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Peek-a-boo Matters

2 July 2024

Barbara watched seven-year-old Molly Wright’s TED Talk, How every child can thrive by five, and was impressed with her skill and passion at delivering information about important brain research.

Tags: barbara read, barbara watched, empathy, happiness, learning, ted

I have watched a lot of TED Talks. I stumbled upon this one by a seven-year-old girl who is as great a speaker as any of the adults I’ve admired over the years. Her speech was completely memorized with appropriate pauses, inflection, excitement, sadness, and a message that hit me between the eyes about what children need under the age of five to thrive for the rest of their lives.

In less than eight minutes, she explained how important it is to have a good quantity of interactions.  She used the phrase, “Serve and return, early and often” to describe playing games with children to give them the connection they crave. “Copycat games build imagination and empathy. Naming games build vocabulary and attention. Peek-a-boo builds memory and trust.”

Molly introduced a dad and his toddler who then went to another room with a video camera demonstrating each of the three games. The child was engaged and happy.

Then the dad picked up an iPad and ignored the child. He cried and crawled up on his dad trying to get his attention. Molly explained, “Kids are hard-wired to seek out meaningful connections and not receiving them causes confusion and stress.” After watching the video of the child immediately turning  from cheerful and engaged to unhappy and whining, she asks, “What if this happens all the time?”

Her talk made me ask myself if I had done enough of what she recommended with my children. Frankly, I got bored with games too soon. Also, at seven she hasn’t experienced the fatigue of other children, a job, and all that goes with parenting, but it would have helped me to know I was creating a specific good result when I did play games. When I blogged about banking time in 2020, I learned that doing an activity with an older child that the child chooses and directs for just 10 minutes, three times a week is developmentally significant. I imagine the same is true for serve and return games under the age of five. Focused attention goes a long way!

Molly reiterated that, “Children need connecting, talking, playing, a healthy home, and community.” We pretty much know these things, but she demonstrated ways to make all that happen that are not too hard to do. I think parents and caregivers who watch her talk might find the energy to play longer and reduce the number of times they pick up a device.

She is a stellar example of what must have been done for her. However, she also demonstrated a lovely self-awareness that she was quite privileged to grow up with parents who could do this for her. I hope more lawmakers who have the power to fund early education will learn from Molly, too. Her final question inspired me, “What if peek-a-boo could change the world?”


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