The Play of Girls


Xiong Jing Nan (Courtesy of ONE Championship)

Search the web for gender-neutral toys and you will get back a ton of option and advice. This brouhaha has been going on for a couple of years and shows little sign of abating. The driving energy behind this discussion is twofold. We have come to recognize that sexual identity is a mixed bag, if you will, with all sorts of expressions. Second, we have also begun to understand that women have been conditioned to take a subservient role to their detriment and that of society. The one positive outcome of this debate has been the rejection of gender-stereotyped marketing as, for example, large chain stores like Target get rid of the pink and blue aisles.

At the core, this discussion of the role of sexual stereotyping boils down to a much longer and older debate about the influence of nature versus nurture. From a physiological standpoint, a baby is a boy or a girl at about nine weeks from conception, that is, very early on.  For a baby to become a boy the presence of androgen hormones, specifically testosterone is required. Indeed, the amount of testosterone during gestation largely determines the range of sexual expression in the baby and its later maturation; thus, sexual identity is a range rather than a binary result.

What does this mean for parents and society at large? The implications are that a child’s sexuality and its expression is fundamentally “hardwired” from a biological standpoint

The following fact may come as a shock to some, but boys and girls really are different:

  • Boys engage in more rough and tumble play than girls
  • Boys tend to be more aggressive than girls
  • While boys and girls show the same interest in infants, by the age of 6, girls are more interested
  • Boys are more interested in object-oriented play and use more tools than girls
  • Girls develop earlier, and more, language skills than boys

What is difficult is to sort out how biology and culture influence these tendencies. Let’s look at rough and tumble play for example. Fathers engage in more of this type of play than mothers and when they do they give more and rougher play to boys. Such vigorous handling conditions the child to aggressive behaviors in a playful way. As children begin to play with their peers

How is a girl to learn to become a winner if she never wins a play fight? Coming out a winner in play is not only possible, but it is also part of what makes play fun. First, the players have to be able to read each other’s faces and actions so that they know that the “fight” isn’t for real. Such combatants will often change roles with the dominant child “pulling their punches” so the other player gets to win. If the dominant child doesn’t turn down their aggressive responses, then the game will soon be over, and nobody wins. This sort of generosity builds social bonds of trust and respect and play is the perfect venue for such learning.

The bottom line?  Dads, it is OK, in fact, it’s great, to play rough with your girls. Moreover, it is time we accepted as a society that it’s really is OK for kids to play fight.

Our child-rearing practices regarding vigorous play is just one example of how we get child rearing wrong. So, when people talk about women having equal stature in society, we need to take a very critical look at our child-rearing assumptions and practices. In my next blog, we will examine the role play and careers in technology.

For more on this subject see:

Play Triggers


The only way we can see what is happening in the brain without an MRI is watching for the smiles that happen reflexively when the brain is getting the experiences it needs to learn and function optimally.

When I was a little kid, I knew about two “triggers.” One trigger was on my cap gun, and the other was, the famous cowboy, Roy Roger’s horse.  As a dyslexic, it drove me nuts that the same word could mean different things. By the time I was in college I had learned that, in addition to mechanical triggers, they are also completely different biological ones.

Our crazy practice of using the same word for different things has serious consequences. In this case, when we discuss the idea of triggers nowadays, most people imagine that both mechanical and biological triggers are much the same. This leads to gross misunderstandings. Let me explain.

A mechanical trigger initiates a series of actions; levers move, gears turn, the hammer trips and the shell fires. When applied to organic systems the term “trigger” covers a spectrum of mechanisms. Basically, it is used to describe a saturation or critical load at which a new or latent condition emerges. We might think of the term triggers applying to behaviors, like blinking when something flies into your eye, but these reactions are in actuality, a “mechanical” reflex that is initiated by the brain stem without the signal reaching the brain until well after the actions are completed.

To get a comprehensive picture, we need to understand a bit more about brain development. At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, and nearly all the brain will ever have. The problem is that these neurons are not connected, so the baby’s brain goes into a frenzy of creating links, a process called synaptic overproduction, which causes synapses to develop exceptionally rapidly. A pruning process refines these connections based on experience and is the critical process that shapes the brains of young children. With pruning, those connections used regularly become stronger and more complex. Connections not used are considered non-essential, and the brain eventually prunes them away to increase efficiency.

What do triggers have to do with play?

Did you notice the phrase in the above paragraph, “refines these connections based on experience”?

But wait just a minute! Play behavior is complex and encompasses behaviors ranging from swinging to peek-a-boo and changes dramatically over the early years. How can one mechanism possibly be responsible for all of this dynamic process?

I’m glad you asked. In the simplest terms, the baby’s brain has lots of different sub-parts and capacities that are latent potentials. This means that the nascent brain is just licking its figurative chops for experiences that will put those pruners in action to help it reach its capacity. A capacity, by the way, which is uniquely adapted to the child’s environment.

Here’s a great example. To be able to walk and run, movements called bipedalism, balance, technically the vestibular system, has to be given a thorough workout. This experience requires a lot more than just a few drives around the block. Indeed, it will be activated repletely thousands of times throughout childhood. This means that play triggers do not stimulate specific behaviors as much as they initiate a leaning program that matures over the first seven years and gets combined with other play patterns in increasingly complex ways. For the baby it starts with just moving her head, it gets a boost when dad tosses her in the air, and beings to come into its own with the first steps.

Have you noticed a family on a walk and the younger ones are balancing on the curb and twirling around the posts holding up street signs? Have you wondered what drives these behaviors?  These drives or urges arise from the limbic system, sometimes referred to as the lizard brain because it is so old. Essentially children’s limbic system will be triggered by environmental stimuli, and they MUST respond. As parents know all too well, often the only way to stop the play behavior is to intervene physically.

Here’s the plain truth, kid’s higher brain functions have not matured, so we need to relate to them in ways that they can incorporate. All too often we try to “reason” with children, we become exasperated because they behave in illogical ways, we can’t explain to them why they don’t need to cry. In other words, we are using our logical cerebral cortex trying to talk to their emotional lizard brain.

4 brains

Modern science has begun to realize that we actually have four “brains.” Our thinking brain (cerebral cortex), our emotional brain (limbic system and heart), our reflex brain (brain stem and facia) and our feeling brain (the gut). Good early childhood education programs recognize this, at least intuitively, and support the total child’s development.

How can you use this information?

We have identified 16 Play Patterns that are initiated by specific triggers. Our organization is based on observable environmental stimuli and the child’s responses. The organization could just as easily be based on various parts of the brain and how they reward the child with the so-called “feel good” chemicals. We have chosen this organization because that is how we as adults can most easily see the learning that occurs through play. The only way we can see what is happening in the brain without an MRI is watching for the smiles that happen reflexively when the brain is getting the experiences it needs to learn and function optimally.

As you begin to see more deeply into how play promotes brain development you can increase your ability to maximize its benefits. For example, it is very unlikely that your environment supports all of the play patterns. By knowing about how these patterns are triggered you can supplement the environment in various ways. Say your play space is at a place that doesn’t allow swings, a temporary hammock can work just as well. Perhaps you are not allowed to have sand. Many other small loose materials will suffice.

As we have pointed out, the play triggers and patterns change over time. This means that as a teacher or parent during the child’s early years your reaction to their being triggered will model the transition from being reactive to becoming centered again. In the later years when children become more verbal, you can teach kids to manage their triggers. Simple things like reminding them to take a deep breath will work wonders.

There are few more essential gifts you can bestow upon a child than helping them learn to recognize that they have been triggered and how to bring themselves back down.


What Triggers the Brain?

Modern Research Reveals Your Heart Does Have a Mind of Its Own

 The Brain-Gut Connection

A Thinking Person’s Guide to Going With Your Gut

5 Strategies for Maximizing Your 4 Brains

Scary Play


I had to get away from it all and so went to Yosemite to find peace. Once there I took my bike and road for hours to find just the right spot. It had to have easy to access and be high enough to do the job. My meditation walk calmed me on the way up to the top. At 90 feet in the air, it was too high for me to look down, so I backed up to the edge. Two deep breaths later, I bent my knees and jumped!

Fortunately, my rappel knot and rope held and it was great fun bouncing my way down the face of the cliff and dropping 10 feet at a time instead of 90 all at once. The feelings that I had that day are very close to what a toddler feels as they approach their first trip down a slide. Like me, their amygdala is on overdrive and flooding their brain with noradrenaline. Ah, but once fully into the adventure our brains are flushed and dopamine and oxytocin, the so-called “pleasure chemicals,” take their place.  So, here is Mother Nature’s problem when she is trying to get us to do something that will help develop our competence but is, at the same time, potentially really dangerous.

To answer this question, I’ve gone back to one of my most used references,

The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience by Sergio and Vivien Pellis. A little confession here, I have used the text at least once a month since it was published in 2013 to find specific support for assertions that I make in my writings. Here’s a case in point. The book goes into great detail about the role in calibration.

“… to a large extent, improvements in motor, cognitive, and social skills arise indirectly through play acting on the improvement of social skills, or more accurately, in refining the calibration of one’s emotional responses to unexpected events in the world.”

In a practical sense what this means is that to become a challenge seeking child, it is best to sneak up on the scary stuff a little it at a time. Small steps allow us to adjust our fears incrementally.

An interesting parallel observation from Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams  by Dr. Matthew Walker is that our REM sleep provides the brain with a great “fear eraser.” A good night’s sleep, which is for toddlers like 12 hours, sanitizes the day’s experience, so we don’t have to relive the scary stuff we go through. Without this wonderful capacity, we would, like those suffering PTSD, have to repeat our traumas nighty.

So, dear reader, this is the where, for lack of a better term, “mindfulness” comes in. Intuitively we sense the child’s stress when they are approaching a new challenge and want to ease their fear. We need to be sensitive to this moment for, while it may seem trivial to us as adults, we have to feel in our gut as if we too are standing at a precipice. I use the term “gut” here with special emphasis. Too often when playing with our children we are completely in our head, while the child is using their sympathetic nervous system, literally the brain in their digestive system. This means that we have a real emotional disconnect with our child that does neither of us much good.


Our colleague, Lenore Skenazy, at writes daily about the evils of helicopter parenting. Her blogs are very worth checking out as she deals with the everyday fears and challenges that come with raising children in a society that will lock you up for letting your kids play in the front yard without you standing over them with an umbrella in one hand and a first aid kit in the other.

Over the next month, I will return to more of the discoveries that come out of my reading of the Playful Brain. I figure that’s one of my jobs, to read the studies and bring you their insights, so stay tuned.

Play and Nurture Space


Curious creatures that we are, humans seem to be able to make anything into a “science,” empty space, cow farts, literally anything. Did you know that there is a science of how close we stand to each other? It’s for real, and it’s called Proxemics, which is a part of Kinesics, the study of body language, I kid you not. These disciplines may seem obscure but, because they enable us to make visible the otherwise hidden, they can tell us something significant about child development and parenting.

Why is this important? Over the last several decades, early child development experts have established that there may be no more critical parental task than ensuring a secure child/parent attachment. Children with insecure attachment can be disruptive, destructive, controlling or attention-seeking. At the other end of the spectrum, they may be withdrawn, rejecting or clingy. And here’s the thing, these days about 50% of all children come to school with attachment issues, 50%!

Now, for many of these children, their lack of a secure attachment may not become a significant disability but just be one of the many challenges they face in life. But as a parent, you will want to know how your child is doing in this regard and how to ensure a secure attachment. To do this, you will have to become a bit of a scientist yourself.

Let’s see what tools the science of proxemics can offer us.

6127-09035002elevator 2

Humans are supremely social animals and being able to successfully navigate among all the people we encounter takes very sophisticated social skills. Proxemics looks at the space that surrounds us and identifies four different types of space, public, social, personal and public. The images above illustrate the all too common challenge of moving from public space to intimate space with total strangers. While this is uncomfortable for almost everyone, individuals who have insecure attachment find this highly distressing.

The issue is control. We generally don’t object to other people being in our intimate space if we give permission. Thus, the elevator is uncomfortable, the doctor’s office somewhat less, and nursing our baby actually pleasurable.

Children who have secure parental bonds are able to move from public space to intimate space effortlessly. Insecure children will struggle in various degrees. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage socially, and eventually academically and professionally.


Antonio Damasio (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

 What does this have to do with play?

I’ve made promoting rough and tumble play something of a personal campaign as I believe that play in all its forms, but especially those types of play that involve personal contact, act therapeutically for that 50 % of children who are insecurely attached.

If children do not have close and trusted bonds with their parents and siblings, how do children learn to express affection in appropriate ways? How do they learn their boundaries and communicate them?


The good news is that there are great ways to overcome the lack of social competence that results from insecure attachment.  Babies, of course, break down all of our barriers and this shows us that the earlier we address the issue, the easier and more natural it will be. I’ve tried to get adults to give each other a big group hug and, believe me, you can cut the initial discomfort with a knife.

I am committing the last few years of my career to Gymboree Play and Music because one of the highest priorities for Play and Music is to create a safe place for parents and children to play, and through play to develop and enhance the child/parent bond.

Oh, and have fun too.

Play and the Thinking Body


Ice cream sunday

When it comes to educating children, we seem to be stuck with what I call the “ice cream Sunday” model. That is, we focus on the cerebral cortex as if this was all there is to thinking. Imagine if all there was to desert is the over processed cherry on the top, ugh.

Our fixation on stuffing more facts and learning into the brain ignores how we really think. It’s as if the only thing that counts on a computer is the microprocessor, when in fact, the display, mouse, memory, keyboard, and most fundamentally the connection to the internet is what turns a lump of silicone into a thinking machine.

I like the Sunday meme, let’s go with that. If we think of the cerebral cortex as the cherry, what lays below is the limbic system, or so-called “lizard brain” because it is so old, which controls most of our emotional life. For the for first few years babies are almost entirely controlled by this area of the brain. A lot of the function of this organ is to regulate all of the various chemicals that modulate and control emotion. In our Sunday meme, all that whipped cream.

Most of the information processing is conducted by neurons, also known as nerve cells.  These are electrically excitable cells that receive, process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Surprise! Neurons are not just located in the head.  They are also found in the heart. If you’d like a deep dive on this subject and learn about the parasympathetic nervous system, there is a great film, Of Hearts and Minds, that goes into the science in great detail.

But wait there’s more! How about the old saying “Go with your gut”?

Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.  Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract.

also see:

OK, that’s it, right? Wrong. There is a whole other system you probably know very little about. You see, every muscle, every organ in your body is held in what is, in essence, a bag. These bags are made up of collagen and are called fascia. It is said that skin is our largest organ, but the facia is many times larger, and yes, in a way it thinks. Facia contains neurons and participates in the chemical soup that is part of the whole process.

So back to the Sunday. What we are talking about is the mind. That mysterious entity that has confounded philosophers from time immemorial. We literally think with our whole Sunday of body parts.

As impressive as all this is, what does it have to do with play?

Children spend the bulk of their first six years learning through play. Play is a whole-body curriculum and does a truly astonishing job of turning a baby into a functioning human. And then just when the kids are getting ready to take flight, we send them off to school where 99% of the curriculum is about only one part of the brain.

Just think about that.  No wait, feel about that, use your whole body-mind and ask yourself, “Is there a better way?”