For many kids, going to the grocery store means trailing listlessly behind harried parents. If they’re lucky, maybe they’ll get to ride in the cart or successfully persuade Mom to buy ice cream.
A few years ago, a Temple University undergraduate student wondered whether the mundane activity could be turned into a learning experience. She launched a study in a supermarket in a low-income neighborhood, placing conversation prompts throughout the space. At the front of the store, she and her research partners put up a sign declaring: “Talking to your child helps their language growth!” In the dairy section, a picture of a cow said: “I am a cow who gives you milk. What else comes from a cow?”
The researchers observed adult-child interactions in the store, tallying how often the customers engaged in various behaviors, like pointing to an object, asking a question, or taking turns in a conversation. The study found that families shopping in the store were almost four times more likely to converse when the new educational décor was up.
Grocery stores are prime places for learning—whether about budgeting or nutrition—but it takes deliberate design to take advantage of the opportunities. A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review proposes that thoughtful efforts could convert any number of public spaces into classrooms of sorts. The article was written by developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, who worked on the grocery store study and created Urban Thinkscape, a new project exploring learning embedded in cities.
Urban Thinkscape is working closely with residents in West Philadelphia to determine which spaces in their community could become learning sites. One idea: building puzzles and measuring sticks into bus stop benches, so kids are stimulated while waiting. The researchers are also looking at opportunities in “trapped spaces” like laundromats or hospital waiting rooms. They might take a cue from a barbershop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where kids get $2 off a haircut if they read a book aloud to the barber.
Some scholars talk about “anywhere, anytime learning,” the idea that education should—and often does—happen organically outside traditional institutions like schools. Students spend about 20 percent of their waking hours at school, so it would be a missed opportunity to neglect the rest. It is up to adults to make sure communities are best set up to encourage young people to explore, learn, and create, whether on their own or with peers and adult mentors.
“This is not a new agenda,” notes cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito, a pioneering proponent of “anywhere, anytime learning,” in the Harvard Family Research Project newsletter. John Dewey, she writes, believed that education needed to be seamlessly integrated into daily life. In the 21st century, technology has made that integration both more pressing and more possible—and increasing inequality has made the task all the more urgent.
As the SSIR authors mention, children from higher-income families are more likely to have the chance to augment their school education. Their parents can afford after-school enrichment activities, and have more time to read to them.
By injecting innovative learning opportunities into the spaces we all move through daily—grocery stores, bus stops, parks—all kids can learn anywhere and anytime. And busy families of all sorts can accomplish tasks while engaging their kids in a puzzle or a conversation. In the Temple University supermarket study, the increase in the amount of conversation in the low-income grocery store brought it up to the average amount of discussion that happens among families in higher-income supermarkets, according to researchers.
Plus, if the kids are absorbed in an educational conversation, they might forget to ask for that ice cream.