South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Shimi Kang says the 21st-century skills children need to innovate and collaborate are developed in play – not through a regime of classes and drills
Did I hear that right? Kids need to be happy. Creative. Have soft skills. All this from the original, iron-fisted “all work, no play” Tiger Mum, Amy Chua, during her recent media tour for a newly opened tuition centre in Singapore.
What would make tiger parents pivot so strongly towards dolphin qualities of happiness, critical thinking, innovation and social skills? Maybe it’s reality – 21st-century reality.
To do well in today’s fast-paced, highly social, ultracompetitive and globally connected world, Tiger parents have finally realised our children need 21st-century skills. Four essential skills – creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration – were determined by the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, an international team of 250 researchers.
This set of core skills can be referred to as the consciousness quotient, or CQ. IQ (intelligence quotient) represents raw intellectual ability, and EQ (emotional quotient), emotional intelligence. For success today, our children will need an integration of both – CQ.
Luckily, this skill set does not require expensive tutoring and enrolment in exclusive schools. In addition, it cannot be drilled into a child in their teens; it flourishes from a foundation in childhood, one that includes the very things tiger mums hate – collaborative problem-solving, individual autonomy, freedom to explore and make mistakes, and play. Yes, playing – not studying, practising, tutoring or drilling.
For people of every age, play is directly linked to the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex – the region responsible for discriminating relevant from irrelevant information, goal direction, abstract concepts, decision-making, organising our feelings, delaying gratification, critical thinking, and planning for the future. The prefrontal cortex directs our highest levels of thinking and functioning.
Because play allows us to imagine, communicate, solve problems, experiment, collaborate, try and fail, and create, it helps children survive and thrive in our rapidly changing world. Play provides children with the cognitive framework and flexible thinking needed to adapt to any situation.
Powerful examples include having a play date, going on a sleepover and being in a school play – exactly the things Chua explicitly forbade her children to do. If you want your children to be intelligent, develop emotional regulation, be innovative, work in a team and have great people skills, then let them play. Just don’t “tell” them to play, book a play activity, or pay someone to instruct them to play. There’s a big difference.
Dr Shimi Kang is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, award-winning researcher, speaker, and author