The Play's the Thing

January/February 2006

Reading time min

The Play's the Thing

Photo: Barbara Ries

Joshua wants to be the mom. But Diego’s already the mom, and Kai, who’s the dad, complains that there can’t be two moms. At an impasse, the boys turn to a shooting game targeting two girls next to the playhouse. That sends the girls to teacher Betsy Koning, who arrives, kneels down and asks all the children for their points of view. Koning reminds them what behavior is acceptable and canvasses the children for how best to resolve the dispute. The girls say they don’t want to be a part of a shooting game, and the boys agree to stop. Whom Joshua can be, if not the mom, is a thornier problem. “Who else could be in this family?” Koning asks. “A baby,” Kai answers. “No!” Joshua retorts. “How about the brother?” Koning suggests. “Yes!” The three boys race into the house to resume the game.

This scene could be any well-run nursery school. Guided by an expert teacher, Joshua, Diego, Kai and their 30 or so classmates are doing what all preschoolers do: using dramatic play to make sense of the complex world into which they’ve been born. Just this short episode saw the boys exploring gender roles, identity creation, social rules and conflict resolution.

Less typically, the moment is being recorded on video, to be used in a discussion of best practices among the school’s staff, to share with parents at an upcoming information night, and perhaps even to show to undergraduates enrolled in Psychology 147: Development in Early Childhood. But then, this is not your neighborhood preschool. This is Bing Nursery School, once named one of the 10 best preschools in the United States by Child magazine.

With Bing’s generous half-acre of outdoor space dedicated to each of its three main classrooms, a teaching staff rich in MAs and PhDs, and an international reputation, it’s no wonder local parents fight hard to get their children enrolled. But the school’s real raison d’être is academic research. From its dedication in January 1966, Bing has been run by Stanford’s psychology department, and during the past 40 years it has been the site of some of the most celebrated experiments in the modern history of the discipline—among them Albert Bandura’s work on behavior and aggression, Walter Mischel’s studies on delayed gratification, and John Flavell’s explorations of how children think.

Bing is a play-based school. It believes that curiosity and learning are best encouraged by letting children choose from a broad range of developmentally appropriate activities. But while this teaching practice—based to a significant degree on research conducted at the school—has been widely adopted, today it is under threat. As pressures to boost academics in elementary school push down into kindergarten and even preschool, Bing’s role as a champion of play-based early childhood education is taking on an increased national significance.

Bing is not Stanford’s first research nursery school. After the Second World War, psychology faculty worked both at a small school at the edge of Escondido Village—across the street from where Bing now stands—and at the nursery attached to the Stanford Village housing complex in Menlo Park.

Neither location was ideal, remembers psychology professor emerita Eleanor Maccoby. The Stanford Village site, in particular, “was far from the campus and it was a primitive resource by comparison with what was needed.” Nevertheless, she and her colleagues managed to conduct pathbreaking research. The studies Bandura conducted there on how children model aggressive behavior when exposed to violent content on television (the “Bobo doll” experiments), for example, are among the most cited in the history of psychology.

In the early 1960s, Stanford Village, and thus its nursery, was facing closure. Robert Sears, then psychology department chair and incoming dean of Humanities and Sciences, obtained a grant of $500,000 from the National Science Foundation—an enormous sum at the time—to build a state-of-the-art research facility to replace it. The grant was matched by recent Stanford graduate Peter Bing, ’55, and his mother, Anna Bing Arnold, in what became the first of the family’s many large gifts to the University, and Bing Nursery School was born. Bing’s wife, Helen, remains actively involved with the school, and the couple recently funded its complete refurbishment.

If Sears, ’29, was the entrepreneur behind Bing School, “the real worker in the vineyard was Edith Dowley,” says former provost and psychology professor emeritus Al Hastorf. In 1949, Dowley, EdD ’51, had agreed to run the Stanford Village Nursery School while finishing her doctoral dissertation. She ended up staying for nearly 20 years, joining the psychology faculty and eventually becoming the founding director of Bing.

“Edith Dowley knew what she felt children needed and was not about to be deterred,” Maccoby says. She remembers Dowley personally directing the bulldozers sculpting the new school’s deliberately varied terrain. “Some people said, ‘From the main building you can’t see every child all the time because they can go around these mounds,’” Maccoby recalls. “And she said, ‘Well, children need a little privacy now and then.’” Dowley even had the school’s architects kneel on the ground to visualize the space as a child would.

The finished school, with its hills, its pools of sand, its rabbit hutches and chicken coops, fruit trees and redwood grove, and its large, light-filled classrooms that open wide to the outside, was, as Dowley intended, a haven for children. The large one-way mirrors in each classroom and suite of separate observation rooms made it the same for faculty researchers.

It was, says former Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, “an absolutely ideal setting for both the spontaneous wonder of these youngsters and in which one could do serious studies to try to really understand scientifically what was going on—how are they changing? What’s making it possible?” Mischel, who arrived at Stanford in 1962, conducted his research almost exclusively at Bing for the next 20 years before relocating to Columbia.

In his celebrated “marshmallow” studies, Mischel examined variation in children’s natural abilities to delay gratification, as well as how to influence those abilities (by, for example, telling them to pretend the marshmallows tasted bad). In follow-up studies, he correlated the spontaneous ability to delay gratification with certain types of success later in life (see sidebar, page 68). Bandura continued his work on the modeling of behavior at Bing and researched the nature and treatment of phobias. Maccoby looked at socialization, gender and how children interact with their parents. Flavell arrived from Minnesota in the mid-1970s and continued his pioneering work on children’s understanding of their own mental processes and of the distinction between what things look like (say, a rock) and what they might really be (say, a rock-shaped sponge). More recently, the studies of Eve Clark and Ellen Markman have challenged our understanding of how children acquire language.

8:15 a.m. on a fall Monday finds Bing Nursery School shrouded in a cooling mist, but the doors of the West classroom are open to the outside and will remain so even if it rains. Out in the play yard, teacher Seyon Verdtzabella, ’93, sets up an elaborate series of wooden ramps that today connect the playhouse to the pergola to the sand area. Director Jeanne Lepper explains that the teachers take pains to “observe the children and set up the environment to make sure that they’re all thriving in the various play areas.” While Bing is known as a play-based school, it would be wrong, Lepper says, to imagine that its classes have no structure. A typical session—a morning or an afternoon; children attend two to three sessions per week—may offer a choice among painting, clay, building with blocks, making a book, carpentry (with wood, hammers and real nails), dressing up, working in the sand, or simply racing around or swinging. But, Lepper says, “none of it just happens by accident.”

Sitting just inside the door with her notepad ready is Kenisha Harden, ’07. Unlike the five core teachers and the two undergraduate assistants in the room this day, Harden will try to remain invisible to the children as they arrive. A student in Psychology 146, she’s learning the skill of child observation.

Next door in the Center classroom, Jennifer Sandell, MA ’92, MBA ’92, arrives with her 3-year-old daughter, Eliza, Sandell’s third child to attend Bing. Because Eliza is new to the class, Sandell plays with her until she’s comfortable with her mother leaving the room.

In the school’s third main classroom, head teacher and psychology lecturer Beverley Hartman helps research assistant Jennifer Louie, ’04, MA ’05, select children to join her current study, an investigation of how cultural experiences shape the emotions that children would like to feel. This study will use one of the school’s five individual observation rooms, known to the students as “game rooms.” Researchers must be active in the classroom for several weeks before taking children into a game room. For their part, children don’t go to a game room without being told what they will do there, and they must consent to go. In this case, Louie will read either a calming or an exciting story to the child and then see if the choice of story affects what music he or she would like to hear next or what kind of faces he or she chooses to draw. The idea, Louie says, is to see how “children are taught to prefer and seek out certain emotions.”

On average, Hartman says, children get invited to the game room once every few weeks. Nearly all are happy to go, she explains, “because it’s a one-on-one experience.” Moreover, “when the researchers bring the child back to the classroom, they help them get re-established in their play with their friends,” Hartman says. “That makes it rather a seamless process for them.”

Having researchers in the classroom benefits teachers too. “Part of what attracts the staff here is they want to be current,” Hartman says. “When you have someone like a John Flavell in your midst now and then, it brings your consciousness up.”

Bing parents sign a blanket consent form permitting their child’s participation in any school-approved research. Information about each protocol is posted in the school’s central atrium, and parents are welcome to observe the studies taking place.

In the past four decades, the research interests of the psychology faculty have shifted from children’s social development to their cognitive development. The kinds of experiments researchers are allowed to undertake also have changed. It’s unlikely that a study proposing to show children images of people engaged in violent actions—even if only hitting an inflatable Bobo doll—would today pass the University’s human subjects panel. Walter Mischel admits he probably wouldn’t be handing out so many marshmallows now, either.

The community surrounding Bing has changed, too. Palo Alto, once a sleepy college town, is now home to many of Silicon Valley’s most successful and hard-charging professionals. These are people used to getting what they want, and what many want is a place at the best-known preschool in the area. “People send in an application for their kids right after birth and are turned away,” posted one respondent to an inquiry about Bing on the 1,500-member e-mail list run by the Palo Alto/Menlo Park Mother’s Club. “Get thee to Bing, and sign up asap!” urged another, adding, “it’s tough as nails to get in and people are very political/savvy/competitive about it.”

Bing’s first line of defense against such pressure is Svetlana Stanislavskaya, the school’s enrollment manager. About once a week, a parent loses his or her cool and is rude to Stanislavskaya on the phone. Others try to persuade her of their child’s genius. “They say, ‘You really should have a look at my child, because she can hop on one foot, or she can count up to 20 in three or four different languages, and you guys have psychologists there,’” Stanislavskaya says. It’s not always easy for her to explain that enrollment at Bing is complex precisely because it doesn’t want only exceptional children. It wants diversity, to reflect Stanford’s own student body and to make its researchers’ results widely applicable. No child is tested for admission; rather, the school attempts to balance each class in terms of gender, age range and ethnicity. The admissions policy does follow an order of priority: siblings of current enrollees followed by children of faculty and staff, then Stanford students’ children, children of alumni and only then the wider community. But a child high on the wait list—a 3-year-old Asian-American son of faculty whose name was put down at birth, say—can get nudged out by a recent walk-in if she happens to satisfy a need for 4-year-old Hispanic girls.

Still, a concern remains that Bing’s relatively elite student population could skew the research conducted there. You can’t help noticing “that the cars parked outside when children come in the morning are Mercedes, BMWs and Lexuses and so on,” Maccoby says. To work at Bing, Mischel adds, was to work with a group of children so bright as to be “virtually above any norm that one can think of.” He doesn’t believe that affected his studies, but it did send him elsewhere to check his results with other populations. And while Bing children may be unusually precocious, Flavell says, he’s less interested in when things happen than in what developmental change occurs. “Happily, lots of other people have done research on the stuff that we have done,” he adds. “You look at all kinds of populations and you get pretty much the same results.”

Drawing your students from an area in which more than 75 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree has its advantages, says Bing’s assistant director, Jennifer Winters. Bing parents “ask good questions,” she says, “and help us articulate what we do and why we do it. ‘Why do you use clay every day?’ Well, we’re strengthening hands for holding a pencil.” Indeed, with its regular seminars on child development and talks by Stanford’s developmental psychology faculty, the school is a bonanza for any parent interested in understanding his or her child better.

The difficulty of securing a place at Bing, however, coupled with its widespread fame, can make the school appear cliquish and smug to prospective parents. “I felt the place had a kind of Stepford Wives quality to it,” concluded one faculty parent after touring the school. It certainly has, at times, a boosterish atmosphere. You can feel it most intensely around the time of the school’s annual “Harvest Moon” auction, when vacations in Europe, time in Aspen ski lodges and cases of fine wines get snapped up by some of the school’s most well-heeled parents and friends. The money raised, however, is devoted entirely to a scholarship fund intended to make admission, when offered, need-blind.

Thanks to the fund, 20 percent of Bing families receive financial aid. Full tuition is approximately $5,000 a year for three mornings a week, which, while steep, compares favorably to similarly staffed and resourced preschools in the area. Fees are discounted 20 percent for faculty and staff, a benefit granted from Bing’s, rather than the University’s, budget. The school does receive free rent and utilities from the University, and help with building and landscape maintenance.

While admission is by far the biggest concern for prospective Bing parents, others are worried by the size of the classes (35 children, on average) or are uncomfortable with the laboratory environment. Bing staff understand both fears and are quick to acknowledge that the school might not be right for every child. “We don’t have a corner on the market,” Winters says.

Perhaps not, but Bing has a certain amount of influence. “That the arguably most sought-after preschool in the area is so firmly in the you-can-spend-two-years-in-the-sand-and-learn-a-great-deal camp is very important for this whole area, because other preschools can say, ‘Well, this is how Bing does it,’” Sandell says.

As the staff and friends of Bing Nursery School take time to celebrate its first 40 years and look forward to its next at a symposium and garden party on June 3, perhaps the only troubling cloud on its horizon emanates from Washington, and to a lesser extent Sacramento. Government initiatives such as “No Child Left Behind” have made grade schools increasingly assessment-focused and pushed academics down into kindergarten. Preschools are now feeling pressured to abandon their play-based curricula for more rote learning.

It’s an irony not lost on Bing’s staff that scientific research, much of it done at the school, strongly suggests that a play-based curriculum will give a child the best advantage for academic achievement later on. “What is high-functioning work for a 3- or 4-year-old?” Hartman asks. “It’s dramatic play. It’s physical, it’s social, it’s emotional and it’s cognitive. And if we help children become very masterful in their play, they’re flexible thinkers.” Rather than follow politically driven trends, Hartman says, “we need to build on science to support young children.”

The pressure on preschools to move away from a play-based curriculum is “the most contentious issue in early childhood education today,” says Edward Zigler, founder of the national Head Start program and director of Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, which was recently renamed in his honor. “We desperately need places like the Bing School as a model for the country.” It’s a need made more urgent, he says, by the closure in the last decade of many major university-based research preschools, including the one he worked in at Yale.

“All children deserve an experience like this,” agrees Bing director Jeanne Lepper. “If we don’t have good models like this, what are we going to turn to when people say, ‘Oh, well, sure, we can force 2-year-olds to read’?”

In the fall of 1885, Jane Stanford spoke to a gathering of the Stanford Free Kindergarten in Menlo Park, of which she was the benefactor and founder. (This was when kindergarten embraced the education of children from 3 to 6 years old.) She referred to the grand university that she and her husband had just embarked upon creating and remarked that “however lofty and far-reaching in scope its ultimate end might be, there could be no better or more enduring foundations laid than in kindergarten—deep down in the bedrock of infant training.” In praising Jane Stanford’s patronage of eight area kindergartens, the Report of the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association for October 1886 avowed that “the necessity of unfolding the minds of little children through their senses, rather than dwarfing them through the meaningless repetition of mere words, is coming to be felt more and more by all thoughtful educators.”

SIMON FIRTH is a writer living in Palo Alto. His daughter attends Bing Nursery School.

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