The Ideal Learning Environment

BH yard
An OK place to play but not an ideal learning environment

Most early childhood education centers do an adequate job of providing an outdoor play space. That said, these environments are not ideal learning environments. This is somewhat strange because teacher generally learning during their education process the basic principle of how children learn but then don’t fully put this knowledge into practice when developing their outdoor play space. If they did, what would that look like?

Until the ‘70s was the consensus of childhood researchers like Piaget was that children’s brains were “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. Ten years ago, Alison Gopnik and her colleagues Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl published The Scientist in the CribMinds, Brains, and How Children Learn. The main thesis of the book is that children are born with very powerful brains and do a lot of thinking. They are like scientists who are constantly creating predictions about their world and how it works and refining those predictions based on experience. Her analogy was that they are like a computer with tremendous computational power and loaded with sophisticated programs but until a person sits down and enters information, they are not functional. Another way of saying this is that kids are born with complex templates and these are adapted and filled in as the child gains experience. For example, from the moment of birth children are listening for words and they learn the specific language that they are born into, they have a template for language which they fill with the local dialect.

Another point that is brought out in the book, which I don’t think has gotten enough attention, is that for the most part learning is promoted by two key components, action, and social engagement. Babies give rapped attention first to the parents, and as they mature, to other people they encounter. They are also moving almost constantly when they are awake. It is through motion in a social context that the child’s intrinsic templates get adapted to their environment, i.e., this active play is the optimal condition for learning.

In the decade following the publication of The Scientist in the Crib researchers have been able to actually peer inside children’s brains and can now verify that the book’s contentions are correct. They can see the parts of the brain that light up in response to specific stimuli. They have shown that for the first two years children are primarily learning how to operate their bodies. The term we often hear used for this process is sensory integration. The main player in this process is the cerebellum. The interesting finding has been that the cerebellum had been thought to be essentially a movement computer like the self-driving computer in a Tesla. It turns out that the cerebellum is constantly creating a model of the whole world of the child and anticipating what will happen next. It then adjusts this model based on the accuracy of those predictions. To do this it talks to the right cerebral cortex to assess how best to make adaptations, i.e. the right cortex is the diver in this analogy. So, far from just learning how to move, for the first seven years, the cerebellum and its partner the right cortex are the main areas of learning about everything in the child’s world including emotions.

Let’s make a list of what the current research has established the ideal learning environment for children from 2 to 7 years of age:

  • There are other players in the setting, preferably with a mix of ages
  • The space allows for lots of movement, especially large gross motor activities
  • Children in the space are able to experiment, test limits and to fail often
  • Children will have essentially unlimited ability to change the elements within the space
  • The elements in the space have more than one function, preferably they can be used in many ways
  • The optimum learning space will be primarily outdoors
  • The space promotes immersive and emergent learning that is indicated by very long play episodes

While still rare, there are schools that embody all seven of these criteria. For example, AnjiPlay schools in China, the increasingly popular “Forest” schools, and many Reggio Emilia schools.


anji yard2
The many AnjiPlay sites have ideal playspaces

It is fair to say that than most schools in the USA fail at providing the ideal learning environment. There are many reasons for this, the push for academics, the need to provide a “safe” environment, the lack of teacher training for operating in such a learning space, and parent expectations of what a “proper” school should look like and teach.

The fact is that for the majority of programs being able to have an ideal learning environment is hampered by the lack of well-designed equipment. Indeed Cheng Xueqin, the Director of the Office of Pre-Primary Education had to invent from scratch the apparatus they use in her program. Most other schools that meet these criteria have access to naturalistic spaces and hand-make whatever else they feel they need to support the children’s learning.

It is no wonder that few schools can implement an ideal learning environment. For example, one need only look at what outdoor equipment is currently available for early childhood educators to see that large motor apparatus is invariably fixed in place, has a single function and cannot be changed by the children.

In my next blog, I will explore ideas that can offer new options for creating the ideal learning environment.

In the meantime check out this great article by our friend Peter Grey – Children Educate Themselves

Dogs, Neuroscience and STEM Education

In my lifetime I have been the human for six wonderful dogs. I was just six years old when I got my first one. I wanted my pet to be the best, so I enrolled in an obedience class for Coalie, named for his coat color, as well as several of my subsequent companions. One of the most important things I learned in those classes was that the better-trained dogs required the fewest words. Indeed, if you attend sheepherding or agility trials, you will rarely hear a command spoken, and yet such animals display a large repertoire of learned skills. These days when I see someone verbally instructing their pet, I laugh, usually not out loud, because I know that dogs respond to gestures and body language and not so much to words.

As a play advocate, I’ve recently become aware of the breakthroughs happening in the neuroscience and developmental evolution. I’ve studied how intelligence progresses from fish to primates and have learned how the smarts of my dear Coalie are not that far off from humans. Indeed, for the first few years, kids and dogs are relatively closely matched. That means that their learning is primarily through gesture, body language, and movement.

The use of fMRI has given us the ability to see living brains in action and allowed a much more actuate view of learning. For example, it was a cannon of psychology that the role of the cerebellum was the center of motor control. While that is still mostly true, the cerebellum is far more complex and important. Take this fact for example. The cerebellum contains 69 billion neurons while the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that we tend to think of as where all of our smarts resides, only contains 16 billion neurons.

It is also interesting to note that initially, the cerebellum communicates primarily with only the right half of the cerebral cortex. That’s the side that deals mostly with imagination, empathy, and intuition. The left half deals with facts, numbers, and letters are ignored during the early years. What do these findings tell us about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education for young children?

The genius of Gary Larson captured this idea perfectly in this Far Side cartoon. Notice that we laugh at the truth of this when the subject is dogs, but the situation would be much the same if we were talking about children. In a very real way, trying to have kids learn STEM ideas verbally is a fool’s errand. Knowing this the developers of most STEM education focus on hands-on projects — all well and good. But wait, what does neuroscience say about the efficacy of that approach?

First, hands-on is good, but body-on is many times better. Early childhood learning progress best during full body engagement, i.e., play. For it is during play that the feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphin flood the brain and significantly increase the rate of neuron myelination which marks the structural changes in the brain that results in learning.

Second, both dogs and kids already know many of the basic principles of STEM. There are interesting studies that show that babies act surprised when they see something that violates fundamental physics. Or take the fact that if you load one glass with 5 M&M’s and another with eight, kids will invariably select the glass with the most candy showing that they understand the notion of quantity. So, what does this tell us about “teaching” STEM to young children?

To start with they are smarter and know more than we assume. Kids also “understand” intuitively and not intellectually. Maria Montessori understood this, and it is the basis of her educational system. Unfortunately, the teaching methods that embody her insights have become viewed by many as sacrosanct and held to dogmatically rather than being a wellspring of creativity.

The other issue with Montessori and much of STEM education is that there is a single known outcome to the materials presented to children. Whereas, what is far more critical is fostering curiosity, creativity, and experimentation. Kids are very quick to figure out that adults have provided a lesson to be learned and that real play is not on the agenda. Soon kids just look for the embedded lesson rather than being free to explore.

What dogs, kids and the new findings in science teach us is that learning is best when it is full-body, active, fun, and open-ended. Children at very young ages can learn the underlying STEM information best when it is presented in a form that integrates well with those areas of the brain that are in the process of development.

Here’s a taste of the science:

Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

The Association Between Childhood Motor and Cognitive Development

From Movement to Thought: The Development of Executive Function

Optimizing Early Brain and Motor Development Through Movement

Better Late than Never

Build Your Own Playground!

My book finally got reviewed!

It only took 44 Years! I know I’ve been ahead of my time but that’s ridiculous. Thank you, Rita Watts, for your continued curation all things play and playground related.

Now I just need to find my copy and rediscover what I used to think. Amazing.

BTW – Bucky Fuller was kind enough to write the forward and he essentially equated play with what we would now call STEM. Another guy who was ahead of his times.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”—Nicoló Machiavelli

CAAEYC Presentation

If you were able to join us at CAAEYC, it was wonderful to be with you. Your enthusiasm for my presentation was very supportive. I am happy to correspond at My professional website is and there are links to my history there. 2019Banner_CONF

Below is my presentation to CAAEYC on April 12, 2019.  It may not make much sense if you were not there and is being posted for those who did attend.

play patterns CAEYC 4-15 PDF

play patterns CAEYC 4-15 PPTX

Session Handout – Early Childhood Learning Patterns and Triggers Assessment

Suggested readings:

*Highly Recommended

*Free to Learn – Peter Grey

What’s Going On In There – Lise Eliot

*The Genesis of Animal Play – Gordon M. Burghart

*The Playful Brain – Sergio and Vivien Pellis

Embracing Rough and Tumble Play – Mike Huber

Play, How it Shapes the Brain – Stuart Brown

*Designing for Kids – Krystina Castella

The Gardener and the Carpender – Alison Gopnik

Becoming Brilliant – Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

Play Based or Academic Preschools

Two main factors will turn the tide towards a greater percentage of preschools that are play-based rather than those who promote primarily academic teaching. The first of these is that increasingly children who attend play-based preschool have significantly better long-term success, both academically and personally than students of academically based preschools. These numbers can be seen in small studies of particular programs, such as Regio, and nationally as is the case with Scandinavian schools. As more longitudinal studies pour in parents will naturally choose for better outcomes for their children.

The second reason that play-based learning will become the dominant form is science. In recent years, and accelerating rapidly, more and more studies are showing that play is the best way to foster development. We now know so much more about who development proceeds, especially neurologically, and that science reinforces play-based preschools for a beneficial and self-reinforcing loop.

For me, the most significant breakthrough has been a new understanding of the cerebellum. Until recently the role of the cerebellum was thought to be motor control. While that is still a primary function, we now know that the cerebellum is a “complete” brain so to speak, with functions that are emotional and sensory. Indeed, the cerebellum contains more than four times the number of neurons as the cerebral cortex, which we have previously thought was the base of intelligence.cortex

The learning that takes place in the cerebellum is stimulated primiparity by gross motor activity like that found in play. Indeed, the cerebellum has a “menu” of activities it prefers such as sliding, spinning, swinging, climbing, jumping, running and wrestling. We have identified 20 of these brain building patterns.

While the cerebellum is actively learning all these skills, it has a playmate, the cerebral cortex, but not the whole cortex. The connection is to the right hemisphere.

The left brain’s functionality is one of language, numeracy, literacy, analysis and time. It is the logical, calculating, planning, busy-bee part of us that keeps us anchored in the pragmatic world, and in the past and future. The right brain, on the other hand, is responsible for empathy, intuition, imagination, and creativity. It is where we wonder, dream, connect and come alive. Through the right brain, we dwell in the space of no-time, in being absolutely present. While the left brain is more interested in outcomes or product, the right brain cares much more about the process—the journey is what matters, not the destination. – Vince Gowmon

The critical insight here is that the logical left cortex doesn’t mature until about seven years old whereas the cerebellum and has been playing footsie with the right cortex from birth and that fully matured at 3 to 4 years of age.

From an educational standpoint, this means that any attempts to teach numbers and letters to children younger than four will fail because there is no functional brain there to learn. From 4 to 7 years fact-based leaning can be gradually introduced.

No, that doesn’t mean that during these years you can sit kids down at a desk and make them study. What we have failed to factor when thinking about learning and teaching is that it is not all about brain wiring and creating mental connections. Learning, especially in the early years is also chemical. When connections between neurons are made, they are not hard-wired, rather they are facilitated by chemicals which pass between the neurons. What these chemicals do is contain the message that is moving being conveyed.


From a learning standpoint, the most important of these chemicals are Endorphin, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Dopamine. These neurotransmitters are sometimes referred to as the “feel good” chemicals. The bottom line here is that playful learning feels good and is fun. For this beneficial pattern to set in, it must be self-directed. Adult-directed and controlled teaching is anathema to learning in the younger years and likely far into adulthood.

The preceding is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolution science is bringing to the understanding of child development. As the flood gates of research open ever wider, and as the children from play-based preschools demonstrate superior outcomes, academic preschools will become a rarity.

Humankind has been trying for a couple of hundred years, but in the end, you can’t fool mother nature.




The Solution for Kid’s Screen Time

Child_with_Apple_iPad (NXPowerLite Copy)

Perhaps you’ve followed the debate. Too much screen time rots kid’s brains. That’s why Steve Jobs and other tech leaders won’t let their kids use connected devices. On the other side, we hear that with proper supervision access to the internet and digital games improves learning. Or, this is the same debate we had about TV and that didn’t pan out to be a problem or did it?

This is a pointless debate. The plain fact is, when kids are using devices they are not playing. When they are not playing, they are not developing optimally.  It’s that simple.

We have allowed these seductive machines into our homes, and now we have to face the consequences and pay the piper.  We have permitted tech to become a convenient baby sitter. We feel inadequate to compete with the addictive qualities inherent social media and digital entertainment. The battles over limitations wear us down, and we make a rear-guard effort to distract the kids with scheduled activities.

Bringing Back Play

There is good news…and some bad news. The bad news? Both you and your kids have gotten out of the habit of play, and it will take some effort to develop new playful habits. The good news is that you have eons of evolution on your side. Play is fun, it is rewarding, and it can is found anywhere. More good news? There are just two basic changes you have to make. Here they are.

The most powerful way to have more play is more kids. There is nothing more interesting or compelling than playing with other children. There is more good news in that when you have friend’s kids at your house your friend can reciprocate giving you some kid-free time in trade. So, your number one tool is more social-life for your kids. Now comes the hard part.

Playful Places

Opening up to having more play around the house is the hard part because we tend to be out of the habit of play. And play consumes both resources and your time to monitor and set limits.

Most of us don’t have play-friendly spaces in our homes. Play is messy and often noisy. We know that when the play is over, there will be a lot of clean up even when the kids “help.” Creating spaces that support play takes planning and allowing the children’s needs take up a seeming disproportionate share of your home.

Now for some excellent news. There are excellent examples that will provide you with all the ideas and solutions you need to make the changes to a playful home and backyard. Where can you find these models? Your local early childhood education center embodies decades of experience in setting up a playful environment. Such centers have mastered providing just the right stimulus for play in a manner that requires the least amount of teacher input and effort. Of course, you don’t have to turn your house into a nursery school; all you need to do is adopt small scale versions of the best ideas.

Ring Leader

Your job is threefold. One is the planning and implementation of playful spaces inside and outside. Second is creating a network of friends with whom you can trade playdays. Finally, you will need to get the ball rolling by watching the way the children play and support their play with added resources and limit setting as required until the activity is self-sustaining.

Simple, right? Well yes, but a lot of work initially and with practice being a playful home becomes easier and easier. The real miracle is that the issue of screen time, and your concerns about that, will have vanished.




Teaching vs. Play-Learning Systems

Current trends in education and recent findings in developmental neuroscience are accelerating the move towards more child-directed learning through play. This movement will have a profound impact on teacher training, learning environment and support apparatus design. Why is this so?

Let’s take the simple example of children learning creative self-expression. Below are two images that depict the extremes.



puddle jumpers

Puddle Jumpers Nature Preschool

One can argue that the structured craft project is less work for the staff than the unstructured art on theleft because clean-up is so easy, but is learning about less work and a nice take home for the parents? As more and more ECE programs move towards kid powered play the way they design their spaces, what materials the supply and how those materials are presented will change radically.

Here’s another comparison.

blockplayliteracy community

Community Playthings

floor blocks

Floor blocks are a perennial hit with kids who typically build villages and castles with them, and that’s about it. If you introduce some small cars, then they add roads and gas stations, etc. Adding small people makes for community-scale play.

In most centers, they are put away at the end of every day. What if the children’s creations were able to be left in place for a whole week? How would this continuity change the play, the use of language, the social connections between the children? What additional materials might be introduced? Could the children make maps and tell the story of this town they have constructed?

In most ECE centers the block play area is the most well developed. Many teachers have discovered that adding “accessory” elements makes for more intense and longer duration play episodes and becomes a hotbed of social/emotional development. When brought up to a high level of complexity, these learning areas become true learning systems. Increasingly teachers are extending this sort of complex systems concept to other areas of their centers.

While the physical space is transformed, and new materials introduced and presented in different ways, the most profound change is the way teaching is done. In such renewed centers teachers spend the bulk of their time observing and interjecting into the play to help sustain its growth. A few words, a small number of additional materials replaces workbook and practice sheets.

While many schools have discovered … discovery learning, the vast majority of ECE centers are still teacher directed and teacher controlled. This will change as more and more studies show the learning benefits of kid powered play.

Recent Reseach on Children and Climate Change

floodBelow are the best and most recent articles on the effects of trauma on children, especially those as a result of climate change.

The Developing Brain & Adverse Childhood Experiences

Thanks to an explosion in scientific research now possible with imaging technologies, such as fMRI and SPECT, experts can actually see how the brain develops. This helps explain why exposure to adverse childhood experiences can so deeply influence and change a child’s brain and thus their physical and emotional health and quality of life across their lifetime.

Today’s children will inherit a climate-changed planet. Can they handle it?

Children are already experiencing “eco-anxiety” — and psychiatrists don’t really know how to help them cope

Monitoring Children’s Mental Health After Disasters

  • A single disaster event is really part of a cascade of other events in a child’s life and results in cumulative impact and stress, even if the prior events are completely unrelated.
  • Stigma related to mental health is a still barrier, even in times of national crisis.
  • Between 30 and 40 percent of a direct survivor population is at risk for developing a new disorder that they did not have until the index event.
  • Traumatic grief is different from the experience of grief in other situations and requires different treatment.

Addressing challenges in children’s mental health in disaster-affected areas 

Natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, floods, and volcanic eruptions frequently occur in the Republic of Philippines and mental health care for children affected by these natural disasters is a major public health concern. Aiming to train health professionals on children’s mental health, to conduct a situational analysis to identify the local needs and resources for children’s mental health.

Challenges Associated with Childhood Exposure to Severe Natural Disasters

Natural disasters cause widespread destruction, economic loss, and death, leaving children to cope with the devastating aftermath. The research literature has demonstrated that children are at risk postdisaster for negative mental health outcomes, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. The purpose of this review is to highlight the challenges associated with childhood exposure to severe natural disasters and to summarize the current research on clinical interventions for children postdisaster.

Children’s Play Environment after a Disaster

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, together with the subsequent tsunami and nuclear power station accident, damaged a wide area of land. Children who experienced these terrible disasters and the post-disaster situation are still suffering in mental, physical and social ways. Children’s play is an activity that they undertake naturally and which can help them recover from such disasters. This paper addresses the role of play, adventure playgrounds and other play interventions, including play buses, for the health triangle, which addresses mental, physical and social issues of children after the disasters. These interventions were shown to be effective because children could express their stress.

How Trauma, Abuse and Neglect in Childhood Connect to Serious Diseases in Adults

It was powerful evidence of the connection that I had seen clinically but had never seen substantiated in the literature. After reading the ACE Study, I was able to answer the question of whether there was a medical connection between the stress of childhood abuse and neglect and the bodily changes and damage that could last a lifetime.

“Forbidden Games” – Post-Traumatic Child’s Play

The play of 12 psychically traumatized children and 1 traumatized adult was studied clinically by the author. Eleven characteristics of post-traumatic play were noted: compulsive repetitiveness, unconscious link to the traumatic event, literalness, failure to relieve anxiety, wide age range of players, varying lag time prior to its development, carrying power to involve non-traumatized children, contagion to new generations, danger, art, and talk as alternative modes of playing, and usefulness of tracing post-traumatic play to an earlier trauma. The possible reasons behind these characteristics are discussed as they may relate to the general psychodynamic theory of play.

Intention Matters in Playthings


There is an old saying in design by Louis H. Sullivan that goes, “form follows function.” Nowhere, is that truism more important than when it comes in what objects and environments that we create to support children’s play.

There is frequent comment when it comes to toys, that the best “toy” is a stick. When we put these two ideas together, an interesting observation pops up. It just may be that what makes a stick such a good toy is that is it purely functional, it supports leaves and in so doing is an essential part of the plant from which it came. That is to say; its form is pure function which imbues it with natural authenticity and integrity.

When we look at human-made toys some approach this level of “realness.” Lego blocks come to mind as having this quality, and I propose it is this simple form following function that resulted in Legos becoming the world’s most successful toy.

I will also suggest that as Lego adopted themed blocks that they veered away from this standard much to the angst and dismay of its fans. That Lego made this change as a purely business decision tells us a great deal about the state of our society.

Indeed, other toys approach this level of design integrity. Cas Holman’s work with Imagination Playground Blue Blocks and Rigamajig come to mind. The classic Red Flyer Wagon, Lincoln Logs and wooded blocks deserve mention as well. Why should we care that children’s toys and play apparatus strive to reach this level of authenticity?

When a toy is given a theme, the play narrative tends to move progressively from the child to the entertainment industry, and particularly to Disney and Marvel. We must ask ourselves what is the narrative advanced by these companies? For the most part, the stories are much the same, good vs. evil, the importance of domination and aggression and that life is a zero-sum game. The more these toys become whole systems the more the child’s interior narrative moves in these directions.

Is such indoctrination harmful to children? Ask any preschool teacher how their students behave when a new blockbuster movie comes out, and it leaves little doubt that there is a measurable impact as they struggle to purge the resulting aggressive behaviors from their programs. But far more to the point is that the child’s natural internal sense of what is right behavior is corrupted or at least temporarily diverted.

The real problem is that this is not a fair fight. The capacity of media to push forward its vision of how the world works is extraordinarily powerful and enveloping. Our efforts to help children learn compassion, empathy and cooperation must wage an uphill battle.

All this venting on my part is to add a corollary to the form follows function rule. That is this, “What is the intent of the function”? With the stick, the intention is to be part of a living system. With Super Man and the Joker, not so much.


The Great Backyard Play Disaster


In my youth, I worked for a company that produced backyard play and subsequently written three books on play at home, but even though I’ve thought about this subject for decades, it is only now that I’m am beginning to understand what a disaster the typical products are for families.

Let’s start with the economics. You know these play systems as you can see the playhouse standing proudly above the fences in subdivisions all over the country. Parents will spend from $1000 to $3000 and up for a system. For this princely sum, they will get a swing, slide and the aforementioned elevated playhouse. The problem is that this investment is mostly wasted as the units sit idly 99.99% of the time. Why?

Let’s start with the elevated playhouse. When the playhouse is put up high, there is no ground space around it, and this is the space where most of the play will typically take place. The inside of the house is generally too small for much play or for lots of loose parts like cooking gear to support pretend play. A much wiser investment is a simple swing set with a slide and a separate playhouse.

The real problem, of course, is these set are boring as there is just too little to do. There is next to zero challenge and very little physical activity. From a physical standpoint, a trampoline is a much better choice so long as these are placed at ground level or have well-designed enclosure systems. A good trampoline will rival the combo play structure in cost but deliver 100 times as much play.


But functional and cost issues aside the real problem with how most backyard play is provided is that the whole issue is approached incorrectly. For a MUCH better idea, I suggest you get a copy of Playborhood, by Mike Lanza. You see Mike has made the profound leap of understanding that kids don’t play with equipment as much as the play with each other. His solution is as obvious as it is profound. The first step in getting your kids outside and playing is to welcome in more kids. Yes, Mike’s yard would put to shame most parks, but many of the things that his kids do are simple, easy to support, and inexpensive.

That’s the good news. The other side of Mike’s story is time. Mike plays with his kids. Not all the time, in fact not most of the time. But when he does, he both suggests and listens. He follows the boy’s ideas and also adds to the fun.

The point here is that providing an environment that maximizes the benefits of play for your children is not an investment in a commercial package. The real solution is an investment of time, and of love.

Mike has shared how he has created his families playspace, but he is not alone in this. I have lived much of my life in the barrios of California and have seen backyards where the children played with rocks, sticks and a few well-worn wheel toys. In their way these simple backyards are just as beneficial for the kids because they are free to invent, to laugh and to play just as children have since time immemorial. If it is your intent to follow the path of natural play then how you choose to invest your time and your money will not go too far wrong.

12-30-18 Got a note from Mike:

I would amend your interpretation of my work in my neighborhood to say that I spent the time I did trying to change the culture of our neighborhood, not trying to control my kid’s play (as most parents do).  Now that kids come over on their own, as they have done in large numbers today, I’m very happy to recede into the background.