Play Superpowers


More than four years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Laura Seargeant Richardson. While talking with her she introduced me to the concept of “superpowers of play” which I thought was just magic. My hope at the time was that my client, Gymboree Play and Music, would pick up on the idea and collaborate with Laura to integrate the approach into their programming. Unfortunately, that cooperation did not materialize. Laura’s continued development of her concept has resulted in the Periodic Table of Play and the Play Possible Schools curriculum which has received the 2018 IDSA’s Silver IDEA Award for Social Impact.

Meeting Laura has left an indelible impression on, and continued to inspire, my thinking. Where her work is focused on how play can be a tool to open up creative thinking, my focus has been on play as the motivator for development. This line of thought has resulted in my Play Patterns concept, mentioned in a previous blog, that looks at the relationship between observable play behaviors triggered by elements in the environment and the neurological development in the child’s brain.

So, what about superpowers? Consider this. A spider’s egg is about as big as this period (.) When she emerges from the egg the spider already knows how to pick a suitable spot for a web and how to weave it. She knows how to capture, immobilize and store prey. She can mate and lay her eggs in a protective sack. All of these skills are preprogrammed in a few neurons that you can only observe with a powerful microscope, but those minuscule brain cells are powerful enough to motivate and structure all this complex behavior.

Let’s compare the arachnid above with the human Spiderman. Whereas a real spider has a tiny brain that provides all the knowledge she needs to thrive, Spiderman was born totally helpless and remained incapable of surviving without a lot of support for nearly a decade despite having a brain that weighs 380 grams at birth and grows to 1440 grams, or just over 3 pounds, by 10 years of age. That massive brain equals the total weight of a huge number of spiders and yet the pre-teen Spiderman is still not fully mature and capable.

This observation illustrates the incredible power of inborn drive mechanisms versus learned behavior. What current research in evolutionary psychology is showing is that animals with complex brains are strongly motivated by innate biologically drives to express certain types of behaviors, ones we see as playful. While there is not an exact match with insect drives, the drives in animals are also extremely strong. Indeed, babies start out being predominately driven by instinctual motivations that become more complex over the first three years during which the core structural capacities of the brain are formed. The following three years are similarly driven but the child has a more conscious choice about following these impulses. The main goal of these preschool play activities is to refine and calibrate the behaviors so that they are more coordinated and faster.

The point of this somewhat silly comparison is that parents need to understand the power and efficiency of innate play patterns to maximize their child’s development. Nature, it turns out, is an incredibly good teacher. So mom and dad go, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say, with the flow and have fun playing with your child and don’t worry that they are not learning, because they really, really are.