We tend to see what we expect to see. When we watch children often the first thing we notice is whether or not they are engaged and what they are doing so we can go about our business or be ready to intervene if needed. I propose this sort of caretaker mentality prevents us from truly seeing what is happening. What we do not attend to is the intensity of play in children. Why is this important?
It is now well supported scientifically that play is the main vehicle for brain development in the early years. This implies that the more intense the play, the greater the learning. While there is a lot of research that is very suggestive that there is a relationship between play intensity and neurological development, I have been unable to find a study that directly measures this relationship. But could this be true?
If such a direct relationship were to exist, then it would stand to reason that children would play with full intensity nearly all of their awake hours. As a parent, I know it sometimes it actually feels like this is so, and studies do demonstrate that children have more stamina than elite athletes. On the other side of the coin, the child’s brain consumes 43% of their energy. Indeed, this energy demand is so great that children’s growth slows dramatically during periods of most brain development. It stands to reason then that there is some sort of direct relationship between play intensity and brain development.
Clearly, the most physically active children are not necessarily the smartest, so the observed levels of stamina and high energy use must be used for learning in general. However, the high energy use and intensity suggest that we should be able to observe this development in action.
A great place to start is to listen to the play, not to make out specific words but rather to get a sense of the frequency and length of utterance; the more talking, the more learning.
Next, count the number of children involved in the play episode; the more players, the more learning. Finally, look for complexity and scaffolding. What does that mean?
Educators talk a lot about scaffolding, and we have many pedagogical elements embedded in that concept. For the developing brain, however, scaffolding means just one thing; starting with simple things and getting more complex. Recently the blogosphere was all abuzz about the finding that kids who obsess over dinosaurs tend to be smarter. Well, duh! This is just another example of parenting click bait because most kids get obsessed with something at some point: vehicles, insects, fairies, whatever. The point is that the brain seeks to find complex things to compare, contrast, and categorize. The brain tends to want to engage its ever-evolving complexity.
While having lots of these three components; words, kids and complexity, tells us that the play is progressing in a way that maximizes brain development, none of this will happen without one other key condition. That essential requirement is safety. For adults, we think safety means preventing harm. From the brain’s perspective, that is irrelevant. Surprisingly safety for the brain flows primarily from a strong parental bond. Children who are securely bonded tend to play more and to thrive. While teachers can help insecure children, this is a very sensitive subject with families and is one of the most challenging aspects of the early childhood education profession.
Classrooms and curriculum in early childhood tend to be highly siloed. We have block corners, pretend play areas, and play structures, etc. These are set up largely because this is always the way things have always been done. This environmental plan functions because the contents of these areas trigger the brain to deploy specific play patterns, kids play because there is stuff to play with. However, this pedagogical structure can only maximize child development when the children can choose where they want to play and to move freely from area to area. It is important to note, that there are many ways to create a learning environment and some ways may be superior to the current, often legally required, pattern and we are seeing new concepts arise such as AnjiPlay and Waldorf that show promise.
Finally, the brain will find a way to experience what it needs to develop. The good news is that there is a lot of flexibility and robustness to child development. The downside is that this very adaptability can mask less than optimal conditions. In the centers, I observe there is often too much of some elements and not enough of other components to ensure that all of the children’s potential will be realized, but as long as the children playing more or less contentedly improvements do not get made. The area that is generally most deficient is the outdoor play space which seldom affords sufficient opportunity for high energy motoric play and messy experimentation.
The beauty and power of children’s play are undeniable. Learning to observe it in action and recognize when things are proceeding as they should is one of the most critical roles the teachers and parents. It is a job worth doing well.