The Cost of COVID on Kids

As we arrive at a full year of the pandemic, we must begin to consider the impact this has had on children and what will be required to mitigate the damage. Sure, there is general acceptance that kids have to get back to school, not only for education but also for social development. Social development is not just what happens in school, but it starts at birth. If we are to be successful in this effort, we must understand the dynamics at a much deeper level than I have seen in the discourse so far. Let’s look at a case in point, executive function.

Developmental psychology and biology have identified stages in a child’s life they call critical periods. These are stages when the nervous system is especially sensitive to environmental stimuli. Examples include vision or language development. Deprivations during these periods mean that the child may never acquire full functionality.

While many such periods have been identified, research shows some are weak, and others are strong depending on how serious the deficiency is to survival. For example, binocular vision is a critical function which develops primarily in the first year and continues to be refined for two more. This is one reason that there is concern about too much screen time in the early years. Indeed a Japanise study cited the overuse of smartphones as a primary cause of declining good vision.

When it comes to a skill that parents greatly cherish, empathy ranks among the top. Studies show that kids tend to be altruistic by nature. For children to build on, rather than lose, innate generosity, they need to learn to be truly empathic from role models. While parents say they want empathic children, they often send the message that they value achievement more.

Another critical issue is the many situations that impact the child’s development of a strong attachment and executive function maturation. Specialists in this area raise the alarm that COVID is exacerbating Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). I have written about ACEs in a previous blog, Play and Nurture Space. It is now well established that ACEs are a leading cause of Americans’ declining health.

If I haven’t lost you in all of these studies, let’s get to the meat of the issues. The research I have been doing over the past decade shows that kids have innate drives that cause them to seek ways to maximize their development. Kids are not born thrill-seekers. They are born skill seekers, and jumping off the roof provides both. That means when given the right environment and triggers, kids will do what comes naturally, and this is the primary way they develop. If parents had to do all of the teaching, we really would be in trouble. Let’s look at one of the primary way kids develop executive function through the lens of COVID-19.

If you accept the notion that kids have a natural drive to learn, what behaviors can we observe that develop empathy? One very popular play behavior that is actively suppressed in most educational settings is Rough and Tumble play. For really wonderful examples of a preschool that embraces this sort of play, search Teacher Tom’s Blog. For the science behind this, get The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience by Sergio and Vivien Pellis.  If you want a “How to,” look no further than Mike Huber’s Embracing Rough-and Tumble Play.

Ok, Ok! I promised I’d get to the meat of the issue. Rough and tumble play helps kids learn empathy because if they don’t care about other children’s feelings, kids won’t play with them. COVID-19 is depriving kids of social interaction both at home and typically at school. That means few if any, opportunities for close personal contact and the developmental benefits of getting down and dirty during this critical formative period. It looks like these year-long restrictions may continue for another year with a slow return to normal.

The conclusion is that we may have nearly a generation of little egotists that will struggle with fitting into community life. Many will be driven by fear of failure and rejection. We have seen what happens to society when these traits are left without guardrails. Parents, educators, and society must come up with ways to implement help for these kids so they learn to play fair. We can’t pretend that we can go back to the way things have always been done.

The Play Everywhere Revolution

The KABOOM Play Everywhere PlayBook –

I could be accused of using hyperbole by naming the play everywhere movement a revolution, but you read on, and I think you will come to agree that this is no exaggeration.

My interest in this idea started when KABOOM launched its Play Everywhere campaign. Here is their description of the program.

KABOOM! created the Play Everywhere concept to inspire kids to play every day and to incorporate it into their normal routines. Play Everywhere innovations and installations bring play to unexpected, but everyday spaces, making play easy and available for kids and families.

While a playground can provide a joyful oasis for play, play must be available in other places to include play opportunities where kids, and their caregivers, are already spending their limited time. Play Everywhere encourages people to think about spaces that could become PLAYces — a laundromat, grocery store, sidewalk, bus stop — any unexciting situation can turn into a stimulating, creative outlet for play.

I liked the idea a lot because I have been following the placemaking movement, the trend of considering the needs of children in urban planning, and the play streets campaign. My take on their decision to go into this area was twofold. It is a logical extension of their commitment to making play accessible to the underserved. I also suspected, but have not verified, that they came to realize that a focus exclusively on parks only addressed a part of the problem. However, after watching the painfully slow progress by those attempting to change the urban environment to be more kid friendly, I felt that this effort would be frustrating for the KABOOM team as they are so accustomed to doing projects a lot of impact and scale, i.e., 17,000 and counting.

I have written many times in this blog about my own frustration with the limited scope of play provided by public playgrounds. Coming from the early childhood education community in which every aspect of play is supported, the typical park playground seems limited, and to be only about active play. In my research, I have identified 20 distinct play patterns. A typical playground only supports four of these.

In 2018 I started thinking about the opportunity to create better play systems for the backyard. In my post, The Great Backyard Play Disaster, I highlighted some of this industry’s deficiencies. I pointed to an example of a better approach, pioneered by my friend Mike Lanza and detailed in his book Playborhood. Mike clearly understans the need for diverse play opportunities. His approach to the high cost of the existing products was to share his home with his neighbors, turning his yard into a community asset. This approach is, in essence, the same as what I understand of the KABOOM concept.

While I absolutely love the idea of shared community play, I fully understood that this would not become a common solution to addressing the play deficit that modern urban life imposes on children like other urban planning ideas. But what approach could solve the problem?

During this same period, we developed the Gymboree Play and Music System. The challenge of that design was that it had to be modular and be quickly reconfigured without tools. I consider this project to be the apex of my career to date. Still, I remain disappointed that we could not introduce even more loose parts and expand the teacher training and curriculum to allow for more reconfiguration during classes. However, the notion of a system that can be quickly reconfigured has given me insights into how a residential system might address the play everywhere concept. While I am excited by the idea of a modular loose part system like our Gymbo concept, I know I will not be content unless we can expand such a system to address more of the play patterns that have been identified.

As a product for homes and early childhood programs, I think the application of the loose part system envisioned here offers the opportunity to really explore such possibilities in depth. For example, what can we do with fabric? How can the system support pretend play? Can kids make play components that are compatible with the system? What about water play? Or the really big one, how about rough and tumble play?

I’m beginning to see a future that allows for all sorts of play to take place wherever there are kids. This is the power of KABOOM’s concept of play everywhere. The concept of Play Everywhere is the seed for a transformative revolution, and boy, is it exciting!

Lego as a LudenSystem

I’m sure you wonder what the heck is a “LudenSystem?” This term, which I hope will become a meme, is an invention to create a way of playing that becomes something like an ecosystem.

“An ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system.” Wikipedia

The aspect of a system that is particularly relevant in this new term is that ecosystems tend to complexify over time and fill all available niches. I am combining the term system with Luden as it is used in the seminal work Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, in which he makes the case that play is the foundation of culture.

To make a case for this new term’s value, we can look at Lego as exemplary. Lego’s history goes back to 1895, but the portion that is relevant to this discussion begins in 1949 when the company began making “Automatic Building Bricks.” The simple bricks, now called Legos, begin to become a system in 1955 with the addition of windows and doors. The coupling system was patented in 1958. In 1966 Lego added a train with an electric motor.

In 1968 Lego expanded the Lego brand into a theme park in Denmark. 1969 sees the introduction of Duplo, which expands the range to younger children. In the early ’70s, theme sets are launch, and dolls, furniture, figurines, and boats are added to the range. By the late ’70s, there are complex lego sets, including Space and Castle themes replete with minifigures with moveable limbs.

In the ’80s, 70% of the Western European children owned Legos. Themes continue to expand. Duplo Baby further extends the age range to younger children, and the Technic series grows to include robots and programming to appeal to older children. In 1986 the Lego Foundation was established.

In the ’90s, Lego goes through a rapid repositioning by dropping may sets and introducing new themes. New theme parks are opened.  Lego launches computer games, Mindstorms with fully programable elements, and Lego Studio, a stop motion video product.

By 2000 Legos themes have become tied with commercial enterprises such as Disney and Lord of the Rings. Two Lego movies and Mixels cartoons are created.

These days even the Maker community plays with Legos, and you can have custom elements created for you or print your own.

3D Printed Personalized Lego

Whew! To think it all started with little plastic bricks and now encompasses nearly every aspect of contemporary culture and education. But this is the power of a LudenSystem.

Now, why can’t a new play system use Lego as its model and not require 75 years to fill all of the available niches? Is there a place for a LudenSystem that has large scale components that can support active physical play? Give me a minute. I think I have an idea.

Learning with Sticks or Shapes?

Followers of this blog know that I have an interest, which borders on obsession, with play patterns, and their triggers. As a designer of play systems, my fascination brings me insights about maximizing the engagement and the learning potential of the systems I create.

Over the past decade, I have been particularly interested in play-based learning facilitated with loose parts. This area of investigation is compelling because, while the subject has a rich history ranging from Montessori to sand tray psychotherapy, from mud kitchens to hollow blocks, there is very little systematic research on the specific triggers for this sort of learning. My current project is a case in point.

Construction toys are extremely popular and beneficial. I got to wondering if these could be scaled up so that kids could build their environments. There are two main types of construction toys in use these days. The more traditional toys are made with struts and hubs such as Straw Builders. Over the past decade, a new system, Magformers, has gained a lot of popularity. These are geometric shapes that link together with magnets.

As a designer, I want to develop useful skills in the widest range of children as possible. As I have observed children using these toys, it has become clear that Magformers are much more accessible to young children. I have watched infants play with Magformers while the strut and hub systems are hazardous for little guys. On the other hand, strut and hub systems can extend all the way to building geodesic domes.

Since there are many large-scale strut and hub construction systems available and none for younger children, the opportunity for a large shape-based construction system is a clear opportunity for development. It turns out this is not easy.

It turns out that those simple-looking Magformers hide some very sophisticated engineering. I should have been prepared for this since the H-Frame system we developed for Gymboree Play and Music required inventing a method of assembly that was patentable. The way Magformers work is that the embedded magnets are not fixed and are free to rotate so as they orient to face the adjacent shape. I know this is hard to visualize, but it becomes immediately clear when you play with them.

As is the case with most development in early childhood, what is learned is not at the conscious level but becomes embedded in the brain’s neurological structures. In this case, when the child goes from playing with Magformers to playing with magnets, they begin to have hands-on knowledge of polarity. When they encounter the classic experiments of magnets creating patterns of metal filings that expose the invisible fields, it opens their minds to scientific inquiry at a profound level. They now know that there are forces that only become visible when look deeper.

One of the things I love about working in the field of early childhood is that most of this this learning flies under the radar. For example, every adult will immediately see that Magformers are OK for infants, but strut and hub toys are not. We get it because we were once infants too, and that experience is deeply embedded, even though rarely consciously considered.