Changing the game

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What do we know about the science behind learning through play in early childhood development? And how can we use it to move the field forward for all our children, asks Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the 2019 LEGO Prize winner


Thomas Kirk Kristiansen, chair of the LEGO Foundation presenting the 2019 LEGO Prize to Jack P. Shonkoff

Science can be a powerful force for educating people about why the early childhood years are so important – and a source of exciting new ideas for helping children and families thrive.

When the science of early childhood development is accessible, leaders can make informed decisions about where to direct resources and how to design policies that will affect the lives of young children.

At the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, we use scientific knowledge about early childhood development not only to inform policies and programmes for children and families, but also in our partnerships with social entrepreneurs, community leaders, primary care-givers and early childhood professionals to catalyse new strategies that can achieve breakthrough outcomes.

Two of the science-based concepts we’ve created and communicated have been widely adopted and especially successful in raising awareness. The first is the concept of ‘toxic stress’ – which describes what happens inside the body when the stress system is chronically activated, such as when children are severely neglected or living in war zones or other dangerous circumstances, without supportive adults to help.

It’s as if their bodies are engines that are being revved at full throttle constantly. If unbuffered by responsive relationships with adults, the wear and tear of toxic stress can weaken the architecture of the developing brain and other biological systems, which increases the likelihood of later illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and addictions.

The second concept is ‘serve and return’, which describes the reciprocal interactions that young children have with the adults who care for them. Serve and return interactions are responsive and go back and forth between a child and a care-giver – much like a game of tennis or passing a ball between players. It can be as simple as when a baby coos or a child points to a toy, and an adult repeats the coo back or points to the toy and names it.

These serve and return interactions literally build connections in the brain that establish a sturdy foundation for the development of all future learning, behaviour and health.


One of the easiest and most effective ways to engage in serve and return interactions with a child is through play. Children don’t learn by having information poured into their brains. They learn by doing and engaging. If we take this scientific concept and turn it into a strategy for preparing children for the larger world, the answer comes up in one simple word: play!

These and other findings from the science of child development have led us to identify three design principles that support healthy development, both for achievement in school and increased opportunity for a successful adult life.

These three principles are: (1) building responsive relationships; (2) reducing sources of stress; and (3) strengthening core life skills (which include executive function and self-regulation capacities that help us plan ahead, meet goals and stay focused in spite of distractions).

These design principles can be used to create and prioritise policies and practices that are better aligned with what science tells us children need to thrive – and play supports all three.

Unlocking the power of parents as agents of community-level change

I was deeply honoured to receive this year’s LEGO Prize in Billund, Denmark during the annual LEGO Idea Conference. I am truly humbled to be included among its long history of worthy recipients since 1985 who have made important contributions to the well-being of children as champions of learning through play.

If we want to make a difference in children’s lives, we must empower the people who care for them. With the 2019 LEGO Prize, my team and I will continue our work to unleash the power of parents and other care-givers as agents for community-level change.

We are eager to empower parents with actionable knowledge and useful tools so they can work together with influential leaders in order to reduce sources of stress in their communities and help their children thrive.

Our team at the Harvard Center has worked for more than 12 years to help others use science to make the case for why investing in early childhood is critical. Along with our growing number of partners, we have also been increasingly focused on how to make the best policies and programmes better by becoming more precise in understanding how, why and for whom they are most –and least – effective.

We still have much to do, but we believe this work will result in breakthrough outcomes for greater numbers of children and families around the world.

The future of early childhood policies and programmes, and the life prospects of all young children facing adversity, lies in our ability to leverage science as a powerful tool, play with new ideas, examine new approaches and raise the bar for everything we do, particularly for those who face the greatest obstacles to a fulfilling life.

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is the winner ofthe 2019 LEGO Prize. Dr. Shonkoff serves as the Julius B. Richmond FAMRI professor of child health and development at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Education; professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital; and founding director of the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

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