A Tool for Play-Based Learning


Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 10.36.40 AMCAAEYC 2020 – Master the Art of Play

This is a virtual presentation I did this week that introduces my concept of using environmentally triggers to support spontaneous play. That’s an academic way of saying, kids do what their brain development demands. I welcome your questions and comments. If I get some interest in this post, I will post a second presentation that goes much deeper into the neuroscience and developmental biology.

Here is a checklist for the concept:

Play Patterns and Triggers 2-10

Kids Love Robot Poop!

Most kids think Robots are cool. All Kids think poop is hysterical. As a product promotion meme, Robot Poop is a total winner. The question is, what does Robot Poop look like. Ah, that is indeed the question. I’ve been working feverishly on my next big project and no I don’t have COVID-19. Its foundation […]

Play-Based Learning Cooperative


Photo Bonnie Diczhazy

These days making predictions is a fool’s errand. The best we can do is guess what is unlikely to happen and indicate the trends that will shape the future. So, what do we know?

What won’t happen is COVID-19 going away soon. Optimistic projections are that “herd immunity” and a vaccine will not happen for a year, and some predict two years or more.

Another thing that won’t happen is for early childhood education to continue being ignored and taken for granted. Keeping children in school turns out to be both extremely important and complex. Our society has begun to realize that unless parents have childcare, they can’t return to work. This means that more enlightened communities will now be motivated to fund both early childhood schools and teachers better.  Many supports for schools such as nutrition and health safety measures that have been taken for granted will henceforth be augmented and made permanent.

The Black Lives Matters movement has raised our consciousness to much more than racism and made it impossible to continue to ignore the inequities in modern society. It is easy to predict that the movement will result in efforts to address inequality and reduce violence. The changes are certain to be painful, profound, and lasting.

The environmental crisis is finally being acknowledged and addressing it can no longer just be dealt with through policies. The clear skies during the worldwide lock made the needed changes undeniable. Profit above planet business models will be the first targets for disruption.

Another trend that has a long history but is still not widely adopted is play-based learning. While there are many examples from Montessori to Reggio Emillia, from Forest Schools to Anji Play, schools with this form of pedagogy abound. Yet, for all of its appeal, play-based learning has not become mainstream. That is about to change, big time. The reason is simple; science shows that play-based learning works. The neuroscience and longitudinal studies over the past decade and more have established without question that play-based learning is more effective in the early years than academics. It has been demonstrated time and again that wrote learning and homework are counterproductive.

As we finally come out of the pandemic, it is easy to predict that preschool education will be largely transformed with a new play-based based curriculum and more resources. While this is good news, there is a slight problem. The new play-based curriculum requires that kids are free to move rather than sitting at desks. Most of the action now is outdoors. Since the program relies on curiosity, environments need to be rich in resources, complex, more bespoke, and as natural as possible. This means that while there may be more resources for early childhood education, they will not begin to implement and support the new curriculum fully.

While massive changes will be happening in early childhood education, they will also be happening across all sectors of the economy. This means that while early childhood education has a new prominence, it is only one of the needed changes such as housing, health care, and the environment. Thus, there will be too many hands dipping into the funding bucket for early childhood to get all the support it needs to make the changes it wants.

Though these predictable challenges seem insurmountable, this is not the first time there has been a major crisis, and it is instructive to look at those actions that proved effective to bring about recovery. For example, cooperatives played a huge role in the economic revival during the depression. They have been used in nearly every nation at one time or another, for example, by Spain at the end of World War Two and Israel during its founding.

Let’s dream a bit. What could a Play-Based Learning Cooperative look like?

Who could benefit from a Play-Based Learning Cooperative?

  • Schools

The combined buying power of early childhood education programs will mean lower prices and higher quality for the exact materials and programs they need.

  • Teachers

Above all, teachers need three things, better pay, materials, and working conditions. The Play-Based Learning Cooperative will be a strong advocate for these with a wide variety of programs, networks, and career options.

  • Makers

Too many designers who love kid and lay have great ideas that never see the light of day because of a lack of capital or opportunity. Many producers have a terrific product that can’t cut through the obstacles to the marketplace. Both designers and producers can collaborate and co-market both online and direct and thrive though the Play-Based Learning Cooperative.

  • Experts

There are hundreds of experts and advocates for play-based-leaning who have experience and knowledge that they want to share. While they have to maintain their regular jobs, they also write and give presentations. A Co-op Book Store and speaker’s bureau will make their lives easier and more sales.

There are hundreds of experts and advocates for play-based-leaning who have experience and knowledge that they want to share. While they have to maintain their regular jobs, they also write and give presentations. A Co-op Book Store and speaker’s bureau will make their lives easier and more sales.

  • Parents

There is a big swing towards homeschooling, and these parents often use a play-based learning strategy. These pioneers, as well as any parent, will appreciate the information and discounts the Play-Based Learning Cooperative provides.

While at this stage, the Play-Based Learning Cooperative is just a dream. It can happen, and I’d like to know what you think about the concept.



How Children Learn Biases

ABC Video

Viral video – Michael D. Cisneros

Please forgive my deception in the title, but I’ve done it to make a point as we begin this discussion. I will wager that as you read that title, you already have several ideas about the subject. I will also assert that you speculated about parenting, schooling, and policing. Finally, most of these thoughts are probably accompanied by strong feelings. My point is that all of those thoughts and feelings are biases. You have prejudged what I am about to share with you. That prejudice makes it harder for you to analyze the topic rationally.

To better understand my thesis, it is helpful to have a bit of background on how the brain works. In the footnotes are some sources for the science if you want to go deeper into the subject. But for now, I will give you a high-level summary.

One of the main functions of any animal with a complex brain is to predict what is going to happen next. If you watch a cat stalk its prey, you can see that they have to make assumptions about how the prey will react. Prey animals, on the other hand, must be able to predict instantly if a sound or movement in the environment signals danger.

The point here is that your previous assumptions about this subject are part of your brain’s hardwired predictive machine on which your survival depends. To layer into the discussion of biases, guilt, or shame misses the point. This is what brains simply do. How does this help us deal with biases that have a negative impact on our lives? To move this conversation into an example without any emotional baggage, I will share an example from my experience that may be illuminating.

I think I was in the second grade when the subject of astronomy was introduced as part of the curriculum. The lessons included the sizes of the planets and their distances from the sun. As an aside, the typical graphic of those depictions are grossly misleading and is an example of how education imparts incorrect information. But I digress.

The lessons also illustrated how the moon rotates around the earth. It was pointed out that the moon is tidally locked, that one side always points towards us, and the other is the “dark” side. A few poor-quality images were taken by the Soviets in 1959 and escaped my attention at the time. It wasn’t until 2009 that an orbiter did a systematic survey of its surface. It did not, at that time, caused me to wonder how they could take pictures of the supposed “dark” side.

It was only a few months ago when, as I lay not sleeping, that this anomaly struck my curiosity and I spent a while modeling the obit not just of the earth and moon, but also of both around the sun and it became clear how they got those pictures. I will leave it to you to repeat this thought problem.

Today, those in the subject of space sciences now use the term “far side” to talk about the moon, so this sort of misapprehension doesn’t arise. The whole point of my convoluted tale is that words matter. Calling the moon’s far side, the “dark” side set up in my mind an image that was false that I have carried for a lifetime. This insight has helped me see that such use of inaccurate words is pervasive in insidious. It can also be weaponized. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

fist copyTo bring this topic around to the contemporary issue of racism, I have, in my naivety, heard the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” as an assertion of civil rights with which I agree. It has only been as a result of the discussions surrounding George Floyd’s murder that I have come to understand a deeper meaning. Black lives matter not use to the black community, but they also matter very much to me. This conceptual and emotional reframing has led me to feel more deeply into why blacks in our society have been so demonized. I understand now the way my brain works allowed me to be misguided in my youth about the dark side of the moon, many of us are prejudiced by the way our society talks about and treats the “dark side” of our community.

It is more than time that we shine light on this subject. We have to realize that our brains are hardwired to predict and assume threats. And unless we do the work of investigating those, we will forever carry these mistaken “facts” forward to literally color our behavior.

Furthermore, this discussion should make it clear that what we say and do as parents, as teachers, and as a society has to be scrubbed of these prejudicial words and behaviors least we contaminate our children and perpetuate false biases for yet more generations.

To read more see:





Play In More Places

Photo: KABOOM!

Recently, KABOOM! launched a brilliant campaign to address the COVID-19 impact on children. The program is called At-Home Playground Kits. Here’s what they say about the kits.

Each kit includes items such as sidewalk chalk, pipe cleaners, crayons, coloring pages, origami play activities, and play prompts. The kits aim to promote physical activity while stimulating creativity. Our first deployment of these kits occurred on May 14, 2020, to families with kids attending public schools in Baltimore.

The At-Home concept is so inspiring, and I will be talking with my Rotary Club to do the same here in my hometown of Healdsburg.

We should not be surprised that KABOOM! should come up with this idea. Even though they are renowned for building play structures in neighborhoods that are play deserts, they are also very much involved with the notion of Play Everywhere. Here’s a quote from their highly informative and practical PlayBook.

Just as play benefits kids and communities in multiple ways, Play Everywhere has the potential to impact people’s lives and entire communities. When approached intentionally—analytically, deliberately, and holistically, with an understanding of the larger patterns, needs and challenges within a community—Play Everywhere can intersect with and support other community priorities, and help solve other community problems.

Reading through this empowering document got me thinking. The KABOOM! approach in this is mainly about urban placemaking. I got to wondering where else do children spend time that could use the same approach, i.e., providing practical advice and tools that are based on a deep understanding of child development? Almost anywhere, kids congregate, from after school programs to childcare, can benefit from better play experiences. What if a PlayKit is available to support Play Everywhere?

What would a PlayKit contain? Is there a model for that as well? Perhaps it can be like giant Legos with the same infinite creative potential. What are the design and performance criteria for a child configurable active play system?

  • Children must be able to construct and reconfigure the play experience without tools easily.
  • The elements of the system must be modular so that their constructions can vary in size and complexity to suit the needs of children from tots to teens.
  • The weight of the elements must be manageable by children. And conversely, the constructions they make must be able to support the weight of children.
  • Ideally, the elements should store easily, fit into a standard sedan, or at least, a pickup or van so that they can be placed where the kids are.
  • The system must meet applicable safety standards, including those for playground equipment and toys.
  • The system should be as affordable as possible.

Such a system is possible, and I’ve got some ideas about how to create such a kit. More to follow soon.


The Right to Risk – A Manifesto

AnjiPlay 2
Image courtesy of True Play Foundation

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted and ratified by The United Nations General Assembly on 2 September 1990. This declaration extended other previsions protections, including the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 and in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November 1959.

The article that most directly addresses the child’s right to play reads:

Article 31

  1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational, and leisure activity.

Unfortunately, the language of this declaration is overly broad and less than actionable. It would help to see the relationship between human rights and needs. Des Gasper* writes:

The ideas of human rights and basic human needs are closely connected. Human rights – rights that apply for every person because they are a human right – can be seen as rights to the fulfillment of or ability to fulfill basic human needs.

He goes on to say:

The concept of human rights forms, in turn, an essential partner to the discourse of basic needs. It provides an insistence on the value of each person and a strong language of prioritization. These focus our attention and energies: ‘in adverse environments, the primary meaning of human rights is to make people aware of what is basically wrong’ (Goldewijk & Fortman 1999: 117). And when widely acknowledged as norms or legally recognized as instruments, rights form a major set of tools, legitimate claims, in the political struggles for the fulfillment of needs. 

In the 60 years since the UN Declaration of the child’s right to play, great strides have been made in understanding at a very granular level, the biological basis of play. It can now be stated without equivocation that at a biologically level, that play arises when the child takes voluntary action. Without the freedom to move, to explore, to change their environment, and to find challenge, there is no play.

While this statement would seem to be so true as to be without rebuttal, from the standpoint of actualizing this biologically driven requirement of child initiation of play, in reality, it is far from ideal. When we look at what society does by way of provisioning for play, it is clear that the child’s right to what Ms. Cheng Xueqin at AnjiPlay has rightly designated as “True Play.”

Consider these trends:

  • Automobiles and concomitant city planning, and irrational fears of kidnapping have restricted the freedom of movement of children from miles to just a few feet away from home.
  • Today’s playgrounds are designed to reduce challenge to the lowest denominator and eliminate the possibility of children making any changes in the play space.
  • Schools emphasize desktop learning even though the current science of brain development shows that children learn best when they are allowed to move.
  • Touching other children, let alone rough and tumble play, is disapproved if not explicitly outlawed.

Need we go on?

The bottom line is simply this. We give lip service to the notion that children have a right to play when, in fact, the majority of our norms, institutions, environments, and lifestyles actively suppress True Play.

*   The Essentials of Human Rights eds. R. Smith & C. van den Anker, 2005, London: Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 269-272.




Pandemic Preschools

A child in a medical mask during a coronavirus pandemic

Photo www.vperemen.com

I’ve just finished reading a great article in the NY Times by Donald G. McNeil Jr. The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead. This is by far the best science-based assessment I’ve run across as I sit scouring the internet for facts. While many people are similarly obsessed, their motivations are generally about their exposure and that of their loved ones. Because of my age, I should be equally concerned but, because I’ve accomplished most of my goals, I am at peace with my mortality. What drives my search is what will be the impact on children, especially those of preschool age.

The good news is children seem to be the least susceptible to the illness both in terms of symptoms and death. ALthough there are some troubling new symptoms. While their health is not a huge concern, how we care for and educate them is one of the most challenging problems we have yet to address. Fortunately, there are pilot programs now being run for the children of front-line workers that will give us insights on how we can manage such programs. The initial indications are that this is not an insurmountable problem. Longer-term management is far less clear.

The most immediate issue will be staffing. Since children can be carriers for infection, sooner or later, the staff of preschools are likey to come down with the coronavirus ether through contact with children or when they are out in the community. Most will recover, some will not. This will result in two trends, a shortage of teachers and a demand for higher pay. It will take some time before we realize that all front-line workers have been undervalued and for the society to begin to recognize that teachers ARE front-line works who are grossly underpaid.

In our capitalistic society, the economics of preschool has always been skewed because it was established when childcare was “women’s work” and, therefore, not the responsibility of the father as the breadwinners. Thus, we expect families, rather than society, as we do for older children, to pay for preschools. This economic stress has a regressive impact on families who are, for the most part, at the start of their income-generating opportunities. This is exacerbated these days by the heavy burden many families carry for their college education. It is possible but extremely unlikely that our society will suddenly make both preschools and college free for all. That means that in the gradual reopening of the economy, these perverse economics, together with the adjustments made to a new post-pandemic paradigm, families will increasingly find that preschools are no longer affordable. Many couples, and their employers, will conclude that working from home and watching their children is the sensible thing to do.

While this could be a trend that lasts for only a few years, when one looks at the history of post-pandemic societal changes, they tend to have very long-term impacts. Taken together with the rapid acceleration in technology and the nature of modern work, we can expect home childcare to become the norm. What do these trends mean for children?

When it comes to sit-down education, they will be just fine. There is an unlimited supply of educational materials and online content that is more than adequate to provide a solid basis for academic learning. We can also expect that parents will have to adopt a more play-based form of learning if, for no other reason, than it is far less time-consuming. So, is there a downside for kids?

There sure as heck is a downside when it comes to physical activity and development. How many homes have the sort of environment that provides the full spectrum of physical development? For that matter, how many playgrounds do? That is, if kids are allowed to go there, and parents have the time to supervise them for a couple of hours a day. Play in the neighborhood? Forget about it.

Through my research on the recent in developmental neurological science, I have been able to identify the play patterns that stimulate development in specific areas of the brain. A few of the most important include vestibular, proprioception, executive function, and somatosensory. These are difficult, if not impossible, skills to acquire indoors. If kids could go outside and be in a complex natural environment, the lack of stimulation would not be as acute as children have a knack of finding what they need if left to their devices. Yeah, like that’s going to happen soon and at scale, NOT.

The result of this inevitable scenario is that many more wooden playsets and plastic mini houses with slides will be bought. As anyone who purchased such gear will tell you,  these setups were unsatisfying to their kids and regrettable. What is the path forward?

What is needed, and needed right now, is a line of inexpensive apparatus that provides diverse challenges that the children can reconfigure by themselves as their skills improve. Impossible? No! Difficult? Yes. Creating such a system is the mission of Constructive Play Design.

Watch this space.

See How They Learn

Walking Barrel

Photo –Suzanne Axelsson

I have been creating play systems for five decades. During that time, my greatest joy has come from literally watching brains grow. Increasingly I have moved away for providing fixed elements in favor of provisioning spaces that allow children to create their own play.

I have been following Ms. Cheng Xueqin from her first visit here in the States, where she introduced us to her work at AnjiPlay. While many others, such as Lady Allen, Carl Sørensen, María Montessori, and others have made significant contributions to the notion of kid powered learning, no one has been more resourceful, innovative, or a better proponent of the concept.

While the environments she and her team, including the hugely talented Cas Holman, have created are to my mind astounding, the effort placed on teacher training and pedagogy is equally essential and innovative. Her insights are both simple and profound. Here is a graphic example.

The picture above would give most early childhood teachers a heart attack. But if you look closely, you will see that the children have the situation superbly under control. Not only are they safe, but they are learning deeply and profoundly. It helps us understand this better if we deconstruct what we are seeing.

Note the pieces of wood in the barrel on which the boy in the black shirt is balanced. Why is it there, and how did it come to be placed there?  The simple story is that the wood provides ballast to the barrel, so it is much more stable than it would be otherwise. The children likely learned this piece of engineering by trying to move a barrel while another child was inside. This learning took place probably a while they were younger and exploring in a less challenging way.

Both the balancing boy and his playmate clearly know that this is an experiment that might fail, so they grasp hands. Both understand that this is only for added stability and not to catch the acrobatic partner. This assumption is supported by the fact that the spotter child is not in a position to make a catch, and they are both relaxed in the knowledge that the balancing child is skilled in making a safe landing. They also know that this game is not about rolling the barrel but rather on jumping off as the raised foot in anticipation clearly shows.  The final piece of evidence that these kids know how to take on a challenge safely is that both are aware that the amount of wood ballast is more than sufficient to provide the inertia needed to counter the force of the push off by the jumper.

All of this action is taking place in a matter of seconds. Here in the States, most preschool teachers would intervene and correct this learning moment as hazardous. During the many teacher programs at AnjiPlay attended by people from all over the world, participants are not only given background information about how such challenging play is essential to the development of competent children, but they also have the opportunity to see it in action. Seeing is believing.

While there are some colleges here that provide aspects of this approach, many do not. As we move more towards what Ms. Cheng calls “true play,” we will need to find ways and practical examples to help teachers who have not been given the education nor the direct experience with this type of programming.

I am currently working on a book called Kid Powered Learning that will be a workbook for teacher development to address this issue. My hope is to have it print later this year.

Here is the link to Suzanne Axelsson’s blog Interaction Imagination. This is one you should follow if you are a teacher, parent or play advocate. https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/play-with-uncertain-outcomes-aka-risky-play


Playing With POOP


While I continue to expound on my theory of play patterns and triggers, I’ve begun to look at how to use the approach to help children develop “school skills.”

I’m sure that it will come as no surprise that since I am a champion of following the lead of the child and trusting their natural proclivity of learning through play, that I look askance at the wrote education that is all too prevalent.

Following that path, I began to look at those books and lesson plans that pair a letter with an image and a word. The child in me found those exercises repellent, and I can honestly say I have never used them in the classroom or with the children in my life. So, what is a better way?

For me, one of the talismans of learning in early childhood is laughter. While I have not seen a study that directly supports this contention, it is the logical extrapolation from the neuroscience. Thus, I always perk up when I see kids laughing. When it comes to using words, there are two types that do this, nonsense words like those used in Dr. Seuss and scatological words like poop.

Most parents tolerate the occasional bathroom humor from their kids but begin to draw the line when these are repeated incessantly much to their consternation.  I suspect this tendency to wear out the joke is one reason that teachers askew their use by children in the classroom and the loss of control that can subsequently result. But I wonder if we can’t try a few experiments to see if these can be used educationally. But why bother?

One of the things that psychology teaches us is that words with heavy emotional impact tend to be written indelibly on the brain. This suggests that a book or game that has an element that states P is for Poop will be more effective in teaching letter and sound association than P is for Puppy.

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 9.05.09 AM

I think it’s important that the whole lesson or book is not made up of these no-no words and that they only come up as surprises. Some of the words that I find that kids think are hilarious include the following:

  • A is for Ass
  • B is for Bugger
  • F is for Fart
  • S is for Stinky
  • And of course, P is for Poop.

Can you think of a few others?

I wonder if I can modify a set of standard blocks that have a letter on one side a word on the side and a picture on the bottom. Then I can add a few of the “naughty” blocks to make block play a whole lot better.

Can you think of other letter lessons we could “improve”?

The Power of Intrinsic Play

close-up of ant Cataglyphis velox/Formicidae

As a child, I was fascinated by ants. I loved watching march across the sidewalk in perfect lines. I took note of the fact that each ant would often greet another as they passed and wondered what they said to each other. Watering the garden would sometimes cause them to swarm out carrying their pupae, and I felt responsible. When we move to a new house further south, we had different ants. Instead of little black ones that seemed to like grease, these were many times larger and brown. They built significant mounts and harvested seeds. They didn’t form liens either but traveled as hunters. Other kids knew a lot about dinosaurs, but I came to know about the fantastic diversity of the ant world from mushroom farmers to armies.

Now as try to tease out the workings of the developing brain, I look back on my ants with newfound wonder. All of that complex behavior is controlled by a minuscule bit of neurons a fraction of the size of the period at the end of this sentence. I recalled, that some of the ant behaviors were only on display when there was a large nest or in certain environmental conditions arose. This observation allowed me to visualize what is sometimes referred to as a “hive mind.” This turns out to be a phenomenon common to bees, schooling fish and birds, and many other creatures.

The wonderful book by Gordon M. Burghardt, The Genesis of Animal Play, explores the role of play across the animal kingdom. In it, he looks backward phylogenetically to see how far back play behavior emerges. It turns out VERY ancient species, such as fish, can be shown to play.

I’ve written previously about the discoveries that have been made using fMRI imagining. This work supports what we have known through earlier studies; that is, that the brain is structured such that its base has functional areas that are similar to animals like fish. On top of this base are ever more complex structures that support such behaviors as our ability to talk.

I won’t go into all of the brain physiology. I bring this up to just note that the microdot of a brain that an ant has was sufficient to allow them to be fully functional. It is also noteworthy that the simple brain of a fish is complex enough to support play behavior. From this, it is easy to understand that the human embryo grows a process of development that replicates this path from insects through fish and to humans.

Splish-Splash-Baby-Bath-Time-resMost of us who took biology or psychology got an introduction to the idea that physiology replicates phylogeny. As one would suspect, this Biogenetic Law, formulated in the 1800s, has been shown to inadequate to explain the complexities of development. Still, for those of us who advocate for play, it holds a profound truth. We should not be trying to bring forth the next Einstein. Instead, we should be providing an environment where fish can play.

Ok, that may seem like an absurd statement. But put a baby in a tub of water, and what do you get?  More to the point. From the ant to the human, many, if not most, behaviors are triggered by features in the environment. This means that play evolves in each child from very primitive behaviors to those that are increasingly complex and refined through repeated interaction with the environment and that this development is intrinsically driven.  The corollary to this hypothesis is that environmental features that do not trigger the player are ignored as inappropriate or having already been learned. For teachers this means very simply, follow the lead of the child. It also means that the role of the teacher is to monitor and refine the environment to provide appropriate quantity and quality of play triggers.