A Magical Place

At the southern end of Stanford University's vast campus resides one of the most extraordinary nursery schools in the world -- a place of wonder, magic and learning. Christine Van de Velde Luskin takes a look inside.

Reprinted from GENTRY Magazine, February 2000, with permission of the publisher.

Once upon a time, a lady friend did have a magic thing called a magic glitter ball. Then she throwed the magic glitter ball and she hit a boulder. And then she opened a magic passageway to a secret cave. And then she falled into an imaginary world. - Billy, age 6

You enter through a courtyard with an atrium open to the sky, and behind a set of double doors is a large and airy room that smells of disinfectant and wet and just-cut oranges. There are blocks and easels, little rocking chairs and a piano, an aquarium and two frogs. Silkworms in a shoebox munch on mulberry leaves.

A playhouse with white window trim has a garden of lavender and radishes. A small wooden boat is marooned in a grove of redwood trees. Here you will find mailmen and mommies, thundering zebras and tea parties, superheroes and bad guys, babies and ship captains. In this world, bears play nicely, and a fox, a wolf and a gingerbread person "did not eat anything, but they all came into love."

Anything is possible at Bing Nursery School. Perched on the south edge of the Stanford campus, Bing is perhaps the best nursery school in the country, a model of excellence in early childhood education. It is also a laboratory school used by hundreds of Stanford psychology and education faculty and students, where much of the seminal research in early childhood development in the last forty years has originated. The synergy of these two roles, nursery school and laboratory school, has created a stage for child's play of such richness and wonder it can make you believe in magic.

On a covered patio on a warm autumn morning, four pre-school girls in overalls and T-shirts have constructed a baby nursery out of large wooden building blocks. A set of colorful silk scarves is taken out and draped over heads and shoulders. There has been a car crash.

"Mother Teresa is dead," intones one of the girls, lowering her veiled head.

"No, no, that was Princess Diana," offers another.

"Oh, yes, Princess Diana is dead in a car crash," confirms one of the girls, adjusting the scarf over her head.

"Nursery school," notes the school's current Director, Jeanne Lepper, "is therapy against the world." Which is exactly how the founder of Bing would have it. Founding Director Edith Dowley designed Bing to "give back to children some of the things modern living has taken away."

Seated on the floor, she laid out the school for the architects with wooden blocks, then demanded that they get down on their knees so they viewed the world from the perspective of a three-year-old. Set on four flat acres, the 13,000-square-foot contemporary building was constructed in 1966 with funds from the National Science Foundation and a gift from the Bing family There are three classrooms (two adjoined by observation areas), eight "game rooms" where research is conducted, seminar meeting rooms (one of which would later be turned into a "two's" classroom), library, kitchen, and administrative offices.

In one of the "game rooms," a Stanford psychology researcher is conducting a study on fear reduction, attempting to eliminate children's phobia of dogs. A film has been shown to a little boy overcoming his fear, gradually coming closer to the dog , petting it, then playing with it. But this boy is still struggling with his fear. Asked to pet a dog in a playpen in the corner of the game room, he announces with bravado, "I can pet that dog any time. But my arm is too short."

Children enter their classroom directly through the atrium, unaware that they are in a facility large enough to accommodate 34 full-time faculty and almost 400 children throughout the day. Windows span from floor to ceiling to let in the light and display the changing skies. High ceilings were important because children are always looking up at adults. "Bing was planned for the function that it fills and most schools were not, " notes Alberta Siegel, Stanford professor of psychology emerita and a member of Bing's Advisory Board. "Most nursery schools are in church basements or old Victorians with low ceilings, cheap flooring and not enough land."

The outside constantly beckons. Radiant heat in the flooring allows doors to remain open all day. Covered patios let the children play outside in inclement weather. With the dirt from the excavation, Dowley designed rolling hills and valleys and large sand pools throughout the half-acre play yards adjoining the three primary classrooms. In one yard, she placed a circular pergola and a wooden bridge; in another, a wisteria-covered canopy. The resulting physical plant is so impressive that the one drawback mentioned uniformly by parents is that after your child attends Bing, no school will ever look as good.

Given such space and freedom, children run and play, wandering in and out at will, choosing from puzzles laid out on a table, a book in a corner, a tire swing in the trees, a stack of blocks. The teachers refer to the school's "integrated curriculum. " In the book corner, you have the English department. The physics department is at the water table. Social studies and development of theme are covered in dramatic play. Physical education and nature studies take place in the play yard, chemistry in the kitchen and architecture in the block corner. "It's like a mini-university" notes Bonnie Chandler, a Bing teacher for 23 years, "and spontaneous play links it all together."

In educational parlance, Bing's program is known as an indoor/outdoor, free-play program. At Bing, children have about two hours a day in which to build freely on their ideas. "Children can develop their ideas without having to go through too many transitions an adult imposes and without being guided by an adult's agenda, " says Beth Wise, a former Bing Teacher.

The fluidity of the play arises because it's been very carefully set up. Jeanne Lepper calls it "planned spontaneous play." Children choose from a range of activities, materials and events intended to enhance their knowledge and skills. The teachers are facilitators, placing the props and setting the stage -- a post office in the center of the room, easels on the patio, a horse ranch in the block corner. "Sometimes all that is needed is the teacher's benevolent presence. At other times, it's making a suggestion to help the children move toward a more productive play sequence," says Assistant Director Bev Hartman. "Teachers very carefully plan and supervise the environment, creating areas where children can express their own ideas and then the children come in and create the magic," says Wise.

In the middle of a sand pool surrounded by redwood logs and small boulders, a grid of PVC pipe from the sprinkler system runs this way and that, channelling water into a series of lakes that six little boys are continuously digging with red and yellow shovels. A leak in one of the pipes shoots three feet into the air. There is much laughing and carrying on.

"Water is stronger than sand," says Pedro.

"It's not so easy to fix leaks, is it?" asks the teacher.

"I found another leak," cries Pedro. "Turn off the water."

"No, that's just a leak drip. Leak drips are good."  pronounces Justin. "Drip leaks are nice. Big leaks are not nice."

This engineering project -- threading and re-threading pipes, creating dams and watershed -- will continue for the next 90 minutes, becoming more and more complex until the boys, the sleeves of their shirts and the hems of their shorts wet and caked with sand, are called in for snack.

"The open space and the philosophy and approach combine to make for the purest laboratory in which kids can be kids, " notes Christine Seaver, a Stanford Business School alumna who has sent all four of her children to Bing. In fact, the pattern of play permits Stanford faculty and students to observe children "in their natural habitat," as Professor of Psychology John Flavell puts it.

"The absolutely essential element you must understand is that Bing is part of a major research facility, " says Director Jeanne Lepper. "Our mission is to provide a laboratory where students and faculty can come and study child development, study children in a natural setting." In fact, some of the most fundamental research in all of child psychology has been conducted at Bing.

Eleanor Maccoby's study of the development of gender differences demonstrated the early emergence of gender segregation. The work of John Flavell on "naive" psychology or the theory of mind, studying children's cognitive states, now constitutes an entire field of development. Ellen Markman's research documents the "naming explosion," the period when preschoolers' vocabularies increase from ten words to hundreds. Mark Lepper conducted his studies on intrinsic motivation at Bing, showing that unnecessarily powerful extrinsic rewards could undermine intrinsic interests. And Albert Bandura's famous study on the effects of televised violence on children showed how the modeling of stereotypes by the media shapes children's images of reality, findings so powerful and, once again so timely, that Bandura began a regular commute to Washington to testify before Congress.

The most frequently cited expert on early childhood development in the country, Bandura is regaling an audience of students and faculty with tales from the trenches of television research. A youngster, studying a reproduction of the Last Supper, asked, 'Why are they all eating on the same side of the table!" "Because they're watching television," answered another. A mother explained to her preschool daughter that her grandfather had died. "Who shot him?" the daughter asked. A preschooler, upon meeting Snow White at Disneyland says, "You're not Snow White, you know." "Why do you say that!" Snow White asked. "Well," the child replied, "if you were real, you'd be a cartoon."

"We're a model center," says Mark Mabry, head teacher and research coordinator. "We try to put together an exemplary program for young children that really serves them, and in doing that, we're informed by our research role. In order to know what is best for young children, somebody somewhere has to investigate how young children develop, how young children learn." On a day-to-day basis, as far as the families of children enrolled at Bing are concerned, however, the research plays a minor role. Fundamentally, Bing is just a great place for children to be. But articulating an ongoing discussion about children and the latest knowledge about their development under the auspices of an institution dedicated to excellence produces an electric interest in children. "Children are just so marvelous, so rich, so full," enthuses Director Lepper. "Imagine . . . They've only lived two or three or four years and they have so much enthusiasm and openness. The magic of this school is in the child of this age and their development."

A little boy has made a drawing for his teacher: a large heart with a little door at one end and what appears to be a passageway right through the middle. "What were you thinking when you drew this?" asks the teacher. '"Well, this is the love from me to you," says the boy, pointing to the heart. "And this is the door to the classroom, and this," he continues, pointing to the passageway, "is the way to get there."

"There's so much happening in children's play" says Beth Wise. "There is such depth to it, such learning. Such little people have so much to offer." Using bits of the real, the pretend and themselves, the children at Bing produce dramas, stories and art of awesome passion. Paintings are great concentric rings of blue, green, red and yellow or fat smears of purple ringed by pink ovals. Self-portraits feature eyes like pie plates and electric hair. Universal themes of birth and death, love, power, good and evil are explored. "It's not an overstatement to say that it's a delicate age," says Lepper. "Children's early experiences affect them." Play is, in fact, the essence of how children come to be comfortable in the world. "Play comes before language," says Professor Siegel. "Before there is speech, children learn turn-taking." But with language, in play, the children can work out their wishes, aspirations, fears and fantasies. Bing Nursery School gives them voice.