The Ultimate Block Party's Blog

Unless you are really lucky and happen to live near a safari or in a high-rise by a zoo, you probably don’t live in an area in which your child is exposed to animals like lions, tigers, and bears very often, if at all!  But many children know that a lion roars, a tiger has stripes, and a bear walks on all fours and is fuzzy.  How is it that young children learn about animals that they rarely, if ever, actually see in real life?  It may seem easy enough to you, but do you remember how hard it was to learn about scientific concepts like electrons and neutrons because you couldn’t actually SEE them?  This raises an interesting challenge – how do children learn about things that we don’t experience in everyday life?

Books plays a key role in exposing children (and adults) to worlds that exist outside of their everyday reality.  A recent paper published online in the journal Child Development examines what children learn from books.  Researchers from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, and the University of Virginia completed a set of studies examining whether young children could learn information about animals from a picture book and furthermore, could they actually transfer (or extend) this new information to a new animal example or even a real animal?  The researchers first showed 3- and 4-year old children photographs of animals (lizards or caterpillars)  – some of these animals were camouflaged by the background of the picture (i.e., a blue caterpillar in front of a blue background) and some of the animals were not (i.e., a blue caterpillar in front of a red background).  The researchers asked the children which creature was more likely to be eaten by a hungry hawk.  About 57 percent of the children chose the non-camouflaged animal.  Next, the researcher read a picture book to the child which explained how it was harder for a bird to find a frog that was the same color as its surroundings versus a different color.  Then, each child was shown photographs of camouflaged and non-camouflaged frogs and butterflies and asked which would be most likely to be eaten by that pesky hungry hawk.  This allowed researchers to see if children were able to learn from reading the picture book and also whether they were able to apply this new knowledge about camouflage to new creatures (i.e., the butterfly).  It turns out that the simple act of reading a picture book helped children to learn about the concept of camouflage and now 73 percent (compared to 57 percent before they read the picture book) of children chose the non-camouflaged animal when asked about which would be more likely to be eaten.

The researchers also asked whether the story was told in a fact-based way (i.e., factual based statements about animals and camouflage) and an anthropomorphized way (i.e.,  giving the animals feelings and intentions) – it turns out that children were equally able to learn from both kids of stories.  The final question that the researchers asked was whether children would be able to transfer the knowledge that they gained about camouflage to real, live animals.  This time, instead of showing children new pictures after reading a picture book, children were asked to find a ‘safe home’ for a real-life crab and a lizard and choose between two tanks – one which matched the color of the animals and one that did not.  While this was a little harder for kids, they were still able to transfer this brand new knowledge about camouflage to real-life examples.

What does this mean for you?  The fact that 3- and 4-year old children can learn about the biological concept of camouflage just from reading a book suggests that children are learning information about the big, huge world around us from the books that are right in our homes, schools, and libraries.  This means that reading books with your kids isn’t just a fun activity – it is helping them to learn about the world around them – even worlds that they don’t directly experience!  This explains why your little one may love elephants and know that they use their trunks spray water even if they have never seen an elephant before!  If you think about it, this isn’t so easy – in order for children to learn from books, they have to understand that the picture or illustration of an animal or objects on a page actually represents something in the real world. So before your next trip to the zoo, read a book about animals and then talk with your child about the fun new facts that you learned from the book and how it relates to the real animals you see in front of you.  Together, you and your child can explore amazing worlds full of whales, giraffes, and elephants – oh my!

Featured Article:

Ganea, P.A., Ma., L., & DeLoache, J.S. (in press). Young Children’s learning and transfer of biological information from pictures books to real animals. Child Development.

This blog was written by Dr. Jennifer Zosh, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine


Do you remember the New York Times’ recent article,Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum?” The article was about the Ultimate Block Party and stressed the growing realization of how important play is for child development.  Well, this play revolution is continuing!  This month’s online (as listed on the front page of and in-print editions of Parenting Magazine has a great article about the importance of play and offers fun, easy, inexpensive, and effective ways for you to play with your child and give them the skills and experiences needed to have a successful and happy future!

Check it out!

“But I hate tests!”  Most of us have probably said these words sometime during our childhoods or hear it today from our own children.  Tests have gotten a bad reputation lately – none of us want our child’s education to be about ‘teaching to the test.’ Education is about more than test scores! The issue with testing is that it typically only taps into content knowledge (reading, writing, and arithmetic, oh my!)—rather than other skills such as critical thinking or creativity. However, content knowledge IS important!  It is crucial for our children to learn about the facts of the world, learn how to comprehend paragraphs of facts, and retain that information in the future.

Recently, an article appeared in the New York Times that suggests testing actually helps us learn – in fact, more than just studying!  In a set of studies conducted at Purdue University (Kerpicke & Blunt, 2011), college students were asked to read a paragraph and then were asked to (a) study the information for 5 minutes, (b) draw a ‘concept map’ – or a visual ‘map’ of how the ideas presented fit together, or (c) take a test in which they had to write a short-answer description of everything they had just learned.  It turns out that the students asked to take a test retained up to 50% MORE information a week later!

What does this mean? If students are given the opportunity to make their own connections between facts and translate this information into their own words, it makes learning personally meaningful— and they are more likely to remember what they have learned later on! This is very different from re-reading material in order to memorize information or to identify key points (common in ‘cramming’ or study sessions). And remember—all tests are not created equal.  Do you think the researchers would have gotten different results if the students took multiple choice tests rather than short answer tests? Other researchers have shown taking multiple-choice tests repeatedly may actually promote false knowledge (the idea that they know the information when they do not! Roediger  & Marsh, 2005)!

What does this tell us? Asking open-ended questions that help students think critically and recall facts in ways that make sense to them can be a powerful tool for learning!

  • After your child studies or does her homework, ask her to close the book and either write down or tell you everything she remembers.  Make it a fun ‘memory game.’  In fact, you should take a turn ‘playing’ too!  This will help her to see the connections that exist between the facts and also give you the opportunity to learn together.
  • Try not to make testing all about grades and the number of items right or wrong – instead, frame tests as ways to learn!  If your child feels more positively about tests, he will likely be less anxious and his knowledge will be better able to shine!
  • Moderation is the key! Pushing children too much can have an adverse effect on learning and their motivation to learn—so be responsive to children’s needs, interests, and abilities!


Featured Articles:

Bellek, P. (2011, January). To really learn, quit studying and take a test. Retrieved from,

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011, January). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science. Retrieved from,

Roediger, H. & Marsh, E. (2005). The positive and negative consequences of multiple choice testing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 31, 1155-1159.


This blog was written by Dr. Kelly Fisher, Postdoctoral Fellow at Temple University, and Dr. Jennifer Zosh, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine


Imagine that you walk into a preschool and see a toy you haven’t seen before.  The teacher walks in and says, “Hi there!  This is a new toy that we just got from the store.  I haven’t had the chance to play with it yet, but here, take a look and see what it can do.” What would you do with the toy?  Now imagine that she said this instead, “Hi there! This is a new toy that we just got from the store.  I really like it. Look at what it can do!” She then pushes a button on the toy to play music. Now what would you do with the toy?

How did your responses differ in the two scenarios? In the first example, the teacher was naïve and didn’t know what to do with the toy.  You would probably explore and play with the toy to see what fun things it could do, right? In the latter case, the teacher showed you what the toy did.  You would probably hit the button to play the music a number of times because this is what the toy does. Would you do anything else with the toy?

New research published in the journal Cognition explores how teaching influences children’s exploration, discovery, and learning. Similar to the example above, children were shown a brand new toy and an adult (a) directly and purposefully showed them one of four possible functions of a toy (explicit teaching), (b) accidentally discovered a function of the toy, or (c) did not show any functions of the toy.  Then, children were given as much time as they wanted to explore and play with the toy. Children who were explicitly taught spent less time exploring the toy, discovered fewer functions, and played for a shorter period of time compared to those who were not taught!

What does this tell us about how children learn?  Does it mean that we should never directly show our children anything so that they explore the world?  No!  On the one hand, this is great news because it means that our children learn when we try to teach them about new objects. BUT, when we directly show our children how something works, we also “constrain” how they see the object by zeroing in on one particular aspect. Remember, creative thinking begins with ‘flexible thinking’—and is grounded in exploration, discovery, and play. As the researchers state, this creates a ‘double-edged’ sword.  What can we do?

• Allow our children to explore an object first.  Let them experiment, turn it upside down, push, pull, and shake!  Then, after they explore, we can then show them what they haven’t yet discovered (if anything!).  This lets your child be creative, but also lets them benefit from your expertise.

• Prompt your child to keep exploring an object even after you showed them something about it. This way, they see an example of what a toy might be able to do, but you also encourage them to make their own discoveries!

• Choose what to teach and when. Some situations require direct instruction (e.g., tying a shoe), others may not (e.g., how to play with a toy) and some situations may require some initial, gentle guidance (e.g., creating a collage).

Remember, learning should be fun, creative, and enjoyable – for both you and your child!

This blog was written by Dr. Jennifer Zosh, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine.

Featured Article:

Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N. D., Spelke, E., & Schulz, L. (in press). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition.

Interested in Learning More?

Csibra, G., & Gergely, G. (2009). Natural pedagogy. Trends in Cognitive Science, 13(4), 148-153.


Do you remember the pretend adventures, the sense of freedom, the eternal battles between the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’and the FUN that you had in the middle of your busy school day?  It turns out that this ‘fun time’ was not just a sanity break for you and your teachers but was an important way for you to learn about the world and the people in it.

What exactly IS recess?  How does it benefit your child’s development?  A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010) defined recess as “a time during the school day that provides children with the opportunity for active, unstructured or structured, free play” (p. 10).  This report looked at a number of different studies to determine the negative and positive impact of recess.  It turns out, there were NO negative impacts of recess!  In fact, the majority of studies found a positive association between recess and children’s cognitive, social, or emotional development (so your pretend adventures helped you to learn important skills like collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and confidence).

Another recent article published by the Journal of School Health (Ramstetter, Murray, & Garner, 2010) also supports the idea that recess is a positive activity for a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and creative development.  Particularly, the authors found that recess that was supervised by trained adults was particularly beneficial, but cautioned that the children should not be forced to participate in structured activities (that sense of freedom is vital for kids to practice making decisions and dealing with others).

What happens when recess isn’t included as part of the day.  You likely remember how different your classroom felt (i.e., more students acting out) if you had to miss recess due to weather or misbehavior.  The research supports this and shows that teachers rate the classroom behavior of students that are exposed to recess more positively than those children that don’t have recess (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009).   And recess helps give children the mental ‘break’ that they need to pay attention and learn more effectively in the classroom (Pelligrini, 2005)  Recess is a win-win!

The December 2010 edition of the National Education Association’s magazine (with a circulation of 2.7 million!), shows that this teacher’s organization is well aware of the benefits of play and recess and suggests that play is not only crucial for learning social skills, but also necessary for kids to learn about things like fairness and democracy (Meier, Engel & Taylor, 2010).  It turns out that those battles between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ on the playground helped you to make sense of morality and the difference between right and wrong – no easy feat!  Check out the article here:

So at your next Parent/Teacher conference or PTA meeting, ask what YOUR child’s school thinks about recess and how you may be able to help keep this important tool in your child’s life (or, bring it back if your school doesn’t have recess).  Play on!

Interested in Learning More?

Barros, R. M., Silver, E. J., & Stein, R. E. K. (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 123(2), 431-436.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010).  The association between school based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Meier, D., Engel, B. & Taylor, B. (2011, January/February).  Play ethic. NEA Today Magazine, 28-33.

Pellegrini, A. (2005). Recess: Its role in education and development. Mahwah, NJ: Psychology Press.

Ramstetter, C. L., Murray, R., & Garner, A. S. (2010). The crucial role of recess in schools. Journal of School Health, 80(11), 517-526.

This blog was written by Dr. Jennifer Zosh, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine.

This week the Ultimate Block Party was featured in the New York Times’ article, “Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum.” The article reveals that the culture of play is vanishing in society and being replaced with television, organized after school activities, and academic prep. Playtime has lost value in our culture, and scientists, psychologists, educators, and others are trying to change this perception through community outreach activities like the Ultimate Block Party. Click here to read more…

Have you ever been stumped on a problem and later on you had the “aha!” moment when you are watching TV, playing around, or even taking a shower? What ignited that moment of insight?

According to an article in the  New York Times this week, new neuroscience research  shows positive mood may prep the mind for the “aha moment” when we are faced with a tough problem. How? The research suggests that a positive mood may increase attention, perhaps on a subconscious level, so that we can pick up  important details that are often overlooked. So before your next big project maybe you should watch a comedy show or tell a good joke!

Have you noticed that children are highly creative? Perhaps the positive mood  incurred from playful experiences may also promote creative problem solving. Evidence suggests that children who play generate more creative solutions on subsequent tasks compared to those who do not (Pepler & Ross, 1981; Smith & Dutton, 1979; for a review, see Hughes, 1999). Some theorists suggest that children and great innovators alike engage in “bricolage,” a playful attitude that allows them to openly tinker, explore, collaborate, make mistakes, and rebuild their way to discovery. It is this mindset, scholars suggest, that makes play a powerful informal learning experience, one that naturally engages processes of experimentation and imagination—and one that is necessary for  creative innovation in the ‘knowledge age’ (Brown, 2010; Papert, 1994).


Featured article:

Carey, B. (2010, December 7). Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving. New York Times.

Interested in learning more?

Brown, J. (2008, October). Tinkering as a mode of knowledge production in the digital age. Presentation at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford, CA.

Hughes, F.P. (1999). Play, creativity, and problem-solving.

Papert, S. (1994). The children’s machine: rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Pepler, D.J. & Ross, H.S. (1981).  The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development, 52, 1202-1210.

Smith P.K. & Dutton, S. (1979). Play and training in direct and innovative problem solving.  Child Development, 50, 830-836.



This blog was written by Dr. Kelly Fisher, Postdoctoral Fellow at Temple University.


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  • Amanda Gambill: Playworks is so happy to have the Ultimate Block party here in Baltimore! The event is going to be amazing! We are also looked forward to being the mo
  • Shaping Youth » AHA & Nintendo: Tag-Teaming Innovation To Get Kids Moving (Pt2): [...] “fun and games” started taking on an electronic, screen-based focus and child’s play shifted from the ramp-n-rev of the recess bell to bra
  • Beth Kimberly: Absolutely! Recess is an invaluable part of the school day. I love that, as you point out, "there were NO negative impacts of recess." I find it awful
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