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Forget flashcards, let's play!

PlayWorks, a new wing at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, emphasizes discovery over right answers.

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Behind the steering wheel of a boxy blue bus, 3-year-old Nova Robbins takes the lead: "Everyone – let's go!" she shouts. Instead of passengers, she'll have to settle for a few back-seat drivers: This bus was built with multiple steering wheels so toddlers wouldn't have to wait to drive.

Nova was among the first to preview PlayWorks, a new wing for the 4-and-under set at the Children's Museum of Manhattan (CMOM). Opening to the public today, it highlights how learning happens naturally as children create, explore, and role-play.

The connection isn't lost on Dave Robbins, watching his daughter at an air-tube exhibit. Nova takes a hose that gently blows air and inserts it into a hole on the side of a box. Inside, the wings of a toy bee begin to spin. Along the wall, objects made from plastic and foam react differently to the air. "That's just really smart," Mr. Robbins says. "It shows the kids cause and effect.... I'm an engineer at heart. I just love this stuff."

The drive to keep American education competitive on the global stage has led some parents and preschools to drill toddlers with flashcards. But many early childhood experts, rebelling against that tactic, are on a mission to swing the pendulum back toward play. Play is more conducive, they say, to the flexible thinking and lifelong learning demanded by globalization.

"For preschoolers, learning has become 'Learn the one right answer,'... So we have a lot of toys built for passive children," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychology professor and an adviser to PlayWorks. Rather than see children as empty vessels, developmental psychology has for decades endorsed the idea that "children need to be active explorers in their environment," adds the coauthor of the new book "Play = Learning."

While many children's museums dedicate a place for young children to learn through play and discovery, PlayWorks has taken innovations to the next level and incorporated research on child-development into every detail.

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