Empowering Play with Kindness

Parents may be reluctant to bring their children into situations likely to trigger their children to behave in ways that are outside the norm. Complexifying playgrounds with loose parts can be reasonably be perceived as a cause for concern and caution. Let’s unpack this issue.

What are the benefits of complexification?

There is a school of thought that children learn best when their learning environment is simplified. This idea assumes is that learning is additive, i.e., start with the basic and then elaborate.

Neuroscience, however, tells us that learning is about pattern recognition in which the highly complex patterns of the natural world and social interactions are compared; by observing complexity, the unique elements stand out. For example, the forest is all green, but the lion’s face is not.

The early years of any animal are devoted to subtracting information rather than adding to it. Learning by subtraction means that children will acquire more in a complex environment than in a simplified one. While the studies on complexification focus primarily on language acquisition and understanding systems, they support this contention.

The Freedom to Play

If complex environments cause sensitive children to trigger, therapeutic rooms that can be filled with loose parts like the one pictured here will frighten these children. Why don’t they?

Few things stimulate play behavior more than that the child is in control. That means the power to say no is critical. Indeed, it is the basis of selfhood. All kids go through a stage where “NO!” becomes their favorite word. Being able to control elements in the external world sets the stage for self-control. The lack of external control is often the underlying cause of childhood tantrums. This “misbehavior” can often be observed in overprotected and overscheduled kids.

A complex environment can certainly be overstimulating for any child. A parent who visits a Toys R Us store with tired and hungry kids is just asking for a meltdown. One reason that the apparent chaos of the therapy room is not triggering is that children know they are safe and have the choice to be there.

Kindness on the Playground

A second reason that the therapy room is not triggering is that the adults present are dedicated above all else to kindness. It starts with empowering the child by allowing them control within boundaries. This intention is extended to listening and encouraging rather than expecting and judging.

Just as a therapy room requires an adult, adding loose parts to traditional playgrounds requires supervision as well.  Magical Bridge playgrounds have demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. They have developed a Kindness Ambassador program for teen volunteers that works on their playground and in schools.

The curriculum for supervision of play-based learning is well developed, for example, at Anji Play and Reggio Emilia. Such an established program can readily be integrated into a program to support loose parts supervision on playgrounds. The challenge comes when the program scales up to thousands of sites. Fortunately, such systems to ramp up “boot-on-the-ground” already exist as well.

Adding loose parts to playgrounds provides an opportunity to help thousands of teens acquire the essential skills of good parenting. Increasing the number of great parents is a not so inconsequential benefit to the Empowering Play initiative.  

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