Experts Conduct Preschool Studies

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Preschoolers can dramatically enhance their performance and smooth the transition into kindergarten through games, a group of UC Berkeley researchers said yesterday.

Using game-like techniques, the child-development experts said they are finding ways to improve the math, reading and social skills of three- to five-year-olds.

"Very young children are more capable of learning than we would have thought," said Alison Gopnik, psychology professor and co-author of "The Scientist in the Crib." "They are already formulating theories about everyday actions - how people act, how animals are and how things work."

Nine experts from UC Berkeley's Institute of Human Development have been studying the informal processes of how children learn math and reading.

"Not only is this taken as a mission to do research, but (we want to) take it to people who can use it - preschool and kindergarten teachers," said Philip Cowan, institute director and UC Berkeley psychology professor.

The child-development experts said they are concerned with social interactions during preschool, not just academic subjects. They are working on how familial ties and playing impact school performance.

"Our focus is on the relationship between parents, so we can offer ways to work with parents," said Carolyn Cowan, an adjunct professor of psychology.

Along with the social aspects of young children's lives, experts are also researching the kindergarten environment, which can interfere with a child's ability to learn and can make them more susceptible to some types of diseases.

Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley's Health and Medical Sciences director and a public health professor, discovered after several years of research that in spite of a child's past exposure to pathogens in the child-care setting, kindergarten causes a dramatic increase in infectious diseases.

Boyce said that children and adults respond to stress in different ways. One out of five children in his test group demonstrated exorbitant reactions to stressful situations.

"We noticed when these children were placed in nurturing environments, they performed not only as well as the others, but they were doing better," Boyce said.

The experts displayed their findings by exhibiting groups of preschoolers at UC Berkeley's Harold E. Jones Child Study Center, located on Atherton Street. The children were participating in study groups for mathematical reasoning and literacy. Others were shown at play in the schoolyard.

"I think it's a great chance for teachers to team up, and it gives a lot of children the chance to be exposed to concepts they won't be exposed to in the outside world," said Laura Goldsborough, a center teacher.

The research topics included "Building an Early Foundation for Math," "A Love Affair with Reading," "A Child's Fertile Logic," "The Imperative of Play," "The Importance of a Good Marriage," "Stress and Illness in School Children" and "The Critical Impact of Social Class and Structure."

California, along with several other states, is in the process of developing better teaching practices for preschool children. State legislators said they expect this improvement to have positive repercussions for the rest of the education system, from kindergarten to high school.

A new tobacco tax gives California counties money for improving child development. State politicians are also considering the possibility of making preschool more financially accessible to low-income families.


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