In this post, I will be somewhat provocative to illustrate some of my key points of this series. You may think that it is crazy to advocate for kids playing with fire, especially in the backyard, but I think that you will see that it is actually a great idea. Your concern is safety, and rightfully so. What’s one of the main skills you hope your children will learn? Safety, right? The other ability that they may gain during sheltering in place is learning to be self-motivated and deeply engaged. Playing with fire is a hot ticket to achieve both goals. Here’s how.
First, the preparation. Your shopping list should include; marshmallows – both sizes, gram crackers, toothpicks, and wooden matches. Oh, and a pocketknife. What? Now you want my kid to cut herself in addition to setting the house on fire! No! That’s not going to happen; you’ve got this.
I’m going to design this program for those kids who are at least a mature four-year-old. This project illustrates what we, in the early childhood education field, call “scaffolding,” where the core lesson is added to as children master the challenge presented. Following the “less is more rule,” start by giving out only a handful of marshmallows and some toothpicks. This will trigger the construction phase. Wait until this has run its course and then bring out some color markers. Wait for boredom to set in and add some paper, cardstock or cardboard. If the kids haven’t got the idea yet that this is fun, they can add what they want, suggest string, and let them know they are on their own.
Hopefully, you will have saved some of the large marshmallows because here’s where we introduce fire. Your parenting goal here is to provide as little help as possible. The first step is to permit the children to roast some marshmallows while not providing specific directions other than it has to be outside, and you have to approve the plan for how they will do it safely. That task should take at least a day. More if you can point out the possible hazards that need to be considered. Here’s where you can use some of the wasted marshmallows from the construction project by setting up an experiment to see how combustible these little sugar bombs really are. If you want to use the drama, this creates to get in some STEM learning, and you can talk about calories and sugar in foods and how their body burns them.
We have now set the stage for building a fire. This allows for more STEM with an exploration of combustion and the ratio of oxygen to fuel. You can illustrate this by having them drop a lighted match in a glass jar, covering it, and watching the flame go out. The next insight is to have them discover the concept of kindling temperature. This can be done by holding a burning match to a large piece of wood and seeing that it doesn’t catch fire before the match burns out. Now you can present the knife. The children can use the knife to whittle off small slivers from the wood to act as kindling is a fundamental life skill.
I prefer a Swiss Army knife, but there are many websites with other types suggested and good rules for using a knife. This is a great time to talk about maintenance and sharpening, and I recommend adding a multi-grit diamond sharpening tool to the kit.
I think you can see where I’m going with this post. Each step in the program has a trigger, an experiment, and a product that leads to the next challenge. If you follow this approach, you should have had a month’s worth of engaging activities with a minimum of your time and almost no cost. It’s up to you and your child where you want to take this. I suggest that you can go next to making Smores and then to hotdogs on a stick. From here, the whole area of cooking opens up. There’s a whole world of doing solar oven backing that can be down with almost no supervision.
What this plan sets in place is a relationship between you and your child where you are the facilitator, and the child is the explorer. Once this dynamic is set in place, your child’s confidence and competence will blossom, and level of trust and mutual respect will become the norm.
Who knows, perhaps this one exercise will turn your child on to cooking, and you will have real help in the kitchen. See? Playing with fire can be a good thing.
I’ve needed to take a few days off while waiting for possible fire evacuation orders. While the fires are still raging, our little town is safe, for now, thanks to our terrific firefighters. The heightened stress made me even more aware of the burden all of are sharing that is even more challenging for parents. I couldn’t just sit uselessly any longer and needed to get back to my goal for this series, how to help parents keep their kids emotionally and physically healthy. These few days off have allowed me to get even clearer about the message I want to convey, so let’s get at it.
Since you’re reading this online, I can assume that you are both tech-savvy and need ideas. The preceding four blogs have given you a general idea of what I’m trying to accomplish by giving you useful and practical examples. These stories illustrate the general principles I am employing in this exercise. Before going on to more practical applications, I’d like to be more explicit about these rules to extrapolate from them and apply them more broadly.
Rule One – You come first.
We tend to put our children’s welfare ahead of our own, but in high-stress times you need to put your health first. This is the same rule you have heard every time you have taken an airplane … put your mask on first and then your child’s. In the case of play at home, this rule is critical because kids are hypersensitive to their parent’s stress level, and if you are not in control, you cannot help them. Remember to breathe and to stay in your body, and you will be fine.
Rule Two – Less is more.
We live in a time of abundance and feel compelled to give all we can to our kids. Children don’t do well with a profusion of options. They need deep rather than broad. Children thrive on complexity, but as adults, we tend to think that having many options as a good thing. On the other hand, kids look not so much for more things but for the connections that exist between them and the links that are possible. Too much stuff gets in the way of going deep.
Rule Three – Know the triggers.
Kids come with an innate alarm system that tells them when something in their environment needs to be explored. The examples in the introductory posts and those that follow are based on a primary trigger for playful exploration. I have written extensively about triggers in this blog over the years, and you can do a search here for triggers and get both the theory and a list.
Rule Four – Boredom is your friend.
Two phrases should cause you to perk up your ears; “that’s interesting,” and “I’m bored.” These are two sides of the same coin. It’s hard not to hear that your child is bored and not take that on as your job. You cannot fix boredom! That is your child’s job, and the more you intervene with your idea of what will be interesting, the more you will rob them of the essential tools of self-discovery. If you need a way to get things moving, have them come up with ten things that they think are cool and you, and they will be off to the races.
Rule Five – Hugs
We are in for a very long road to get back to anything like normal human society. Your children are suffering, and, as the pandemic drags on, the lack of social contact is causing ever greater harm to your child. It would be crazy for me to suggest any specific course of action. Suffice it to say that providing social interaction has to be your highest priority. Every parent is faced with the same challenge and is searching for solutions. Join those conversations.
There has been an explosion of interest in the role of the gut microbiome in recent years. The discoveries range from the role of bacteria gained through vaginal birth to their role in Alzheimer’s. I have written previously about the benefits of mud Mycobacterium vaccae (MV) in Getting the Dirt on Play. This installment will look at getting those benefits with the least amount of hassle. My reasoning is to make it so easy to allow your kids to play with mud that it becomes just another toy and not another cleanup chore.
The key to this approach is moderation. Sure, it’s fun, on occasion, to get fully immersed in mud, but that is not necessary for our goal, which is to just get a taste. You see, the bacterium in mud will multiply to the appropriate balance with the 100’s of other species that dwell there. One of the benefits we are looking for is the mood-altering power of MV. Think of mud as Nature’s Prozac in its ability to calm anxiety and elevate the spirit. Kids don’t have to play in mud to get this boost as they can get it with just playing with dirt. You get the same effect from gardening. There are other benefits to getting dirty such as lowering allergies and asthma, but in these stressful times, the reduction in stress outweighs all other considerations.
If you can get the same benefits from dirt as you can from mud, why should you bother with the mess? The reason to add water to the mix is that the tactile impact of mud is a force multiplier. The slithery, gooey, squishy quality of mud has its anxiety-reducing quality. Let’s look at how to get all the benefits while minimizing the mess.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This notion applies doubly for kid’s play. Your first step is deciding what you are comfortable with what your children will get dirty. In our preschools, we use aprons, rain gear, or a change of clothes as our solutions depend on the play materials we are presenting. Having these options ready to pair with the play agenda for the day is a recipe for success.
As has been the case with our previous recommendations in this series of blogs dealing with the pandemic, the primary path to maximizing benefits is setting up the environment. Preschool programs have been dealing successfully with this challenge since forever, so we will highlight what they have found to be successful.
Another common phrase is “everything in moderation,” and it applies doubly in this case. Small amounts of water and dirt are fully adequate to support great play sessions. One way to lower the amount of dirt and water used is to set up another traditional feature of early childhood education centers, the “Mud Kitchen.” These are so beneficial and emblematic of a school that supports play-based learning that I recommend those looking for a school for their children to walk away and not look back if the school they are considering doesn’t have one.
A mud kitchen can be very elaborate or just some tubs and boxes. The key to making this work is to have lots of bowls, pans, bottles, and squeeze sprayers. Adding some marbles, small rocks, sand, lawn cuttings, and Easter egg dyes in containers set up an apothecary so kids can create potions. This sort of brewing up trouble will produce happy play episodes where you will only need to eat some pretend cake or poison once in a while to have hours of relative peace. You will initially have to maintain the materials and set up to some extent but try to transition as early as possible to have the kids gather the ingredients with you to extend the play and kid control.
While any dirt is great, some are concerned with “germs” and don’t trust just digging in the backyard. If that’s a concern, you can start with sand. The two images above are from Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children to the Natural World by Nancy Striniste, which I highly recommend.
Another alternative is clay. Sure, you can buy all sorts of “toy” clay in a myriad of colors and get none the bacterial benefits. It’s so much better to get a 25 lbs bag of air-dry clay for $30 and have enough to last for months. Play clay will also result in great sculptures and tons of slithery fun.
If your child is adverse to mud, a fun way to get them into the slimy play is by doing “finger painting” with chocolate pudding.
Back in July, I posted Kid’s Must Get What’s Inside – Out, where we discussed the innate drive for self-expression. As an artist, I’d like to share more thoughts about the relationship between art and play.
Back in the days when I was teaching preschool, after setting up the paint area, I had a common practice of standing near the easels and watch the children paint. One of the reasons I stopped painting myself was that the kids were often much better at it than I was. While the kids humbled me, the trouble was that they would keep on adding more and more until the paper was just a scrubbed mess. We would frequently chat as the children worked, and I would ask them what they saw emerging, and the answers would be something like “there is a red bird flying.” Occasionally I would ask if I could save the painting at that stage to give to their parents and give them a new sheet. Generally, they consented and later were excited to share the “completed” painting when they were picked up to go home. These experiences, and my work, taught me that what makes an artist is essentially they not know when to stop.
Think about it. We say that children are playing. But we don’t say a painter is “arting.” Why not? This is a cultural bias that considers art a product rather than like play, a process. Throughout history, painting and sculpture were used to create a cultural and public record of a person, god, or event. It is only with the advent of modern art, and more specifically with Dadaism and Existentialism that the notion of artistic self-expression has become the accepted purview of art.
There is a point at which children begin to know when their drawing is “all done.” Typically, you can ask the child-artist about what they have created, and you will get the story behind the image. These narratives will often be quite complex. The ability to complete a work of art comes about when children have developed the cognitive skills to create a mental model of reality. I ask, is this achievement not the highest purpose of education?
The curriculum at Anji Play is the only formal educational system I know of that was realized the monumental achievement of this developmental accomplishment and established a process to reinforce and foster its growth. Part of the genius of the Anji Play approach is this is done in a group process with an emerging communal narrative where children collaborate and extrapolate their playful discovery process. We strive for this cooperative process in teams where ideas are synergistic and result in an outcome that is greater than the whole, and yet it is also the property of the individuals.
As a play system creator, I have always felt that what I build is the armature, the framework, the stage, for the artistic event of children at play. While being creative is fun, the real joy comes from simply watching how the children go far beyond what I imagined they would do.
As I have come to know the playwork of Tom Hobson, Penny Wilson, and Suzanne Axelsson, I recognize that these folks are artists of the highest caliber. They set the stage and provide the props for true art and true play, in which the emerging self-expression of children, both individually and collectively, can flower.
One of the most important messages of this series is that play is not a product; it’s a process. Let’s illustrate this with a backyard project that is great fun and will last over several seasons. Not only is this an inexpensive project, but it will allow children to discover ecological principles in a very direct and memorable fashion.
“Play is not a product; it’s a process.”
This project starts with straw bales. I’m using the term “straw” rather than “hay” because straw is generally the byproduct of gain production and has very few weed plants contained in it. Whereas hay is just field cuttings that can contain things like thistles. Wheat straw is common and best for this project. Rice straw decomposes very slowly, and the bales are not as durable, so it is less desirable.
For most of my life, I have been blessed with living in an agricultural area where trips to feed stores in my truck were weekly. Now that I live in town and regretfully no longer have my truck, I’ve begun to appreciate that straw bales may not be so easy to acquire. That said, rental pickups are inexpensive, and what could be more fun than a trip to the countryside to get a load of straw? Basic straw-bales range in sizes, from small “two-string” ones 18 in wide, by either 14 or 16 in high, and 32 to 48 in long. Three-string “commercial bales” are 21 in wide, by 16 in high, by 3 to 4 ft long. The small sizes are around 40 pounds, and the larger is about 60 pounds for regular wheat straw. You can get as many as 15 bales on a pickup, and that is more than you probably will want, but I always end up not getting more when I could.
If you are going to get more than 4 bales, you probably should invest in a pair of hay hooks for under $20. These hooks will come in handy for your pirate costume next Halloween.
Some commercial straw bales are wire tied, which are very durable. The rope tied bales may fall apart with rough handling, so it is good to use tie-down straps when moving them. These will also be easier to grip that the ties already on the bales. You can get a set of three 12 ft ties for under $40. You may want these anyway to time down your load.
I hope you are getting the picture of what your children will experiencing so far. A drive to the country, visiting a feed store, and all the organic smells and cool tools. Did I mention baby chickens? Yes, you can get bales delivered and offloaded. But that’s not the point. This excursion is the sort of experience they will never get in school and, unless you live in the countryside, they may never get at all.
Before you make this outing, it is a great idea to do some planning. How much space can you devote to this project? Where will it go? How do you want to stack up the bales to make a fort? These are all great questions and, depending on the age of your kids, they should come up with the answers. They can make maps of the yard, use Legos to model the fort. The object is for you to do as little as possible. Note: these bales will eventually get wet, and when they do, they will weigh a lot more so keep them dry as long as possible to maximize the ability to move them around. Don’t stop at just the bales. Add a tarp, some planks, flexible tubes, some lengths of PVC pipe.
Don’t be a Wet Bale
You should get several months of play before the bales get soggy. If you put them on pallets and trap them, you will get more use, but eventually, they will get too funky to be fun. So, what’s next? Strawbale gardens!
The idea of planting into straw bales is an increasingly popular way to create temporary garden beds, and there is lots of information online to guide you in this process. The first crop can be any of your regular vegetables. Many gardeners can get a whole season and multiple crops out of the bales. After multiple crops, the bales will get pretty fragile and hard to plant in. But wait, there’s more. You can grow mushrooms in them. You can gather up the used straw and put it into a bucket or one of the new fabric planters and raise potatoes.
Finally, you will have gotten to the point that what is left over is suitable only for compost and garden mulch, both of which are terrific resources and learning opportunities. Did I mention vermiculture? That’s the scientific name for growing worms. Adding a microscope function to your smartphone will allow the kids to take a deep look into the rich life that has taken root in those once-pristine straw bales.
This is a multi-year adventure for less than a few hundred bucks. The learning, skills, and memories acquired will last a lifetime. Who says that a pandemic has to lead to learning loss?
Many credit Simon Nicholson with developing the theory of loose parts. While this is true historically, as a practical matter, children and teachers have been the real pioneers of loose part play. Over the past couple of decades, programs that support child development have created very systematic approaches to loose parts. I suspect that if I did a comprehensive search of the literature, all this knowledge is written down somewhere, but in my five decades of work in this area, I haven’t run across such a compilation. It is easier for me and, hopefully, more accessible for you for me to write up what I have observed. Before I launch into that exposition, it is appropriate for me to explain why this is an important exercise at this time.
As the Fairy Dust is settling around the Play First Summit and the 75,000 participants begin to process what we witnessed, it is impossible not to conclude that educators have begun to embrace child-directed play as an essential component of early childhood education. It follows that the primary means to that learning is an environment that is largely comprised of loose parts. The next step is to develop a pedagogy for this curriculum.
Generally, I start any analysis by looking for the intention. Be it a poem, a building, or a politician, examining what the intention is behind a made object or action is foundational. When it comes to loose parts, that intention is or should be, to maximize the child’s control. I say “should be”, because all too often the child’s control is compromised by other considerations. Be they cost, convenience, learning outcome, or other overriding consideration, it is important to identify the underlying intention in creating a sound and true pedagogy.
We should also recognize that as early childhood educators, we have been provisioning early childhood education environments for at least the past two centuries and, therefore, have amassed and tested a wellspring of solutions. This means that creating a loose part pedagogy is more like anthropology than creativity—lets’ start by categorizing what we have been doing all these years.
Natural Loose Parts
Without a doubt, natural materials are the earliest loose parts. Sand, water, leaves, sticks, flowers, and dirt are materials that children love and are foundational. While it is easy to say that these sorts of resources are important for early childhood development, we tend to think that their value is, well, natural. However, with our modern understanding of neuroscience, we have another and deeper takeaway. Natural materials provide what Bernie DeKoven, our dear late, Dr. Fun, called complexification. While this term has a specific meaning in mathematics, in Bernie’s use, the term when applied to something playable its meaning connotes increasingly complex layers and branches. His concept was almost like fractals, but rather than ever smaller repetitions of the same shape, play has ever-deepening layers of discovery and engagement. Complexification is one reason the “nature play” movement has so much appeal and sustainability, and why educators try to include as much of nature as we can. The challenge is that other than rocks, nature tends to be fragile, high maintenance, and space intensive. Since ECE tends to be chronically and perniciously under-resourced, we find including nature in our programs challenging. To combat this challenge, as professionals, we need to tie the inclusion of natural loose part play to the child development benefits natural materials provide. The key benefit is complexification and how it is essential to the development of a complex brain.
Combinatorial Loose Parts
What neuroscience tells us is that children’s play is often counterfactual. We can see this in the classroom when children struggle with how some ideas fit together when others don’t. This is the sort of deep learning that is hard to explain to parents or policymakers but is extremely important in children’s cognitive development. The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning.
The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning. The emblematic combinatorial play is a dollhouse as it brings together all the avatars and furnishings of domestic life. Block play can also be considered combinatorial, but in many programs, blocks are restricted to specific areas, and no other props are available; and such block play is just construction play. The same can be said of jigsaw puzzles, which are simple pattern recognition exercises. Returning to the issue of intention, one can quickly see that in each of these examples, child control is limited. Only when loose parts are not constrained to functional silos, do we achieve a deep level of complexification.
Educational Loose Parts
The appeal of educational loose parts is schools can readily answer the question, “what are children learning”? Perhaps the greatest practitioner of educational loose parts was Maria Montessori. Everything in her environment has specific learning embedded in its design. She intentionally used the child’s curiosity as a motivation to discover a fundamental concept she considered important. While one can make a case that this method is beneficial, it is important to note that it is the antithesis of nature-based loose part play. There are no deeper layers to the Montessori apparatus. Once a child has learned what the apparatus has to offer, children find the devices do not lend themselves to combinatorial play. Fortunately, most Montessori programs are not exclusively devoted to this narrow approach if only because kids soon master the content and need more. The lesson here is that materials with specific learning outcomes are not in themselves bad; it is just that they are very limited in meeting the demands of whole-child education.
Junk Loose Parts
Adventure Playgrounds have been around since the 1940s. In their way, preschools have embraced this concept almost as long. The play yard in which I had my practicum 50 years ago was of this type, with cable spools, doors, and tarps. Over the years, ECE has developed an informal inventory of found objects that are useful, such as tires, barrels, boxes, etc. The play yards at Anji Play are one of the best examples of including these well-suited objects. Teacher Tom’s Woodland Park and the Takoma Park Cooperatives also make good use of these materials. Indeed, in Tom Hobson’s Second Book, he extols the value of junk because its very worthlessness allows children to imbue the objects with a new identity. This repurposing is another form or counterfactual thinking. In his book, Tom elevates found objects from junk collected that no one wants, to objects that offer an opportunity for deep learning experiences. Tom embodies the sort of work we need to do as ECE professionals. In our daily interaction with children, we observe learning in situ and thus, over time, come to value the environment as the “third teacher.” We know this teacher may look strange and perhaps a bit dangerous to outsiders. But for those of us who know her, she is beautiful, and we must continue to allow her to evolve without interference or shame.
Active Loose Parts
In my experience, the type of loose parts that, if too often an afterthought in our choice of materials, are loose parts that support active play. Sure, we all have trikes and may call it done, but the skill development of trike riding is so low as to be dismissible. Scooters are far more beneficial motorically. The paucity of active play loose parts is widespread. For example, many programs I visit have no balls, which may be due to the fear of thrown objects, but the ability to catch is a rite of passage for children. The coordination of eye-tracking and combined with gross motor movement is one of the essential physical skills and are pivotal for such things as reading and dodging cars. A few other examples include a hula hoop, which is s such an evocative object for movement. A few 2x4s will be used for balance, wide board for a slide, ropes for swings. As a play systems designer, I cringe at the climbers attached to most commercial apparatus that offer only walking-gate type of movement, feet straight ahead hands to the side. For gosh sakes, we are primates! It is fairly easy to get downed trees from landscape maintenance companies or park departments that have many limbs that offer complex movement challenges.
The preceding is a start on a Pedagogy for Loose Parts or Child-Based learning since this is also true. This topic can and should become an online manual with all the associated links to Pinterest pages, references, and examples. Since America has come to realize the essential role of ECE in the economy, we will need a whole new generation of ECE teachers. While students may be trained in what to buy to equip their classrooms and yards, we expect that they will not also be given much background into the deep developmental value of junk. It is unlikely that, unless we create it, they will encounter a comprehensive manual that ties best practices to the emerging neuroscience in a systematic, constantly updated, and accessible format.
In this introduction, I’ve given the idea of a Loose Part Pedagogy a push. Let’s have some fun filling in the pages.
If you have tried to buy a backyard pool, trampoline, bike, or swing set over the last couple of months, you know that this sort of stuff is scarce as hen’s teeth. While annoying, we’re going to turn this disappointment into a win for you by coming up with fun solutions that are better and cheaper than anything you would have purchased.
In part one of this series, I said we wouldn’t start the proposed projects as equipment, but we will with developmental benefits. From that point of view,t his project is about proprioception. This is the sense of our position in space that we get from our muscles and joints. Here’s a good introduction to this concept explained. You already know about how much kids love to play with this sense from jumpy houses and trampolines. You could rent a trampoline or inflatable, but that is a short-term answer. Our goal is in this project to give you solutions for everyday use over the long-term.
Fun with Inner Tubes
The experience we are looking for is physical impact, like jumping out of a swing. To get the maximum benefit of that force applied to muscles and joints, we need daily repetition. The solution? Inner tubes. Sure, you can buy cheap plastic floater for pool use, but we want something durable that can take constant bouncing, and inner tubes are perfect. While most tires these days are tubeless, you can still buy inner tubes. Better yet, you may be able to get them from a tire store for free or at very little cost.
Old tires are a ubiquitous feature on adventure and many preschool play spaces. In the backyard, these seem less useful as they are heavy and hard to store. Other than not having the benefit of lifting the weight of a tire, innertubes can be played with as well as tires and have the added fun of bounce.
Once you’ve got a bunch of tubes, here’s where you will see the kids use them. They will become soft landing targets for jumping onto or “crashing” into. If you can find a hill or slope, they will become central to rolling games, especially if you tie them together to make a cylinder. Tubes can be stacked to make a hide-out. They may even make it into costumes. Tubes will be used with water play, which we will get to in a subsequent post.
What Size and How Many?
You almost can’t have too many, so get a bunch. Remember that you can take the air out of them for storage, and an air pump is pretty cheap to refill them quickly. Don’t forget bicycle tubes as these add an extra dimension, so get several of these. Even tubes that can no longer be inflated are great because you can cut them to make rubber ropes and bands, which are great for rubber-band guns.
What? You want us to arm our kids? Of course, this is up to you, but there are terrific benefits to rubber-band guns. First, unless you are inches away, the wide bands made from tubes can’t hurt because they have a lot of wind resistance. Also, these end up having a large role in games and contests. Best of all, they are total kid magnets. Think of this as a softer and cleaner version of paintball. Your biggest problem will be the parents of your kid’s friends that question your sanity.
On the serious side, either bands or water toy guns, allow the subject of guns and gun safety to come up. You can count on your kids having questions that will surprise you.
At the Play First Summit, Teacher Tom said, “The best use of power is to Empower.” Coming as it did from Tom Hobson, I thought about this idea in the context of children and Tom’s passion for standing back and empowering children to find their solutions. Over the past week, with the passing of John Lewis, I’ve been thinking about Tom’s dictum from the perspective of politics. Allowing kids to play with guns may be a perfect example of what John Lewis meant by “making good trouble, necessary trouble.”
While I’ve written books and hundreds of articles on children’s play, none of those offer succinct and developmentally sound recommendations that are appropriate for these times. I can’t be comprehensive here as that would be a book-length effort, but I can give you some ideas you can do right now to get your kids active and help them thrive. I will share these ideas in several posts over the coming days, so like this post to get the full story.
There are no toys or play equipment that is more fun or more beneficial than other kids to play with. This means that families will eventually form trusted cohorts where they can allow their children to play together. This trend will emerge gradually as we achieve community spread and sufficient reliable testing. This means that whatever you do now to provide play experiences for your children should be scalable to accommodate several children later on.
Since the goal is getting kids active and outdoors, we should think about ways to “gamify” their play. Here’s an example. Arrange for a playmate’s family to create similar challenges in their backyard. An obstacle course will do nicely. A measured distance to do a timed run is another example. Then video their activities to share back and forth. While you can start this sharing process, let the kids come up with their contests as soon as possible.
Bang for the Buck
In my practice as a play systems designer, I use the rule that everything must serve as many functions as possible. Kids master challenges at a prodigious rate, so finding recourses that can be reconfigured, repurposed, and made more complex is the key. As we go through proposed equipment, we will give suggestions for multiple uses. Of course, kids will find many more ways to use things, but if we start with flexible use materials that will be easier for them.
In my experience, the worst thing parent do is spend too much money to provide play stuff for their children. This is especially true with active play and constructive play where low cost and disposable stuff work best. It also eliminates the sort of problem that I hear too often that sounds a lot like, “Hey, we spent $3,000 on that playset, and by God, you’re going to play on it.”
It’s Not Swings and Slides
While playgrounds are great, they don’t do a great job meeting all of the children’s developmental needs. Rather than talk about equipment, we will couch our suggestions based on the aspects of physical and neurological development. In this way, you can extrapolate from the examples to come up with local resources to provide the same benefits.
“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
We have all heard the story about how a frog won’t leave a pot of water if it is heated gradually. First off, that contention is just not true. But more importantly, it makes the analogy that things before were better and have only grown worse over time. This assumption allows us to believe if we mobilize for change, there is a preexisting condition that will naturally come about. When the issue is self-determination, the myth of gradually becoming accustomed to change is not true as well. I suspect, and much of history and anthropology bear this out, as far back as we can look, there have been times of civil liberty and others of repression.
In today’s America, we can see that the repression of peaceful demonstrators is not that different from Child Protective Services taking children from parents because they allowed them to play on the playground across from their home while at the same time, the mother watched over them from the kitchen window. Forcing children to sit at desks for most of the day to memorize information unrelated to their interests or abilities is just as draconian. When autos are so dominant that children cannot play freely in their neighborhood, or when cars become the new weapon of choice for attacking demonstrators, we can see our society has run amuck. When we cannot distinguish from “peace” officers from boogaloo boys dressed up in camo with multiple machine guns and ammunition strapped on them as these poor guys struggling to come to terms with their impotence, we know that we live in a repressive society.
The thing about repression is that social norms don’t just creep in unbidden. Rather they grow on fertile soil. One of the first agendas of any leader who wants to move the tenor of their society in one direction or the other is to change the educational system of children. This is as true today as it was in the times of the Romans. Children are the fertile soil on which both slavery and freedom spring.
There are many ways that the imbalance in our society can be ameliorated. Confrontation, working from within, and mobilization are all effective. History shows, and the founding fathers knew that education is perhaps the most critical and sustainable change agent. But note that protecting schools is not in the constitution, but a free press and speech are. This is an important observation. The constitution does not guarantee education, but a free press and unfettered inquiry are.
“The constitution does not guarantee compulsory education, but a free press and unfettered inquiry are.”
Hummm, “open unfettered inquiry.” That sounds an awful lot like “play-based” learning. As Tom Hobson, aka Teacher Tom, points out in many of his essays, when children are allowed to play with minimal adult interference, democracy and fairness between children generally blossoms. He is also keen to show that this process is not without challenges for children or for observers who want to spare the participants from pain.
As Lenore Skenazy at Let Grow points out, the change that must happen is regaining trust. Lenore’s message is we can trust our children to roam our community as it is objectively safer than it has ever been. We can trust our children to navigate life without our constant overwatch. This is what a free society does. It trusts its citizens to self-govern.
As Ms. Cheng Xueqin, the founder of Anji Play said so poignantly during the recent Play First Summit; we can also trust children’s “true play” to be a powerful change agent. I can personally attest to this power as I have seen play as members of playground building crews went on to become school board members and engage in other civic responsibilities. Its power is clear, as the play settings we create require that teachers and parents must stand back because the children become so engrossed in their play that adult direction becomes unnecessary and unwanted.
After the Summit, I was describing to my sister the conversation Ms. Cheng had with her co-founder of the True Play Foundation Jesse Robert Coffino. While I love my sister deeply, she is an arch-conservative and steadfast supporter of the current occupant of the White House, which makes conversations somewhat guarded. But this time, the conversation took an unexpected turn as she recalled her days as an elementary school teacher. She recounted that as a test, it was her practice at some point during the school year to abruptly leave her classroom unattended for a short period. To her profound joy, she would find on returning her students just as engaged in their projects as they were under her watchful eye. I realized at that moment that our shared commitment to children was, and will be going forward, a bridge we can cross together to reach new common ground.
Advocating for true play is what John Lewis called “making good trouble.”