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.”



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