The Power of Intrinsic Play

close-up of ant Cataglyphis velox/Formicidae

As a child, I was fascinated by ants. I loved watching march across the sidewalk in perfect lines. I took note of the fact that each ant would often greet another as they passed and wondered what they said to each other. Watering the garden would sometimes cause them to swarm out carrying their pupae, and I felt responsible. When we move to a new house further south, we had different ants. Instead of little black ones that seemed to like grease, these were many times larger and brown. They built significant mounts and harvested seeds. They didn’t form liens either but traveled as hunters. Other kids knew a lot about dinosaurs, but I came to know about the fantastic diversity of the ant world from mushroom farmers to armies.

Now as try to tease out the workings of the developing brain, I look back on my ants with newfound wonder. All of that complex behavior is controlled by a minuscule bit of neurons a fraction of the size of the period at the end of this sentence. I recalled, that some of the ant behaviors were only on display when there was a large nest or in certain environmental conditions arose. This observation allowed me to visualize what is sometimes referred to as a “hive mind.” This turns out to be a phenomenon common to bees, schooling fish and birds, and many other creatures.

The wonderful book by Gordon M. Burghardt, The Genesis of Animal Play, explores the role of play across the animal kingdom. In it, he looks backward phylogenetically to see how far back play behavior emerges. It turns out VERY ancient species, such as fish, can be shown to play.

I’ve written previously about the discoveries that have been made using fMRI imagining. This work supports what we have known through earlier studies; that is, that the brain is structured such that its base has functional areas that are similar to animals like fish. On top of this base are ever more complex structures that support such behaviors as our ability to talk.

I won’t go into all of the brain physiology. I bring this up to just note that the microdot of a brain that an ant has was sufficient to allow them to be fully functional. It is also noteworthy that the simple brain of a fish is complex enough to support play behavior. From this, it is easy to understand that the human embryo grows a process of development that replicates this path from insects through fish and to humans.

Splish-Splash-Baby-Bath-Time-resMost of us who took biology or psychology got an introduction to the idea that physiology replicates phylogeny. As one would suspect, this Biogenetic Law, formulated in the 1800s, has been shown to inadequate to explain the complexities of development. Still, for those of us who advocate for play, it holds a profound truth. We should not be trying to bring forth the next Einstein. Instead, we should be providing an environment where fish can play.

Ok, that may seem like an absurd statement. But put a baby in a tub of water, and what do you get?  More to the point. From the ant to the human, many, if not most, behaviors are triggered by features in the environment. This means that play evolves in each child from very primitive behaviors to those that are increasingly complex and refined through repeated interaction with the environment and that this development is intrinsically driven.  The corollary to this hypothesis is that environmental features that do not trigger the player are ignored as inappropriate or having already been learned. For teachers this means very simply, follow the lead of the child. It also means that the role of the teacher is to monitor and refine the environment to provide appropriate quantity and quality of play triggers.

The Neuroscience of Preschool Play

TakomaOver the past two decades, the advent of fMRI brain imagining has transformed what we know about how children learn. The ability to look inside the living brain and see how it reacts to various stimuli has provided us with a vastly clearer understanding.

One of the most important findings is that children’s brains dramatically respond to play. We also understand that movement is extremely important as well. Finally, it is clear that much, if not all, of the learning in early childhood is intrinsically motivated.

Most of these scientific findings only reinforce what we already knew. Kids love to swing, slide, and spin around. The real benefit of the research has been that we can now draw a bright line between specific play behaviors and mature capabilities that are essential to optimum development. For example, spinning helps children become good readers in several ways, from being able to sit at their desks to be able to have their eyes track written words.

We are now able to establish a fairly comprehensive inventory of the many stimuli that the brain responds to. I refer to these as “triggers” in that when children encounter these environmental features, they will react in very predictable ways. Hang a rope from a tree, and kids will swing on it. Come across a fallen tree, and children will climb and balance on it. Since these behaviors are so universal, spaces are generally filled with apparatus that elicit these recognized behaviors. Great! This means that science reinforces common practice. Or does it?

Unfortunately, the reality is that today’s early childhood playspaces have been so sterilized by supposed safety regulations, impoverished by inadequate funding, and pushed aside by the rush for academic learning, that they have become more like penal colonies than the Garden of Edan. Despite these trends, there are many ways we can turn this trend around. How?

We can start by using current science to redirect the priorities. Here’s an example. If you simply enacted the rule that no more paper or plastic would be allowed on the school premises, your program would revert to the environment in which children’s learning has taken place for millennia.  This is not as outlandish a proposal as it seems. After all, once kids begin to grow up, their world will be dominated by paper and plastic so that they won’t miss a thing.

OK, I know you’re not willing to “go native” just yet. So, let’s look at what we can do to ensure that as many play triggers as possible are present in your playspace.

Let’s start a quick assessment. Here’s the checklist:

  1. Slide
  2. Swing
  3. Complex climbing
  4. Balance
  5. Spinning
  6. Jumping
  7. Construction
  8. Pretend
  9. Enclosure
  10. Hill
  11. Dirt
  12. Water

Most preschools will have four of these. A few will have six. Less than 1% will have all twelve.

Almost all schools have slides, and these have very little developmental value after the age of four. Yet, they predominate both space and budget since they typically are the main attraction on a “play structure” of dubious value. We can fix this by rejecting, i.e., removing these monstrosities. At the end of this article, we will let you know how to provide sliding at very little cost or space.

Ah, the swings! Since the safety standards require ginormous space for swings, they have all but disappeared from preschool play spaces. We can bring this activity back.

What, you may ask, do I mean by complex climbing? Almost every piece of play apparatus that we refer to as a climber is actually a set of stairs. Now, if you are a toddler, stairs are a real challenge, and negotiating them is a big deal. If you are three, such climbers are developmentally useless. We can introduce complex climbing economically and safely.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? I’ll bet that few of you will have balance, spinning, and jumping opportunities, and yet the science shows that these are hugely important for maximizing development. As for the last six environmental features, most preschools will have at least two, and many will have four.

Yes, I could go on to give you specific design solutions for providing all twelve features, but that is not the best way to transform playspaces. Instead, we need to change how we see our role as teachers. For far too long, we have seen the playspace where we provide is based on our training, which is shown in catalogs or required by education code. We need to turn this paradigm upside down.

But wait, you say, I have to follow the rules. Well, not exactly. You see, there are great examples of preschools that create kid paradises and don’t run afoul of licensing. At least not too often. Let’s look at some cases.

Check out the Facebook page for Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School.   Not only is this an extraordinary program, but they are so generous with sharing images of the children in action.

Another superb example is Teacher Tom’s Facebook page. Not only is the playspace at Woodland Park Cooperative exemplary, but Tom Hobson is a philosopher with a deep understanding of the impact of early childhood on society in general.

anji yard2Finally, last and by no means least, there is AnjiPlay in China. While not being encumbered by dysfunctional regulations is an advantage, there is nothing hazardous about what they do, even though the pictures may give you pause. Indeed, they are now beginning to allow their apparatus to be bought for use in the USA; all be it in a somewhat sanitized package.  The core philosophy as established by the founder, Ms. Chen Xueqin of Love, Risk, Joy, Engagement, and Reflection is profound and universal.

What quality do these three programs all share?

First, these schools put control in the hands of children. Rather than act as “educators” they are facilitators. They respond to children as an improvisational actor with Yes! … And?

Second, the environment is comprised mainly of loose parts. The genius of this is multi-dimensional, but for this discussion, it solves the problems as mentioned above of providing the needed play triggers while not running afoul of the system. You see, if the kids take a wooden board and put it on a box as a ramp or a slide, it doesn’t have to comply with the ASTM standards. If children learn to roll a barrel, it doesn’t have to meet engineering requirements. If kids put a piece of fabric on a tree limb and swing on, it doesn’t have to have six feet of landing zone around it.

And finally, you will be amazed at how little the schools depend on plastic and paper. Sure, there are some, but it plays a minimal role in their programs.

Think about it. You can do this. The transition will be more about the changes in you than anywhere else.  Take little steps, and the children’s response will show you that it works. Build on this, and you, too, will be providing what Ms. Chen calls “true play.”