I read two great articles in the New York Times this week about innovation in elementary education and early childhood.

One article highlights a school in New Haven that is utilizing art installations as teaching tools for math and science. The school, which was constructed last year, has integrated all kinds of high-quality art works into its building, including sculptures, mosaics, and architectural elements. This is part of a growing movement of schools commissioning “museum-quality” works that form the basis for learning activities inside and outside of the classroom.  What I found so fascinating about this article was not just the notion that environment plays an indirect role in productivity (i.e. – when we work in pleasant and engaging surroundings, we are inspired to work better and harder), but the idea that a school building could be designed in such a way to directly facilitate learning.

The other article in this week’s Times explored how kindergarten and pre-school classrooms are engaging their children in activities designed to promote “executive function” (which, I learned in the article, is a fancy term for self-control). According to the article, assignments and tasks that force children to manage their impulses on their own – instead of being regulated by adults – can help them to develop  variety of cognitive skills that enhance future academic and professional success. It is also easier to teach kids executive function when they are young; by middle school it becomes very difficult to modify these kinds of behaviors. The most amazing the article revealed, though, is that researchers have discovered the best way to promote executive function in young children is to allow them to play. But, according to the article, kids need

not just any play. The necessary ingredient is what Leong and Bodrova call “mature dramatic play”: complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours, even days. If you want to succeed in school and in life, they say, you first need to do what Abigail and Jocelyn and Henry have done every school day for the past two years: spend hour after hour dressing up in firefighter hats and wedding gowns, cooking make-believe hamburgers and pouring nonexistent tea, doing the hard, serious work of playing pretend.

With Making Sparks just around the corner, both of these stories gave me a lot to think about in terms what kinds of projects have the best potential to impact on kids in our region. There is a fluidity and a connectedness in children’s experiences that disappears as we get older. Play, learning, feeling, socializing all blend together and influence one another, and it seems as though the best interventions and innovations are those that impact children in a way that is holistic and organic – letting them develop self-control by playing dress up or learn about science by looking at a sculpture. Hopefully Making Sparks, with it emphasis on collaboration, will yield some similarly creative ideas.