Keith Richardson is a member of the Sunflower Creative Arts Board of Directors. He is a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and is dad to Lawrence, a Sunflower theatre student.

During the 1970s, researchers tried to teach language to primates using typical primary school methods: word repetition and by-rote learning accompanied by rewards. At that time, Dr. Sue Savage- Rumbaugh was using that method with a bonobo, Panbanisha, with limited success. About a year and a half later, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh began to teach Panbanisha’s toddler daughter Kanzi. Surprisingly, she discovered that Kanzi already had a vocabulary of 40 words and understood over 100 words! For the one and a half years that Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh had been teaching Panbanisha, Kanzi had been learning by simply being in the room and paying attention when she felt like it, while mostly tumbling around on the floor, climbing on her mother and playing with objects. She had learned at a more rapid pace than Panbanisha, all by immersion.

Completely by accident, then, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh learned a very important lesson, one that made her the most successful primate language researcher of all. The lesson she learned: that she could teach her bonobos much faster if they integrated language into everyday activities such as play, cooking, and household chores like sweeping. In that environment, they were able to experiment with using language to get things they wanted and to communicate how they felt, with the trainer intervening minimally with minor corrections. The results were stunning: with tightly-structured experiments with Kanzi and other bonobos, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh was the first primate language researcher to demonstrate true word comprehension, novel word use, spontaneous word creation, theory of mind, and other supposedly “exclusively human” landmarks.

The latest research on young humans, too, seems conclusive: they learn best by doing, by playing, by making mistakes, and by experiencing their bodies and engaging their brains in unstructured physical and social activities.

If you have children and live within driving distance of a program that honors this educational approach, consider yourself lucky. In my neighborhood, we have Sunflower Creative Arts. At a time when many schools are cutting down on recess, increasing structured goal-oriented activities, and dispensing with music and art education altogether, Sunflower’s programs allow children opportunities for learning through play.

Sunflower has enhanced its play area to allow for more creative interaction between children and their environment, according to the “playscape” philosophy of playground design. In their child-through-teen theater program, they let the children improvise and “feel their way” into their roles, and help them thereby find their unique personal voice. They even offer excellent advice for things you can do at home to bring more play into your child’s life, including how to choose play-friendly neighborhoods.

What we know now is what we all suspected as kids: sitting a child in a chair for three to eight hours a day engages a very small portion of their learning machinery and stunts their developmental potential. Remember how desperate you sometimes were in elementary school  to get out to recess? Remember how free it felt when you were finally outside and moving? Guess what: you were right! And now we have a decade of brain research to back it up!

How much better to let that hunger for activity and interaction find its compliment in a play-oriented program, such as Sunflower Creative Arts!

© Keith Richardson and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photo © Jaime Greenberg and Sunflower Creative Arts