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

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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


2 thoughts on “The Theory of Play Patterns and Triggers

  1. Jay –
    Thanks for the new post. As always it is insightful and fun to read. I appreciate ho you set up the juxtaposition of parent protectiveness sand the child’s drive to learn. I am always surprised at how controlling parents are when it just make us more overwhelmed and in the end is a detriment to our kids. I am always looking for ways for unsupervised outdoor play for my kids. It is surprisingly hard to do.

    You reference the 20 play patterns. Is this something you have shared as a complete list? I would be interested to see it. Does each trigger only trigger one play pattern or can they be cross linked? Did I miss a deeper explanation of the entire list?



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