Bing Nursery School Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary

By Simon Firth, Writer and Bing Parent

A bright day this past June 3rd saw friends, staff, parents, students and university faculty associated with Bing Nursery School gather to celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary.

Bing was designed both as a model nursery school and an on-campus research laboratory for Stanford’s department of psychology, of which the school is officially a part. Almost from its opening day in January 1966, Bing has excelled in these dual roles. The school is internationally recognized for the quality of its teaching and for the influential studies in child development it has enabled.

A review of that research was the focus of the morning’s events. In a symposium titled “Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Development of the Young Child,” an audience of several hundred in Jordan Hall heard two panels of former and current Stanford researchers pay tribute to the school’s essential role in their studies and share some of the results of their work.

In the afternoon, symposium attendees were joined by hundreds more friends, former staff and students of Bing, along with current Bing families, for a garden party at Bing school itself.

The Symposium

In opening the symposium Sharon Long, Stanford’s dean of humanities and sciences, noted that among the hundreds of studies conducted at Bing over the past 40 years have been “some of the most celebrated in the history of child development.” Bing School, said Long, “is an incredibly special place.”

Dean Long was joined by Laura Carstensen, PhD, chair of Stanford’s psychology department, in acknowledging the many people responsible for making the school a success, among them current and former teachers at the school, visionary Stanford administrators and faculty, and several generations of Bing parents and students.

Both Long and Carstensen paid particular tribute to the Bing family, for whom the school is named. In the early 1960s, Stanford’s psychology faculty wanted to replace an aging research nursery school it was running in Menlo Park with a new, state-of-the-art facility. In the first of the Bing family’s many gifts to the university, Peter Bing, who had just graduated from Stanford, and his mother, Anna Bing Arnold, matched a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to make the department’s dream a reality.

The symposium’s first session focused on research undertaken at Bing on the social development of children. Detailing some of their studies in this area were professors Albert Bandura, PhD, Eleanor Maccoby, PhD, and Mark Lepper, PhD. After a short break Professor Emeritus John Flavell, PhD, and Professor Vikram Jaswal, PhD, of the University of Virginia spoke about their work in the field of children’s cognitive development. [See sidebar]

Jeanne Lepper, director, and Peter Bing talk with an attendee.

Symposium participants also found time to reflect on the history of Bing. Former Provost and Professor Emeritus of Psychology Al Hastorf, PhD, recalled the commitment and vision of Edith Dowley, PhD, Bing’s first director, and Robert Sears, PhD, then-chair of the psychology department and incoming dean of School of Humanities and Sciences in the mid-1960s, who were the twin driving forces behind the school’s establishment.

Maccoby, who helped write the application for the original NSF grant, remembered seeing Dowley personally direct the bulldozers carving out the school’s grounds to make their contours varied and interesting to children.

In the break between sessions many other memories were shared. Bing alumnus Bill Bush, whose daughter Elizabeth now attends the school, recalled how, as a young boy, he’d been shown around the grounds of the new school by Dowley and remembered how excited she was about what they were creating.

Retired Bing teacher Bonnie Chandler recalled a favorite tongue-in-cheek aphorism of Dowley’s. “She would say,” laughed Chandler, “that our main job as teachers was to make children more attractive to their parents.” Chandler, who has been associated with Bing for 32 years as a student, class reader and then head teacher and lecturer, remarked that much about Bing hasn’t changed. However, she noted, just recently she was talking to some girls playing at a table in East Room and had an encounter that seemed very “now.” “I asked the girls, ‘Are you having a tea party?’” recalled Chandler. “And the little girl who was arranging things said to me, ‘No, no, no. We’re doing a deal here!’”

Party at Bing

The afternoon saw the anniversary celebrations move to the Bing campus on Escondido Road where current families, Bing alumni, and former undergraduate students and researchers joined attendees of the morning symposium for a tea party.

Symposium speakers had their work featured in the five research rooms situated in the school’s central atrium. Many of their original studies had taken place in these same rooms. Photographs and graphic displays outlined their research, and for much of the time the researchers themselves were on hand to discuss their work.

Also featured in these rooms were studies in cognitive development by current psychology department faculty Natasha Kirkham, PhD, Ellen Markman, PhD, and Michael Ramscar, PhD, and Professor Eve Clark, PhD, in the department of linguistics, along with work in child social development by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, PhD, and Walter Mischel, PhD, (now of Columbia).

The school’s play yards were festooned with flags and filled with children and their families enjoying tea sandwiches, fruit salad and cake. Stanford alumnus and Bing teacher Matt Linden roved the grounds with his old time banjo ensemble and the atrium echoed to classical music from Stanford’s Harbour Quartette.

Each of Bing’s three main classrooms was decorated for the day with current student projects and photos from past decades.

One popular display featured photographs of current Bing parents when they were students at the school, paired with pictures of their currently enrolled children. In another, former students were invited to share their memories on a note card headed “once upon a time at Bing I…”

Bing music specialist and head teacher Beth Wise became reacquainted with former Bing student Ty Ripma at the party. “I remembered her playing with dolls and having an interest in children,” says Wise of Ripma. Wise was delighted to see that Ripma’s interest had stuck. Ripma, now a student at UC Santa Cruz, told Wise that when she graduates she’s hoping to work with young children.

Helen Bing, center, talks about Bing Nursery School’s history with members of founding director Edith Dowley’s family. At right is the founding director’s sister-in-law Charlene Dowley with her son James Dowley and his wife Carmen Dowley. James Dowley is a Bing alumnus. All three of Carmen and James Dowley’s children attended Bing School.

The day’s events honored Peter and Helen Bing, both of whom continue to be closely involved with the school. At the garden party, the Bings were greeted by old friends and new. Addressing the morning symposium, the school’s director for the last 17 years, Jeanne Lepper, had thanked the Bing family. “Your initial support to construct the school,” she told Helen and Peter Bing, “your commitment to our scholarship program, your renovation of the building and grounds, and your deep concern for the welfare of the children and the adults associated with the school mean a great deal to all of us.”

Lepper also shared messages of congratulation the school had received from around the world. In one such note Professor Kay Bussey, PhD, of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, wrote: “Bing has become the gold standard against which to measure all other nursery schools,” adding that, “In my view it is the greatest nursery school on Earth!”

Lepper was honored herself at the morning symposium, when Psychology Department Chair Laura Carstensen presented her with a plaque that read, in part, “You make the world a better place for children.”

Lepper said she hopes that’s something she and Bing Nursery School can long keep doing. “This,” said Lepper in her closing remarks, “was a look back at the past 40 years. Now let’s look forward to the next 40.”

Sidebar: Symposium Speakers Review Research Conducted at Bing

Leading psychologists shared some of the lessons they learned from their studies at Bing Nursery School, during a symposium held in honor of the school’s 40th anniversary.

In the first session of the symposium, held June 3rd, Albert Bandura, PhD, David Star Jordon Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford, reviewed the studies in social modeling upon which he’d already embarked when Bing opened. The early sixties, he said, was a time “when television had enormously expanded the types of models available to children, including exposure to violence in the home.” The prevailing view was that observing aggression would drain viewers of violent feelings. However, he recalled, “we found the opposite to be true.” His “Bobo doll” experiments, demonstrating that children readily pattern their verbal and aggressive styles of behavior after televised models, underscored the power of modeling to change behavior. These studies are among the most cited in the entire history of psychology. Bandura went on to report how work on the therapeutic power of social modeling that he subsequently pioneered at Bing is being applied globally to change prejudices and detrimental social practices around the world.

The ways in which children and parents interact has been the focus of much of Eleanor Maccoby’s work. Maccoby, PhD, Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Psychology Emerita at Stanford, spoke of her influential studies on the detrimental effects of stress on parent-child interactions. She also shared a study she ran at Bing with colleague Mary Parpal showing children could be persuaded to comply with a parent’s wishes without resorting to rewards or punishments. Mothers trained to play with their children in an open-ended fashion, she found, had more success in getting the children to follow directions than mothers who had no such system of reciprocity set up beforehand. “What we had done,” said Maccoby, “was to show that reciprocity between parent and child has power.”

Mark Lepper, PhD, Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology at Stanford, closed the session with an account of his work investigating children’s intrinsic motivation to learn. Studies he conducted at Bing famously showed that systems of rewards can undermine intrinsic motivations—children who were rewarded for undertaking tasks they’d already shown a preference for, he found, showed a marked decline in interest in those tasks after they’d received their reward. The significance of this finding was reinforced by research, Lepper recalled, showing that “children in conditions where they were more intrinsically motivated, actually show greater learning.” Lepper has also been keen to understand what might positively affect a child’s motivation. He shared a series of studies that showed how children’s perception that they have a choice in what they are being asked to learn results in higher achievement and a greater willingness to tackle more challenging tasks.

The symposium’s second panel featured two researchers whose work at Bing has furthered our understanding of the cognitive development of children.

John Flavell, PhD, Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Emeritus, at Stanford, detailed his explorations of what children understand about concepts such as perception, reality and the act of thinking. When, for example, might a child understand that other people can’t see something that he or she has hidden in a tube? (At around 2 years, it turns out). A clever series of experiments asking children where another person would look for a hidden object that only the child knew had been moved to a new hiding place showed that three year olds expect other people to have the knowledge they do. By five, however, most understand that others can have a false belief about where something is hidden. Flavell’s most recent work has asked when a child can understand that people who appear to be doing nothing might be thinking. To be able to do that children need to understand introspection, Flavell said, and that comes quite late (by around eight years). “Our research suggests that as they develop, children become increasingly able and disposed to detect or infer, reflect on their own and other people’s mental experiences,” concluded Flavell. “They will develop insights into what selves are like more generally and they’ll learn what it is and what it’s like subjectively to be a human being.”

The final speaker was Vikram Jaswal, PhD, formerly a Stanford doctoral student and now assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Jaswal outlined research he undertook at Bing with Professor Ellen Markman, PhD, into language acquisition in children. “Between about 18 months and six years of age,” he explained, “children acquire somewhere on the order of 10 to 14,000 words. That works out to about a word every waking hour, which is a pretty remarkable feat.” To be able to do this, children have several strategies, Markman and Jaswal suggested. One is to assume that a new word refers to a whole object, not a part of it. Another is to assume that a new word refers to something they are seeing that is not familiar. Clues such as someone’s pointing to the object they are giving a new name to are also key, they’ve found.