This can only be a cucumber

Recently, I’ve been a member of a play advocates cohort, discussing ways to promote play-based learning, intrinsic play, true play, self-directed play, or …

Since we are all in agreement about the essential need for more play, it is astounding that we can’t agree on the words to use for what exactly we are promoting.

I suspect that our advocacy comes from our different professional orientations. Those of us, who are primarily playworkers or teachers, use different ways of talking about play than scholars. Those who are designers have yet another way to talk about our work.

The image above was posted a few days ago by the Facebook group Loose Part Play. It immediately went viral because it is such a clear meme. However, I was struck by it for an entirely different reason.

As a designer, making a plaything as a kiddie version of a real thing has always been controversial.

My colleagues at Kompan were steadfast in their insistence that abstract shapes allowed the children to assign their meaning to the shape.

What bothers me about this approach is that the children I hang out with love complexity. Children find the exact opposite of simplicity engaging, whether in natural objects or highly-detailed drawings in their storybooks. I have also seen kids turn a very detailed fort playhouse into a spaceship by simply donning a cape and tinfoil cap.

Here’s what I think is really going on.

Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for. In the example of the cucumber, many kids will wonder if this cucumber is part of a set. Maybe there are apples, onions, even strawberries lying about?

I find children have an enormous amount of goodwill towards adults and want to meet their expectations. So, encountering this single cucumber sets off a cascade of conflicting impulses. It is a distraction, not because of its specific image but the adult intentions behind it. There is no intention behind a block of wood.


This line of thinking has made me realize the value of the term affordances. I first ran across this in a wonderful paper in the International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years, The dynamic relationship between outdoor environments and children’s play by Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, Rune Storli, & Ole Johan Sando

Here is a particularly relevant quote:

The dynamic between children’s play and their play environments The Theory of Affordances (Gibson 1979) represents an important framework for considering the utility and flexibility of the physical environment since it concerns the individual’s perception of the environment surrounding him/her. It states that the physical environment in which we live affords different actions and behaviours. The concept of affordances includes both the environment and the person, meaning that the affordances are unique for each individual (e.g., while one child may perceive a tree as something to climb, another may see it as a place for hiding when playing hide-and-seek). This person-environment relationship is dynamic, immediate, and based on functional activity, which means we must perceive in order to move, but we must also move to perceive (Kyttä 2004). Similarly, Fromberg (2006) claims that children demonstrate their power as agents in their own activities and learning through a dynamic process of play (and meaning), where both predictability and unpredictability is important. The predictability in play are the frames in which the play takes place, such as the agreed upon theme of the play or the more static physical environment where play develops. On the other hand, the unpredictability in play is how the individual child brings his/her own experiences, ideas, perceptions, and creativity into the play situation and develops it in unpredictable ways

See what I mean about scholar-speak? But this statement jives with what I see in children’s play. Kids create the play. The stuff we design and the materials we present are the affordances upon which the play occurs.

This idea is something like the current hot topic in astrophysics that consciousness creates reality. In the case of play, it is the developmental state of the child that makes something playable. If, for example, a baby encounters a Lego block, it is not a toy but something to be tasted. Later, it may become something to throw. It will be years before the full meaning of that simple piece of plastic is fully understood.

There are several ways the term affordance is useful. First, it establishes the child’s choice as the foremost determinate to the child of the value and use of the affordance.

Affordance requires that adults who provide for children understand the ways children develop and provide appropriate elements in their environment. But it also requires that adults realize that different children will use the environment in their own way, and the same child will use the same environment in different ways at different times.

High Quality Preschools

There is no confusion among play advocates as to what constitutes a “high quality preschool.” However, the concern of our cohort is that proposal all children have access to such programs is, while well-meaning, likely to do significant harm to children.

A review of the supporting documents and the fact that the funding goes primarily to existing programs is alarming. A three-year-old is nothing like a five-year-old.

These new programs need to be staffed by grandparents, not early childhood educators. While children need structure, in quality preschools, that structure is primarily assisting them in making transitions. Preschool kids don’t need teaching; they need to be listened to.

Those of us who understand this age need to give those implementing the legislation a good talking to.

Are you ready to go to Washington?