ by 4th program. To ensure that these initiatives succeed, it is imperative that we heed the call of the community to also support children’s lives outside the classroom. We must reinstate some of the programs that withered away, and develop innovative programs that maximize the educational potential of the other 80 percent.

    One such new initiative, called Urban Thinkscape, is designed to re-imagine the Promise Zone by increasing caregiver-child engagement through playful learning activities installed in public spaces. Funded by the William Penn Foundation, Urban Thinkscape will bring children’s museum-quality learning activities right into the streets where people wait for the bus or hang out after school. These activities will be a fun and engaging method for introducing math and literacy content that gets both caregivers and children actively involved in the learning process.

    Every child deserves a bright start and a bright future. But this is more than a call from a community. It is a call for society to prioritize raising “happy, healthy, thinking, caring, and social children who become collaborative, creative, competent, and responsible citizens tomorrow.” Only from our own determination will our children learn perseverance; only from our innovation will our children learn creativity; and only through our prioritizing education — inside the school walls and out — will our children learn to do so as well.

    Dwayne Walker, West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning parent navigator and lifelong Mantua resident, put it best when he said:

    “When I was younger, I was deemed a bad child, but now I am achieving great things, and that’s all because I was given a chance. Right now, we have people interested in … giving our kids a chance.”

    All Philadelphia children deserve this chance. Let’s give our kids the other 80 percent that they deserve — filled with after-school programs, summer programs, and innovative outlets throughout our city.

    Brenna Hassinger-Das, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University. Her research examines the links between play and language and math learning, particularly for young children.

    Jacob Schatz is a lab coordinator in the Temple University Infant and Child Lab at Temple’s Ambler Campus in Ambler, Pa. He is interested in bridging the gap between education and play.

    Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University, director of Temple’s Infant Language Laboratory and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Author of Einstein never used flashcards: How children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less, Hirsh-Pasek is one of the world’s leading researchers in the areas of language development, play and early childhood education.

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