Sliding Into Danger

kid on slide

In our previous blog, we discussed the complexities of jumping in puddles and that the powerful trigger of water is often sufficient to overcome parent’s concerns about safety and mess. Mud puddles present a lot less of a hazard that going down a slide, and yet parents freely indulge their children in this sort of play as well. Slide play is exciting because, unlike puddle jumping that children approach gleefully, going down a slide, at least initially, is approached with some trepidation.  Let’s review what we see.

The child will make a visual assessment from afar and then move up for a closer look. Soon they will approach and sit at the entrance. Depending on the confidence level of the child, this preparatory stage can take several minutes. What is happening is that the child is doing two mental tasks. They are shifting their metal processes from the “thinking” part of their brain, the cortex, to their “movement” part of their brain, the cerebellum.  Once this change of focus has occurred, much like an Olympic athlete at the top of a ski run, they begin to visualize how they will move as they descend the slide. The sliding part is relatively easy, and they will soon learn to control their descent with hands and feet against the side rails. The crux of sliding is the landing and dismount, which is the most challenging part of sliding. What this means is that adults need to position themselves at the bottom of the slide rather than the top. The child will go down when they are ready but will need assistance initially with dismounting.

In addition to rehearsing these motoric challenges, children learn about gravity. There are two perceptual modalities involved. The acceleration down the slide stimulates the vestibular system in the inner ear that informs the mind about the body in motion. The act of sliding itself promotes the proprioceptive system that tells the child what their body is doing.

AnjiPlay 2

Note that jumping from a height is very similar in most respects to sliding, but the proprioceptive focus is primarily on absorbing the impact of the landing. From 6-ft or less, this involves just absorbing the shock by bending their legs. Above 6-ft, they learn to land and roll so that their inertia is dissipated over a longer period.

It is interesting to note that we are very comfortable adding slides to children’s play settings yet reluctant to offer jumping from elevated surfaces. To some extent, this makes sense for young children as they are unlikely to take a precipitous fall from a well-designed slide. Logically we should see jumping stations on play settings for older children, but these are as rare as hen’s teeth. I maintain that if a child can run with one foot in front of the other, as opposed to rapid toddling, they have sufficient motor skills to jump. The earlier a child learns to jump from a height, the sooner they will develop strong self-confidence.

A play pattern and its trigger are generally very specific. In the case of sliding, it is an inclined plane. Jumping is triggered by a high place and a clear landing area.  It is essential to understand that play pattern specificity recruits a whole-body response. Here’s a simple visualization to get a sense of this. When I leave my home to go to the store, I have to cross a river. As I drive along parallel to its flow, I make a left turn to cross, and when I see the bridge, I need to slow down, turn on my turn signal, and steer my car into the narrow entrance to the bridge. Thus, the bridge is the trigger for the turning pattern. Still, during this whole maneuver, I am doing many more things, such as observing bike traffic and pedestrians, maintaining my posture, and thinking about what I will be buying at the market.

This visualization is important because we must see that a well-designed play setting will have many play triggers. In addition, the space will elicit specific play patterns and that these patterns promote not just a particular learning but a whole-body response and that these developing skills will overlap with the other play patterns in the space. When we create a play space, we are not building a fitness center with machines designed to develop specific muscles. We are creating an environment to promote the development of the whole child.

If it is true that play patterns are a general benefit, then why do we need to identify and implement 20 play patterns? The reason for this is straight forward. Unfortunately, we have come to view play spaces as having just a few triggers, i.e., swings, slides, and climbers. All too often, such spaces will not only omit spinning and balance but all of the other patterns. The only way to ensure the development of the whole child is to include all the play patterns.

It is also important to note that each play pattern has a developmental sequence. An adequately designed play space will have several instances of each pattern to ensure that children can progress through the whole range of challenges and that all children are accommodated regardless of skills.


In my five decades of dedication to creating play settings, I have only been able to achieve this ideal once, with the Gymboree Play and Music system. In that project, the team of designers and teachers together created a perfect play space system that can be reconfigured continuously to follow the children’s play and the teacher’s educational goals. This objective could not be achieved without providing the teachers with the ability to support the play with loose parts that they can change to present new functions. For example, the wonderful net climber can be dismounted from the system to become a spinner or a rocker. You can also see this ideal in the AnjiPlay program that started in China and is now spreading worldwide.

What is the bottom line? A perfect playground is a complex space and has both play leaders and loose parts so that the children can experience all of the play patterns as their interests dictate.



The Theory of Play Patterns and Triggers

Over the past two decades, significant advances researchers have made great strides in both neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Taken together, this body of new knowledge allows us to finally answer the question that has vexed philosophers and child development researchers since Plato; What is the importance of play?

The core insight is both obvious and surprising. Historically children have been seen as entering this world “Tabula rasa,” which is the notion that the child’s mind is a blank slate, and knowledge comes only from experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. The child’s brain is more like a multiple answer quiz in which the child can choose an answer out of many that are correct that fit the environment in which they find themselves. For example, children are born with significant language capability and must discover the specific language in use by those around them.  In addition to this language template, infants also have many other models, such as motor functions, social engagement, and a sense of how the world works, to name a few.

As adults, we sometimes get overwhelmed by the complexity of this world. For an infant who has dozens of potential templates into which all the various stimuli which bombard them must be organized, the real problem is to what select out the chaos of all that surrounds them what is correct and useful. In essence, the child’s core question is, “What do I need to pay attention to?”

To address this critical issue, young children are not only armed with the scaffolding on which to construct their reality, but they also have a spotlight that shines on those aspects of the environment that will best fill out the mental structure they are erecting. Imagine the world’s most complicated jigsaw puzzle and now make that three dimensional, then put all of the pieces of the puzzle are in constant motion, and you have some idea what the child is up against. Fortunately, they are not only equipped with a picture of what the eventual puzzle is supposed to look like, but they also have an inborn mental laser pointer that points to the pieces that are most likely to fit. We call this target identifier a trigger.

This notion of patterns and triggers is by no means new or original. Philosophers from Johan Huizinga to Jean Piaget and beyond have used similar constructs. What is new is that we now have fMRI devices that can peer into the child’s brain and see it being triggered by specific stimuli. Not only do we now know what lights up the brain, but we can also determine to a large extent what is being learned.

Of course, when we are dealing with human development, nothing is easy, simple, linear, or disconnected from the whole. That said, these new tools have given us insights that can be very helpful to educators. The challenge for teachers is choosing what children must learn, and the right time and sequence in which to present the information. For children in the 0 to 8 years of age, teacher-directed learning is not optimal because we now know that children have an elegant system of identifying what they need to know and the ability to pull from their environment the necessary information. Again, this is nothing new. Many teachers and parents are well aware of the value of child-directed learning. With all this new knowledge, we can now be much clearer about the specifics of this process. The theory of Play Patterns and Triggers is a step in that direction.

That children come pre-programmed to learn and do so in a very predictable way is nothing short of amazing. But why should such a system be necessary? Wouldn’t an unstructured brain with an open-ended discovery process work as well?

To answer this question, we must start at birth. The challenge is that having children is painful, demanding, and puts the parent at significant risk. To keep mothers from rejecting their child, the mother’s brain is flooded with the bonding hormones oxytocin and dopamine. Also, babies are born cute, engaging, and fun. Parental bonds drive a strong protective instinct. But such shielding behavior can cause a parent to overprotect and prevent the child from having the experiences they need for their full functioning, as we see in helicoptering parents. To encourage parents to allow their children to take on challenges, those risks all fit into these recognizable play patterns that single to parents that learning is happening, or at least that the child is having fun. This allows them to tolerate risky exploration, and perhaps even participate in such play with them.

The child’s side of this story is interesting as well. Not only are the play patterns deeply engrained, but children are highly motivated to engage in them. We have used the term “triggered” for this condition because it correctly identifies and describes the high amount of potential energy that is released with a specific stimulus. Indeed, one could say that children cannot be prevented from play without direct intervention by adults. A case can be made that such interference causes real harm to children. From this analysis, we can see that children and parents are engaged in a dance of protection and challenge and that the behaviors on both sides are highly structured and biologically driven. The question becomes then, why should such a complex and powerful dynamic be set up? Let’s look at a specific play pattern, jumping in puddles, to see if we can tease out the motivating factors.

Select and click on the image to play the video

Screen Shot 2019-12-06 at 8.53.28 AM

The protective parent will try to prevent their child from getting muddy. Not only are they concerned about “germs” but are also likely not to want to deal with the mess. Both motivations are certainly understandable. The child, on the other hand, finds water play, especially mud play, irresistible, but why? The first layer of motivation is purely physical exploration, learning how this play feels, what the water does when you smack it, and full sensory stimulation. The deeper motivation is genuinely astonishing.

The science on mud play has only recently been developed, and it turns out that a big appeal of mud play is ingesting soil. We now know that exposure to the soil microbes, specifically mycobacterium vaccae, is essential in establishing a healthy gut biome, which is crucial to a robust immune system. It gets even more complicated as we have recently found that these microbes elevate our mood. This is not only true for kids; it also true for gardeners. But the story gets even more amazing.

There has been an explosion of recent research on the gut biome, and several useful references are listed below. The finding that is most relevant to this discussion about mud and feeling good is that the gut biome produces 95% of the body’s neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Why is this important? Most of us think of brain development as cells linking up like the wringing in a computer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Synapses do not touch other cells directly; instead, they get close enough to pass these neurotransmitters back and forth. Rather than digital on-off signals as in a computer, connections made in the human brain are much more like a cocktail party with all sorts of different feelings and messages being exchanged.

What’s the bottom line here? First that children will compulsively play in mud. Second, that playing in mud is essential for human health and, finally, that the gut provides much of the juice that drives the brain.

Water-mud play is only one of the 20 play patterns we have identified. Each one of these has the same multilayered and interconnected beneficial structure that results in the miracle that is a child. Our goal is to delve into these and gather the emerging research into a form that teachers can use to maximize the powerful learning system that is playing.

Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good For You

“Dirt is Good”: Why Children Need More Exposure to Germs

That Gut Feeling

Baby Love? Oxytocin-Dopamine Interactions in Mother-Infant Bonding