Inside the Academic Mind: Gabrielle Principe

Inside the Academic Mind: Gabrielle Principe

Since 2013, psychology professor and department chair Gabrielle Principe has been opening the eyes (and minds) of her students on social cognitive development. We caught up with Professor Principe to learn more about her groundbreaking research on memory in young children, the importance of unstructured play in childhood and the most frequent question she gets as a psychologist.

How has your hometown influenced you? I grew up in Reading, Pa. It’s a small city to the west of Philadelphia that gave its name to the Reading Railroad in Monopoly. One of the greatest things about where I grew up is that my house was across the street from a city park known as Pendora. There were massive woods and this great stream, and a field house, swing sets and a small pool. It was the kind of place that you didn’t leave until the streetlights came on and your parents expected you home for dinner. It was heaven in the middle of a crowded urban town. I’m sure this place had something to do with my thinking and writing as an adult about the benefits of unsupervised time and outdoor play during childhood.

In your writings, you have described the modern childhood as somewhat counter to how the human mind best develops. Play the futurist here: what are the long-term risks for this type of childhood development? In my book Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan, I work through a range of features of modern childhood that are unhelpful and even harmful to healthy development. One example is that we are reducing children’s play time and replacing it with more structure and more academics. More and more parents are buying their children “brain-boosting” products like smart toys, early learning laptops and educational apps – and enrolling them from early on in academic programs or other structured activities. Likewise, educators are eliminating recess and giving more in-the-seat instruction and homework.

This trend is worrisome because the scientific literature tells us that most of the social and intellectual skills needed to succeed in life and work are first developed during childhood play. Play improves self-control and emotion regulation, it builds working memory and sustained attention, it boosts creative thinking and problem-solving skills, and it teaches children how to negotiate and cooperate with others. There’s no tech toy, classroom lesson or workbook that can teach this.

In your opinion, how are today’s students handling the pressures of college? Some students talk about feeling burnt out from their over-scheduled and hyper-structured lives before college. Some attribute it to needing to keep themselves competitive for college admissions, scholarships or sports. So the focus is on college as the prize. But there’s also a yearning for more down time.

Whenever I hear this from students or grumblings about the stresses of being a college student, I’ll dole out some playdough during class and take a break to play “the floor is lava” or encourage students to play a round of capture the flag with each other. When we regroup, this invariably leads to a fruitful discussion of how “doing nothing” only looks like a waste of time if you don’t know that it fuels healthy social and cognitive functioning, even during adulthood.

What was your favorite toy as a child? My favorite childhood “toy” was this backyard clubhouse that my dad built out of a mix of wood scraps, extra shingles and a metal roof. It had windows that opened, a front door that locked, wood paneling (it was the ’70s) on the walls and a linoleum floor. It was the spot to meet up with friends, plan our great adventures and generally hang out without interference from our parents (though my mom was known to deliver a tray of sandwiches during the summers right around noon).

What object in your office is your statement/conversation piece? My kids’ artwork fills my office. I have a finger-painted giraffe, a dog in acrylic and a decoupage heart. My research focuses on social-cognitive development in preschoolers – so the artwork definitely gets me in the right frame of mind for thinking and writing about issues of early development. However, my favorite thing in my office is this Volkswagen ’60s camper van that my son made out of Legos. It’s probably the closest I’ll come to owning a real VW camper.

At a dinner party, when people discover you’re a psychologist, what is the most common question you get? Once we get past the usual, “Oh, you’re a psychologist so you must be analyzing me,” and I share that I study development, the most common question I get is one that Jean Piaget called the “American question” – or the question of how to speed up development.

So parents often ask about ways to get their children to reach developmental milestones sooner – to count quicker or read earlier. There’s this belief that the sooner that children get to higher levels of functioning, the better. But research on both humans and animals tells us that it’s usually not a good idea to try to speed up development.

Just like you would never try to get a caterpillar to fly before it developed its wings, there’s no reason to push a child to read before he/she has developed the neurological sophistication in the range of brain areas that coordinate to make reading happen. Childhood — and the immaturity that comes with it — is a purposefully long developmental period, so there is every reason to let childhood simmer. So my answer is to tell folks that there is no reason to push development and every reason to enjoy all of the silliness and slowness that comes with childhood.

How do you unwind and have fun? I’m a distance runner – so my favorite way to unwind is a long run in the woods. I just did my first ultramarathon since moving to Charleston. It was a 50k in the Francis Marion Forest – what a gem! I also discovered oyster roasts about a year ago. There might just be no better way to unwind than with a couple of buckets of oysters and some friends.


Photos by Mike Ledford.