Diaphanous Kid’s Play

I did the painting above in my senior year in art school. It is a self-portrait that reproduced one I did on my bedroom wall when I was ten years old. The metaphor of flying is a consistent feature of most children’s dreams. Often, dream flight starts with sheer terror as you are flung from a great height. It may take a few panic awakenings to learn to hold your arms out and fly. This is the moment that many kids realize that they can control their dreams.

Because we tend to create play spaces to be durable and low maintenance, the inclusion of loose parts tends to, for the most part, follow this paradigm as well. Whatever the reason, the primary fabrics found in early childhood centers tend to be in butterfly wings and capes. This is a shame because diaphanous materials add a unique and very valuable element to children’s play. To demonstrate this, I’d like to introduce you to three educator-artists who will take you on a journey of imagination and fantasy. To learn more about these incredible women, visit their social media sites.

Penny Wilson

At the Kings Cross Adventure Play program fabrics are a big deal.

You can go to http://www.Instagram @playkx or http://www.Medium.com/@playkxto to our work in Kings Cross. Similarly Instagram @pennywilsonspictures. A way to get a sense of Penny’s professional and art work is to visit: https://www.instagram.com/playkx/?hl=en or
takes you to  a big collection of writing and free to download books.

This is the entrance to the Fairy Castle

Suzanne Axelsson

Suzanne’s website is chock full of great stuff, https://www.interactionimagination.com/. Her close-up nature photography is particularly impressive. The best place to get a sense of her work with diaphanous materials is her Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/interactionimagination/?hl=en

Sarah Lee

The presntation of fabric is as important as the material itself.

While not an educator per se, Sarah started doing play silks for her son’s Waldorf School. Twenty-five years later, she is a successful entrepreneur marketing her silks and toys in many parts of the world. Her website is https://www.sarahssilks.com/collections/playsilks. And Facebook is https://www.facebook.com/sarahssilks

I hope you’ve taken the time to peruse the sites as this will prepare you for where I am going with this discussion.

Here’s the deal. Life is at the core, ephemral and transitory. The decades I’ve spent creating play settings for kids have been way too much about rocks and blocks. Children also need to experience the soft and fragile things in life. As playspaces incorporate more nature, this will get easier to do. Until then, we need to do the work of making such experiences part of our children’s experience. Yes, this can be challenging these days with the pandemic as it means, at a minimum, being able to sterilize materials. And then there is the cost of replacement when we don’t have enough support to provide the basics. My point is softness is just as basic as rocks and blocks.

As a kid, my dreams about flight were all about going fast. I loved the idea of a huge engine. Looking back, I should have paid more attention to the scarf in the wind.

Bath-Less Kids

Image: Pixabay

While I have paused writing about play environments and am deferring to authors who produce new and comprehensive works on the subject, I will continue to explore subjects about child development I find interesting.

Those who follow this blog, or my personal Facebook page, know that I am very interested in the body’s microbiome. It seems that there are discoveries almost weekly about the role of bacteria in the gut on general health. The recent findings are astounding on how our gut profoundly influences our moods and child development.

Listening to one of my favorite programs, Science Friday on NPR a week ago, they had a segment on a book titled Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin in which he makes a case for fewer baths and much less soap. A part of his thesis is that the skin has its own microbiome that mirrors the gut’s.

Here are my previous observations about mud play:

I would argue that during the early years, we should consider the skin and gut as essentially one system with the skin being an essential pathway for creating a robust and complex microbiome. I also suspect that the skin acts as an ecology where bacteria and the body’s immune system interact in beneficial ways.

Hamblin’s discussion was compelling in his explanation of the negative impact of too much bathing. He made it clear that hyper-cleanliness has a negative impact on the health of our skin. This is especially true for young children who’s system is working hard to adapt to the world.

Thinking about this, I recalled hearing that, when asked what Elizabeth Warren uses to keep her skin so radiant, she replied, “water.” Warren’s skin success suggests that both doing fewer baths or just using no soap is a good idea.

I also remember the common new mothers’ exclamation, “I could just eat my baby up.” The science on this is fascinating. It turns out that the baby’s body odor creates neurotransmitters in new mothers that are very pleasurable and are an important part of forming a strong parental bond and promote caring. This bonding smell is produced primarily by the infant’s skin, so washing this away may not be a great idea.

For more information, check out:

My Last Post About Play

In my twenties, I fancied myself an artist. My work was always playful, so naturally, I spent some time learning about kids. What a mistake! I was horrified to discover that kids are so much better painters than I might ever be. Of course, this is a secret that they keep form grownups by scrubbing the heck out of their masterpieces so we can’t see them. I used to trick my students by pulling their work off their easel after a few minutes and giving them fresh paper. Parents loved seeing the work of their little geniuses rather than the typical big dark mess.

I’ve been blogging about play for nearly a decade, and I’ve come to the same place as I did with painting. It’s time for me to stop blogging about play environments as there are better information sources than I can possibly create. Oh, I will still write about what interests me about kids, but if you want to know what sort of environment kids need or how best to support their development, check out the resources I will list below.

I’m only going to list books here as I want you to be changed by what you read. I will list the best online sources in another post as, while these are great, I find that the short form of blogs is less transformative. While these authors are early childhood experts and much of what they discuss takes place in preschools, their advice and insights apply equally to backyards. So, let’s dive in.

Teacher Tom’s First and Second Books.

To prove my point about the value of books over blogs, let me share this experience. I am a loyal reader of Tom Hobson’s blog, and so I didn’t buy his first book as I thought it to be just a collection of his posts. Circumstances caused me to miss some of his posts last year, so I bought his Second Book. Being able to read the posts chapters carefully curated into a narrative allowed me to embrace his perspective fully.

Why should you read his books? Tom sees kids as fully formed and perfect human beings. He has an insatiable curiosity about each child he encounters as a fully formed person with their own logic and goals. He helps us understand that the best way to know kids is by standing back and observing, intervening only when absolutely necessary, and only then at the very last moment.

The following books focus on the play environment, which those of us in early childhood consider being the third teacher. Note that the first teacher is the parent, and to do that job, you will be vastly better at that responsibility by reading and incorporating the practice that Tom so compellingly sets forth.

Buy direct from the source:


Nature Play at Home

Nancy Striniste has written the definitive work on small scale outdoor learning spaces. What I love most about the book is that it combines the knowledge of an expert in child development, and the spirit of a gardener, with a how-to manual. She doesn’t just give you the background on why kids love hiding places but also shows you how to create a living willow structure or a mud hut.

The book is copiously illustrated and comprehensive. Need to know what to plant? Is it here? Want to add a bit of drama? How about a stage and the loose part props as well?

Buy direct from the source:

Adventures in Risky Play

The title of Rusty Keeler’s book is a bit of a bait and switch. The real risk in the book is not for the kids so much is it is to our adult propensity to be wildly overprotective. He makes this message work by sharing stories and powerful images that allow us to remember our own experiences growing up. In this way, he opens our hearts and minds to the fun and developmentally essential experiences of risky play. 

While Rusty’s book covers many of the same subjects as Nancy’s, his perspective is that of a dad. This comes out in such ways as the section on rough and tumble play. Rough and tumble play is a subject that is getting increased attention as early childhood experts have focused on emotional intelligence and the importance of children testing each other. In his discussion, he shares the same perspective as Tom Hobson in that we tend to suppress these challenging moments to the detriment of our child’s ability to function socially.

Buy direct from the source:

Playing with Intention

My Rotary Club recently had a presentation on implicit bias that was fascinating. The discussion resonated with a lesson I got from Professor Sinclair Kirby Miller, which I have mentioned in previous posts; “We create, order, and project, our reality moment by moment.” This simple dictum applies to everything from what we think is real that our eyes see to what quantum physics tells us about the cosmos. This same phenomenon applies to we what adults think children’s play is all about.

For example, there have been centuries of debates about human development and the respective roles of nature and nurture. Modern research tells us quite conclusively that during the first five years, children’s behavior is motivated by irresistible biological drives. The experience with the environment these drives produce the content of what children learn. This process of motivation and action is play.

When adults see a child playing with a fire truck or a doll, they project that they are exploring becoming a firefighter or a parent. In other words, the object is the content of the play. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is going on is that the child is engaged in an internal story. The “firetruck” could just as well be a block of wood. The doll could be a stick and a scrap of cloth. For the child, the specificity of the play object is immaterial. The story content of the play need not be and often is not related to fires or parenting.

The pandemic prevents me from being with children while they play. These sad days I rely on Tom Hobson to keep me in touch with their reality. Links to Tom’s books and blogs are posted below, and I encourage you to join me in feasting on their wisdom. You will quickly find that Tom is very candid about the bias he has to overcome daily to understand what the children are actually doing. He has learned that what we project onto children’s play is generally not correct. In his interactions with kids, he has to become very neutral in his comments, or he will hear the dreaded rebuke, “No silly, what we are doing is …”

Tom has learned that a main pillar of his practice is to stand back and observe. This is also the cornerstone of the Anjiplay method of early childhood education. The results of Anjiplay pedagogy is so demonstrably positive that it is beginning to be implemented throughout China.

That children’s learning is primarily play-based is nothing new. This awareness goes as far back as Aristotle, with stops along the way with Vygotsky, Singer, and Hirsh-Pasek and many, many others. What is new is the studies that establish the neurological process by which we construct inaccurate world models.

In an earlier blog, Play is Good Trouble, I wrote about the relationship between play and democracy in the struggle for social justice. The issue of racial inequity is another example of unconscious bias. As a society, we must all commit to work constantly to build the mental tools to reveal the errors in our assumptions. This starts with coming into situations with the knowledge that you know nothing about what is actually before you and preparing your mind to be open. What is required is allowing the time for hearing and observing. We need this practice to be good parents. We need this practice to be a good community.

Playing During Pandemic – Part Seven – Pets

The requirements of social distancing are raising havoc with children’s mental health. Researchers are concerned that this may have lifelong damage.

SummarySocial isolation experienced during childhood has an impact on adult brain function and behavior. Following two weeks of social isolation immediately following weaning in male mice, researchers noticed a failure in activation of medial prefrontal cortex neurons projecting to the posterior paraventricular thalamus during social exposure in adulthood. Findings suggest medial prefrontal cortex neurons required for sociability are profoundly affected by social isolation at a young age.

While the best remedy for this is for kids to be able to play in close contact again, that opportunity is still in the future and will be slow becoming anywhere close to pre-COVID normalcy. What can a parent do?

Pets have always been a part of children’s social and emotional life. During the pandemic there has been a surge in adoptions and shelters are finding that animals that would have certainly been euthanized are now finding homes. This means that if you are looking for a pet your choices are limited. While dogs and cats are the go-to option, I will argue that they may in some respects not be best suited for the current situation.  Why?

Dogs and cats are traditionally seen as members of the family and their care is a family responsibility. When kids choose alternative pets, those animals are generally considered the responsibility of the child. This change in status has life and death consequence which has profound impact on the relationship between the child and their pet. Put in the bluntest terms, if the child does not care for their pet, the pet will die.

Homes often have these alternative pets, ranging from goldfish to rats. Because of their shorter lifespans and more fragile nature, all of these animals will die during their caregiver’s childhood.  While tragic at the time, these deaths are a good thing, as the experience is profound and illuminates one of life’s deepest experiences. How you handle this inevitability will be a real test of your parenting skills. I suspect that this is one reason that parents are often reluctant to take on one of these alternative pets because they know that a difficult day of reconning is sure to follow.

The existential relationship between the child and alternative pet is therefore substantially different than it is with a dog or cat because of the inherent responsibility of the child that is a fundamental condition. The pet will die, hopefully of old age, but it is more often because of neglect, which in itself is a deep life lesson. Less often but more instructive are those deaths that come from a lack of knowledge about the needs of the animal.

From the standpoint of learning, one of the best pets for kids are fish. Fish require a balanced environment in which nutrition, air, light and temperature have to be balanced in a very narrow set of parameters. A fish tank is a dynamic lesson in ecology that helps children get a deep and person understanding of the larger world around them. The problem with fish is that they are not at all cuddly. That shortcoming can be mitigated to some extent by choosing an assortment fish species that have an active social life or will reproduce and thereby increase the child’s engagement.

The best choice for a cuddly pet, other than a dog or cat, is a rat. While many have an aversion to rats, they are incredibly smart, playful and robust. Rabbits and guinea pigs can be good pets as they will play with cats and dogs but are not nearly as smart or trainable as rats. Hamsters and mice have the benefit of breeding well but don’t have much in the way of play value to offer. Parakeets and budgies are fun and, with training and proper handling, can be good choices.

The main goal here is that the child must make the selection and do the work to keep the animal alive and thriving. Whichever animal selected be sure that it has been bred in captivity. This means exotic animals such as saltwater fish are out as are many reptiles and amphibians.