The Neuroscience of Preschool Play

TakomaOver the past two decades, the advent of fMRI brain imagining has transformed what we know about how children learn. The ability to look inside the living brain and see how it reacts to various stimuli has provided us with a vastly clearer understanding.

One of the most important findings is that children’s brains dramatically respond to play. We also understand that movement is extremely important as well. Finally, it is clear that much, if not all, of the learning in early childhood is intrinsically motivated.

Most of these scientific findings only reinforce what we already knew. Kids love to swing, slide, and spin around. The real benefit of the research has been that we can now draw a bright line between specific play behaviors and mature capabilities that are essential to optimum development. For example, spinning helps children become good readers in several ways, from being able to sit at their desks to be able to have their eyes track written words.

We are now able to establish a fairly comprehensive inventory of the many stimuli that the brain responds to. I refer to these as “triggers” in that when children encounter these environmental features, they will react in very predictable ways. Hang a rope from a tree, and kids will swing on it. Come across a fallen tree, and children will climb and balance on it. Since these behaviors are so universal, spaces are generally filled with apparatus that elicit these recognized behaviors. Great! This means that science reinforces common practice. Or does it?

Unfortunately, the reality is that today’s early childhood playspaces have been so sterilized by supposed safety regulations, impoverished by inadequate funding, and pushed aside by the rush for academic learning, that they have become more like penal colonies than the Garden of Edan. Despite these trends, there are many ways we can turn this trend around. How?

We can start by using current science to redirect the priorities. Here’s an example. If you simply enacted the rule that no more paper or plastic would be allowed on the school premises, your program would revert to the environment in which children’s learning has taken place for millennia.  This is not as outlandish a proposal as it seems. After all, once kids begin to grow up, their world will be dominated by paper and plastic so that they won’t miss a thing.

OK, I know you’re not willing to “go native” just yet. So, let’s look at what we can do to ensure that as many play triggers as possible are present in your playspace.

Let’s start a quick assessment. Here’s the checklist:

  1. Slide
  2. Swing
  3. Complex climbing
  4. Balance
  5. Spinning
  6. Jumping
  7. Construction
  8. Pretend
  9. Enclosure
  10. Hill
  11. Dirt
  12. Water

Most preschools will have four of these. A few will have six. Less than 1% will have all twelve.

Almost all schools have slides, and these have very little developmental value after the age of four. Yet, they predominate both space and budget since they typically are the main attraction on a “play structure” of dubious value. We can fix this by rejecting, i.e., removing these monstrosities. At the end of this article, we will let you know how to provide sliding at very little cost or space.

Ah, the swings! Since the safety standards require ginormous space for swings, they have all but disappeared from preschool play spaces. We can bring this activity back.

What, you may ask, do I mean by complex climbing? Almost every piece of play apparatus that we refer to as a climber is actually a set of stairs. Now, if you are a toddler, stairs are a real challenge, and negotiating them is a big deal. If you are three, such climbers are developmentally useless. We can introduce complex climbing economically and safely.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? I’ll bet that few of you will have balance, spinning, and jumping opportunities, and yet the science shows that these are hugely important for maximizing development. As for the last six environmental features, most preschools will have at least two, and many will have four.

Yes, I could go on to give you specific design solutions for providing all twelve features, but that is not the best way to transform playspaces. Instead, we need to change how we see our role as teachers. For far too long, we have seen the playspace where we provide is based on our training, which is shown in catalogs or required by education code. We need to turn this paradigm upside down.

But wait, you say, I have to follow the rules. Well, not exactly. You see, there are great examples of preschools that create kid paradises and don’t run afoul of licensing. At least not too often. Let’s look at some cases.

Check out the Facebook page for Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School.   Not only is this an extraordinary program, but they are so generous with sharing images of the children in action.

Another superb example is Teacher Tom’s Facebook page. Not only is the playspace at Woodland Park Cooperative exemplary, but Tom Hobson is a philosopher with a deep understanding of the impact of early childhood on society in general.

anji yard2Finally, last and by no means least, there is AnjiPlay in China. While not being encumbered by dysfunctional regulations is an advantage, there is nothing hazardous about what they do, even though the pictures may give you pause. Indeed, they are now beginning to allow their apparatus to be bought for use in the USA; all be it in a somewhat sanitized package.  The core philosophy as established by the founder, Ms. Chen Xueqin of Love, Risk, Joy, Engagement, and Reflection is profound and universal.

What quality do these three programs all share?

First, these schools put control in the hands of children. Rather than act as “educators” they are facilitators. They respond to children as an improvisational actor with Yes! … And?

Second, the environment is comprised mainly of loose parts. The genius of this is multi-dimensional, but for this discussion, it solves the problems as mentioned above of providing the needed play triggers while not running afoul of the system. You see, if the kids take a wooden board and put it on a box as a ramp or a slide, it doesn’t have to comply with the ASTM standards. If children learn to roll a barrel, it doesn’t have to meet engineering requirements. If kids put a piece of fabric on a tree limb and swing on, it doesn’t have to have six feet of landing zone around it.

And finally, you will be amazed at how little the schools depend on plastic and paper. Sure, there are some, but it plays a minimal role in their programs.

Think about it. You can do this. The transition will be more about the changes in you than anywhere else.  Take little steps, and the children’s response will show you that it works. Build on this, and you, too, will be providing what Ms. Chen calls “true play.”



Sense and Sense Ability


If you ask someone to name the senses, it will not take them long to list hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting. Remembering the tactile sense might take a bit longer.  These are the classic definition of the senses. In the literature on child development, as a group, they are referred to as the “exteroception” senses since they inform us of the world around us. NOTE: The categorization of the senses is evolving and still in flux.

Over the past couple of decades, due mainly to the emerging field of sensory integration, early childhood development has paid increasing attention to the body’s internal senses. In particular, the senses of proprioception and vestibular system. Proprioception is the muscle and joint sense. It allows you, for example, to know where your hand is when you can’t see it. In my work as a play systems designer, I create environments with lots of complex climbing challenges to help develop this system.

The vestibular system includes the organs of the inner ear and their connections to the eyes and is responsible for balance and eye-tracking. On the playground, we add balance beams, slack ropes, and spinners for children to use.

The vestibular and proprioceptive senses are sometimes included in exteroception or as part of the “interoception” system. The primary use of the term interoception is for the sense of our organs.  Hunger, breath, heart rate, pain, and elimination are all part of this sense.

The organ-sensing aspect of interoception is different from all other senses in its subtlety. We often have to ask children, “How do you feel?” to draw their attention to their internal conditions. This lack of discernment on the part of children is actually one of parent’s biggest challenges. Let’s look at an example in detail.

bonoboParents often have trouble with fussy children. They generally see this as indicative of an internal need and offer water and food. When these options fail, they will conclude that their child needs a nap, but getting this to happen can be a challenge. The recommended method for getting a child to calm down is rocking, which stimulates the vestibular system and, when done slowly, is often sufficient. Using a pacifier, what a great name, and swaddling, both of which stimulate the tactile system, are also great aids. When none of these are effective, the last resort is to rock the baby while standing up. Why would this approach be practical?

The new information coming out from neuroscience, especially with the advent of fMRI technology, as well as studies in evolutionary biology are adding tremendous new insights on child development. When it comes to the efficacy of standing and rocking, it turns out that infant primates have a build-in response to being carried that causes them to become still. The reason for this is that the mother needs to be able to move about, and more importantly, flee if needed, and their infant must be inactive for safety. We see the same in other animals. For example, you can move a unrulily cat by picking them up by the scruff of their neck for the same reason.

Young primates cling to their mothers a great deal of the time. This close bond leads to some amazing interactions. For example, it is not uncommon to see a mother hold her child away when they need to eliminate. This behavior is not only true of monkeys and apes but also humans in hunter-gatherer societies. This intimate bond that allows the mother to sense the child’s interoception state is normal. What is not normal is the general lack of this maternal connection in modern society. It is no wonder that parents have a challenge when it comes to potty training as they have not had the chance to set their child down on the potty just at the right moment, so the child makes the natural association.

I have dedicated my career to providing environments that support the development of the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.  It is now time to look at the organs of the interoceptive system.

Watch this space for more soon.

Here’s a great overview of the 8 Senses

Kid’s Culture Trap


I’ve recently had the opportunity to do some observations of preschoolers at play. The program serves children predominantly from Latino families. In particular, I watched six girls as they sat around a table with various toys. As I have been reviewing my recollections and impressions, I suddenly came bolt upright and exclaimed, “They are becoming their mothers!” You may think that’s not a shocking insight, but let’s look at that observation in more detail.

Not long ago, I was on the site council for our junior high school for three years, and we struggled with the low performance of our Latino students who make up a large percentage of our school population. I learned that the problem was a combination of many things, such as language challenges and economic issues.

One area where we saw success was addressing the dropout rate for girls. It seems that as these children began to become young ladies, their attention was diverted away from learning to social interactions and acceptance. Many of these girls turned that pattern around when they became engaged with sports. The biggest successes came when each student was paired with another girl who was already successful in sports.

It seems evident that different cultures value education in different ways, and this bias can be seen in patterns of academic achievement. Cultural disparity is apparent not just in middle school but in elementary as well. My epiphany was that, if we want to allow every child to reach their full potential, we need to address the issue of cultural bias in preschool where a child’s fundamental personality is primarily developed.

So, back to my onsite observations. What I was watching was very sweet. The girls were all chatting away in Spanish. The group was inclusive, allowing other girls to join in. They spent the whole outdoor play period in this activity, which I saw repeated often over subsequent visits. It was easy to envision them doing the very same activity for many decades to come. They are becoming their mothers. What’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong is that any one of these children, who come from low economic circumstances, could become a doctor, artist, philosopher. However, the high likelihood is that they will marry young, raise children, and have a minimum wage job, if and when they find employment. What I find disturbing in these children is the passivity, the lack of curiosity and exploration. While such children are a comfort to their parents and a joy to have in the classroom, they do not display the take-no-prisoners attitude that I associate with a child who is truly thriving.

As I have been mulling over these impressions, I began to reflect on how different the Latino children I observed and those I see in other programs such as Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School, or AnjiPlay where the children are full of energy and inventiveness. What makes for this dramatic difference? These programs and others like them, focus on promoting free play. They nurture this independent spirit as a freezing man nurtures their campfire.

This line of thought has made me aware that the core change has to be with the school staff and environment. Teachers must become alarmed when their children are docile and obedient, quietly going about their assignments. Red flags should be popping up when we see children coming what their culture expects instead of who they truly are.

Throwing Shade on Play – Part Two

kids in desert

Here is our reader’s response to Throwing Shade on Play – Part One

Hi Jay,

Thanks for sending me the draft of the blog post. I appreciate your points on mitigating sun exposure with sunscreen and protective clothing, and I agree these can help.

However, a primary issue I have with a lack of shade at playgrounds is the direct sun causes little kids (and caregivers) to face heat exhaustion, which then limits play. In an ideal day, I would be able to take my child and play outdoors for 2-4hrs/day. But even when dressed with hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, spf rated clothing, and armed with plenty of water, we both end up weary within an hour of being at the park. Not to mention sometimes the equipment becomes too hot for kids to touch.

Sure, play can be achieved inside in an air-conditioned house or indoor playgym. But these are usually much smaller and limit how much kids can run around, climb and get the sensory feedback of interacting with nature.

I see shade as promoting the following:

  • protecting kids and caregivers from UV and sunburns
  • letting kids play longer outside and interact with nature
  • keeping the equipment from being too hot to play on
  • prolonging the life of the equipment by protecting it from the elements
  • attracting more people to parks by providing a cool space to gather

I sympathize that following building codes are challenging and expensive, I used to work in construction for the federal government. Adding a standard describing how much direct sun is acceptable during the peak sun hours may be helpful, but it could sound like extra overhead to a parks department or builder.

Would it be possible to incentivize the inclusion of shade structures somehow? Longer warranties on play equipment that is protected from the elements? Matching funds for playgrounds that have shade from health departments or local hospitals?

It’s definitely a challenging issue to build cities with shade, even outside of playgrounds. 99% Invisible did a great show on why shade is so hard to find in the city of LA which you might find interesting:

Thanks for the discussion,



Nisha raises many valid points. Let’s look for some solutions.

The first and most obvious idea is simple – TREES. Trees not only provide shade, but they also drop the ambient environmental temperate by 10 to 20 degrees. They even are able to drop their leaves in the winter when we want sun exposure. Chosen carefully they are adapted to the local climate. And let’s not forget that they can offer climbing opportunities and many other play benefits.

For too long, have maintenance departments, risk managers, and attorneys ruled playground design and facilities. I suppose we can blame the parents of injured children for bringing the lawsuits that resulted in the sterilization of play spaces. Rather, I contend that it is a lack of universal health care that forced families to seek a way to pay for injuries, and that fight continues to this day. All I’ll say on the matter is that voting matters.

I can attest to the value of trees on playgrounds from experience at Magical Bridge Playground, where the founders, Olenka Villarreal and Jill Asher, insisted on bringing in mature oaks at great expense. I can attest to the fact that these additions addressed the comfort issues that Nisha raises.

Magical Bridge Foundation

The problem with trees is, of course, that the ASTM playground safety standards require ridiculous amounts of fall zones around equipment. Of course, we could use trees as integrated structural elements. Oh, wait. We can’t do that because those pesky standards mandate engineering standards that can’t be realistically achieved with trees. Never mind that treehouses have been part of children’s play from forever.

In a recent post on this blog, Barefoot Playgrounds, I discussed the issue of shade. California Education Code now requires shade on playgrounds. Unfortunately, these have not made a significant improvement as both the placement and size requirements are insufficient to the need.

wt_large shade

I hope that I can work with a client in the near future to use a shade system that is common in nurseries that is inexpensive. Using shade cloth that allows the wind to flow through reduces the structural requirements quite a bit. I’d also like to install a misting system to reduce the temperature as well. The only downside of this is one of aesthetics as these are anything but attractive.

This discussion has brought up many valid concerns that will become increasingly important as we continue to adapt to climate change. Even in this belief overview, we can see that there are interesting possibilities that we can explore. That may require some changes in code, standards, and maintenance requirements, but these are things that can be changed when we begin to adopt the idea of creating play ecosystems.

Please, join the conversation and add your ideas and concerns here. Visit us at Constructive Play Design.


Death by Plastic

bag plastic

Photo Saverio Truglia

I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Yes, sir.

Are you listening?

Yes, I am.


Exactly how do you mean?

There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

This was 1972 in the movie The Graduate, and already plastic had come to become a major force in American society. Today, it has become increasingly clear that plastic is becoming a threat to the oceans, soil, and planet.

It turns out that children are one of the biggest, if not the biggest, consumers of plastic. They are literally cocooned in plastic almost from the moment of birth. That pretty pink blanket is likely made with synthetic fabric that washes thousands of micro-plastics into the waters with every wash. The teething ring? Sippy cup? Car seat? Toys and their packaging? All plastic.

The preschool environments are as bad or worse. Check out the catalogs from the two major school supply houses, Discount School Supply and Lakeshore, and the only pages without plastic are the ones with books. How about the playground? Today the most popular equipment is made of plastic.

OK, plastic is cheap, can be easily sanitized, and is durable. Great. But from the child’s perspective, it is all the same experience. Plastic robs children of the complex sensor experience of natural materials. Even metal has more going for it on a physical level. At least it varies temperature with the weather. And, yes, there are some things that plastic does better than other materials do only with great difficulty. So, we are not advocating for no plastic, just less.

It turns out that the real problem isn’t so much that plastic is a pernicious solid waste. The problem is that it is made of petroleum. Oil is only cheap when you don’t factor in the environmental costs, which we are now coming to understand are unbelievably huge. There is a better way.


It has long been known that very good plastics can be made from alternative materials and that such plastics biodegrade in reasonable time frames and cause negligible damage to the environment or to children’s health. This is the future. For example, Lego is in the process of converting all its products and packaging to sustainable materials. They are even considering hemp-based bricks. Other materials such as bamboo, mushroom millicium, algae, and organic cotton are already becoming viable alternatives.

The big oil companies can be expected to fight the loss of their market tooth and nail. It is our responsibility to our children and the planet to stop buying products that are primarily petroleum-based plastic.

Visit Constructive Play Design at

Throwing Shade on Play – Part One


We know that kids need to get outside more. The last thing we need is for parents to be concerned about UV exposure and cancer. Here’s a comment I recently received:

“I have been doing research into playground design since I now spend a lot of my time there with my 2-year-old daughter. One thing I have been confused about is why, so few playgrounds have shade built in – either through trees or shade structures or the equipment itself. I live in Santa Monica, CA, and it’s rare to find a park with shade even though its sunny most of the year here. I emailed the city parks & rec department, and they said it’s in the plan, but they don’t know when it will be added. But to be fair, I think a lack of shade is common for playgrounds in many cities. I know your specialty is playground design, but I was curious if you have any thoughts on why shade isn’t built from the start in many playgrounds. Is it just cost? Are there any efforts you’ve seen that are successful in getting shade added – perhaps grants or partnerships?”

As is the case with many concerns about safety, the predictable response to this is likely to be ineffectual and counterproductive. Here’s why.

Yes, shade is often not part of playgrounds because it is expensive. The primary driver of the high cost is the wind load requirements that mandate engineering that ensures structural integrity for winds of 100 mph or more. As the size of the area covered goes up, the structural requirements increase as the square. This means such strictures tend to barely cover the play structure.  This small coverage means that such shade is only useful when the sun is directly overhead, and when children are on the structure itself. These factors mean that this expensive “solution” may provide only a few minutes of protection per child. So, what’s a parent to do?

The first step in any risk management program is to access the exposure. That starts with genetics. Fair-skinned people have a much higher risk of skin cancer than those with darker complexions. A family history of skin cancer is another red flag. For the ultimate information, DNA tests can spot children most at risk.

Of course, there is always sunblock, but there are limitations on how effective this can be since we generally don’t apply enough or as frequently as we should. Lotions above SPF 30 provide very little added protection. As with so many issues in child-rearing, there is no silver bullet solution.

By no means do I want to be seen as belittling the concern or suggesting not to take the issue seriously. While world-wide activism has fixed the hole in the ozone layer, climate change is making sun exposure an increasing concern primarily due to hotter days. Until we fix this problem, we will have to adapt.

The first step is to add a wide brim hat to children’s play apparel. This is a good choice for all children as the face, neck, and ears are the most often exposed and hence to the most frequent site for adult cancer.  For sensitive children or longer exposures, parents should consider sun suits that are designed for snorkeling.

As I have been researching the apparel option, I have been unable to find a line of UV protective children’s clothing that is made with sustainable fabrics such as bamboo, hemp, and organic cotton. This lack of climate-adapted clothing presents a real business opportunity as it will not be too long before there is a huge switch away from synthetic fabrics, which produce thousands of micro-plastic particles with every washing.

This notion of dressing children appropriately for the emerging weather conditions may seem a bit kooky, but I can assure you it will happen sooner than later. As with other adaptation, we have to make, taking positive action is a step in the right direction.

Childhood exposure to ultraviolet radiation and harmful skin effects: Epidemiological evidence.

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The Resilient Child


For the past six months, I have been making a study of what has been called “eco-anxiety.” As the science and consequences of environmental degradation becoming increasingly known by the population as a whole, and to youth specifically, the mental and physical health impacts are mounting and widespread.

My first impulse has been to see what can be done to address this trend. I investigated establishing an education center here in Sonoma County, something along the lines of the Exploratorium in S.F., that would display and allow children to explore concrete actions to address climate change. After several months interviewing the various stakeholders, it became clear that, while the idea was valued, there was little to no appetite for adding such a project to anyone’s agenda.

As this effort was winding down, I came across the work of Dr. Harris and her book, The Deepest Well, which sets forth the impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on children and their future health. It became clear to me that eco-anxiety is rapidly become a new ACE to add to the ten already identified. One of the main ways that ACEs can be mitigated is through counseling. Given the number of children impacted by climate change with over 70% believing that this is a crisis that will have a significant impact on their lives, it became clear that there will be a huge need for counseling in the near future. As I explored such a project, I came across a group within the American Psychological Association that is looking at this issue. After several discussions, it became clear that these folks know what the problems are and are also actively creating programs to address the need.

While the issue of eco-anxiety remains a concern for me, it is also clear then some people are much better positioned to address the problem than am I. My sweet spot is play in early childhood, and my action plan is to write a book on play patterns and their triggers. To that end, I have completed the first draft and submitted my proposal to NAEYC to further develop the manuscript for publication.

As I have been pursuing this endeavor, I recalled that Dr. Harris mentioned that not all children who have ACEs have the dire mental and physical outcomes that are so often the outcome of such exposure. Why?

It is reasonable to assume that children who turn out fine despite experiences that will traumatize others have a quality that can be summed up with the word “resilient.” While that are many experiences that help a child be more resilient, I thought it would be helpful to identify the characteristics that I think of when I consider the term. I’ve organized these into a chart.

Resilent Child Chart

I based this idea on what I have observed that children learn through self-initiated play. It is easy to see that that free play builds the mind, the body, and the spirit. Then I looked at each of these domains and identified the skills that play promotes.

I rather like how this turned out, but I don’t pretend that this graphic has scientific validity, or indeed, captures all of the traits that help a child be more resilient. I will maintain, however, that the thrust of this diagram is essentially correct. I also feel that its simplicity goes a long way to illustrate the primary benefits of play-based environments and programming.

I am interested in hearing your thoughts about this approach.




Sliding Into Danger

kid on slide

In our previous blog, we discussed the complexities of jumping in puddles and that the powerful trigger of water is often sufficient to overcome parent’s concerns about safety and mess. Mud puddles present a lot less of a hazard that going down a slide, and yet parents freely indulge their children in this sort of play as well. Slide play is exciting because, unlike puddle jumping that children approach gleefully, going down a slide, at least initially, is approached with some trepidation.  Let’s review what we see.

The child will make a visual assessment from afar and then move up for a closer look. Soon they will approach and sit at the entrance. Depending on the confidence level of the child, this preparatory stage can take several minutes. What is happening is that the child is doing two mental tasks. They are shifting their metal processes from the “thinking” part of their brain, the cortex, to their “movement” part of their brain, the cerebellum.  Once this change of focus has occurred, much like an Olympic athlete at the top of a ski run, they begin to visualize how they will move as they descend the slide. The sliding part is relatively easy, and they will soon learn to control their descent with hands and feet against the side rails. The crux of sliding is the landing and dismount, which is the most challenging part of sliding. What this means is that adults need to position themselves at the bottom of the slide rather than the top. The child will go down when they are ready but will need assistance initially with dismounting.

In addition to rehearsing these motoric challenges, children learn about gravity. There are two perceptual modalities involved. The acceleration down the slide stimulates the vestibular system in the inner ear that informs the mind about the body in motion. The act of sliding itself promotes the proprioceptive system that tells the child what their body is doing.

AnjiPlay 2

Note that jumping from a height is very similar in most respects to sliding, but the proprioceptive focus is primarily on absorbing the impact of the landing. From 6-ft or less, this involves just absorbing the shock by bending their legs. Above 6-ft, they learn to land and roll so that their inertia is dissipated over a longer period.

It is interesting to note that we are very comfortable adding slides to children’s play settings yet reluctant to offer jumping from elevated surfaces. To some extent, this makes sense for young children as they are unlikely to take a precipitous fall from a well-designed slide. Logically we should see jumping stations on play settings for older children, but these are as rare as hen’s teeth. I maintain that if a child can run with one foot in front of the other, as opposed to rapid toddling, they have sufficient motor skills to jump. The earlier a child learns to jump from a height, the sooner they will develop strong self-confidence.

A play pattern and its trigger are generally very specific. In the case of sliding, it is an inclined plane. Jumping is triggered by a high place and a clear landing area.  It is essential to understand that play pattern specificity recruits a whole-body response. Here’s a simple visualization to get a sense of this. When I leave my home to go to the store, I have to cross a river. As I drive along parallel to its flow, I make a left turn to cross, and when I see the bridge, I need to slow down, turn on my turn signal, and steer my car into the narrow entrance to the bridge. Thus, the bridge is the trigger for the turning pattern. Still, during this whole maneuver, I am doing many more things, such as observing bike traffic and pedestrians, maintaining my posture, and thinking about what I will be buying at the market.

This visualization is important because we must see that a well-designed play setting will have many play triggers. In addition, the space will elicit specific play patterns and that these patterns promote not just a particular learning but a whole-body response and that these developing skills will overlap with the other play patterns in the space. When we create a play space, we are not building a fitness center with machines designed to develop specific muscles. We are creating an environment to promote the development of the whole child.

If it is true that play patterns are a general benefit, then why do we need to identify and implement 20 play patterns? The reason for this is straight forward. Unfortunately, we have come to view play spaces as having just a few triggers, i.e., swings, slides, and climbers. All too often, such spaces will not only omit spinning and balance but all of the other patterns. The only way to ensure the development of the whole child is to include all the play patterns.

It is also important to note that each play pattern has a developmental sequence. An adequately designed play space will have several instances of each pattern to ensure that children can progress through the whole range of challenges and that all children are accommodated regardless of skills.


In my five decades of dedication to creating play settings, I have only been able to achieve this ideal once, with the Gymboree Play and Music system. In that project, the team of designers and teachers together created a perfect play space system that can be reconfigured continuously to follow the children’s play and the teacher’s educational goals. This objective could not be achieved without providing the teachers with the ability to support the play with loose parts that they can change to present new functions. For example, the wonderful net climber can be dismounted from the system to become a spinner or a rocker. You can also see this ideal in the AnjiPlay program that started in China and is now spreading worldwide.

What is the bottom line? A perfect playground is a complex space and has both play leaders and loose parts so that the children can experience all of the play patterns as their interests dictate.



The Theory of Play Patterns and Triggers

Over the past two decades, significant advances researchers have made great strides in both neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Taken together, this body of new knowledge allows us to finally answer the question that has vexed philosophers and child development researchers since Plato; What is the importance of play?

The core insight is both obvious and surprising. Historically children have been seen as entering this world “Tabula rasa,” which is the notion that the child’s mind is a blank slate, and knowledge comes only from experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. The child’s brain is more like a multiple answer quiz in which the child can choose an answer out of many that are correct that fit the environment in which they find themselves. For example, children are born with significant language capability and must discover the specific language in use by those around them.  In addition to this language template, infants also have many other models, such as motor functions, social engagement, and a sense of how the world works, to name a few.

As adults, we sometimes get overwhelmed by the complexity of this world. For an infant who has dozens of potential templates into which all the various stimuli which bombard them must be organized, the real problem is to what select out the chaos of all that surrounds them what is correct and useful. In essence, the child’s core question is, “What do I need to pay attention to?”

To address this critical issue, young children are not only armed with the scaffolding on which to construct their reality, but they also have a spotlight that shines on those aspects of the environment that will best fill out the mental structure they are erecting. Imagine the world’s most complicated jigsaw puzzle and now make that three dimensional, then put all of the pieces of the puzzle are in constant motion, and you have some idea what the child is up against. Fortunately, they are not only equipped with a picture of what the eventual puzzle is supposed to look like, but they also have an inborn mental laser pointer that points to the pieces that are most likely to fit. We call this target identifier a trigger.

This notion of patterns and triggers is by no means new or original. Philosophers from Johan Huizinga to Jean Piaget and beyond have used similar constructs. What is new is that we now have fMRI devices that can peer into the child’s brain and see it being triggered by specific stimuli. Not only do we now know what lights up the brain, but we can also determine to a large extent what is being learned.

Of course, when we are dealing with human development, nothing is easy, simple, linear, or disconnected from the whole. That said, these new tools have given us insights that can be very helpful to educators. The challenge for teachers is choosing what children must learn, and the right time and sequence in which to present the information. For children in the 0 to 8 years of age, teacher-directed learning is not optimal because we now know that children have an elegant system of identifying what they need to know and the ability to pull from their environment the necessary information. Again, this is nothing new. Many teachers and parents are well aware of the value of child-directed learning. With all this new knowledge, we can now be much clearer about the specifics of this process. The theory of Play Patterns and Triggers is a step in that direction.

That children come pre-programmed to learn and do so in a very predictable way is nothing short of amazing. But why should such a system be necessary? Wouldn’t an unstructured brain with an open-ended discovery process work as well?

To answer this question, we must start at birth. The challenge is that having children is painful, demanding, and puts the parent at significant risk. To keep mothers from rejecting their child, the mother’s brain is flooded with the bonding hormones oxytocin and dopamine. Also, babies are born cute, engaging, and fun. Parental bonds drive a strong protective instinct. But such shielding behavior can cause a parent to overprotect and prevent the child from having the experiences they need for their full functioning, as we see in helicoptering parents. To encourage parents to allow their children to take on challenges, those risks all fit into these recognizable play patterns that single to parents that learning is happening, or at least that the child is having fun. This allows them to tolerate risky exploration, and perhaps even participate in such play with them.

The child’s side of this story is interesting as well. Not only are the play patterns deeply engrained, but children are highly motivated to engage in them. We have used the term “triggered” for this condition because it correctly identifies and describes the high amount of potential energy that is released with a specific stimulus. Indeed, one could say that children cannot be prevented from play without direct intervention by adults. A case can be made that such interference causes real harm to children. From this analysis, we can see that children and parents are engaged in a dance of protection and challenge and that the behaviors on both sides are highly structured and biologically driven. The question becomes then, why should such a complex and powerful dynamic be set up? Let’s look at a specific play pattern, jumping in puddles, to see if we can tease out the motivating factors.

Select and click on the image to play the video

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The protective parent will try to prevent their child from getting muddy. Not only are they concerned about “germs” but are also likely not to want to deal with the mess. Both motivations are certainly understandable. The child, on the other hand, finds water play, especially mud play, irresistible, but why? The first layer of motivation is purely physical exploration, learning how this play feels, what the water does when you smack it, and full sensory stimulation. The deeper motivation is genuinely astonishing.

The science on mud play has only recently been developed, and it turns out that a big appeal of mud play is ingesting soil. We now know that exposure to the soil microbes, specifically mycobacterium vaccae, is essential in establishing a healthy gut biome, which is crucial to a robust immune system. It gets even more complicated as we have recently found that these microbes elevate our mood. This is not only true for kids; it also true for gardeners. But the story gets even more amazing.

There has been an explosion of recent research on the gut biome, and several useful references are listed below. The finding that is most relevant to this discussion about mud and feeling good is that the gut biome produces 95% of the body’s neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Why is this important? Most of us think of brain development as cells linking up like the wringing in a computer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Synapses do not touch other cells directly; instead, they get close enough to pass these neurotransmitters back and forth. Rather than digital on-off signals as in a computer, connections made in the human brain are much more like a cocktail party with all sorts of different feelings and messages being exchanged.

What’s the bottom line here? First that children will compulsively play in mud. Second, that playing in mud is essential for human health and, finally, that the gut provides much of the juice that drives the brain.

Water-mud play is only one of the 20 play patterns we have identified. Each one of these has the same multilayered and interconnected beneficial structure that results in the miracle that is a child. Our goal is to delve into these and gather the emerging research into a form that teachers can use to maximize the powerful learning system that is playing.

Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good For You

“Dirt is Good”: Why Children Need More Exposure to Germs

That Gut Feeling

Baby Love? Oxytocin-Dopamine Interactions in Mother-Infant Bonding


Creating a Barefoot Preschool

There is a buzz about Forest Schools and getting kids more access to nature, and there is of lots of science pointing to the benefits. The question is how to make this a reality in more preschools. Nature is complex and ever-changing, and trying to duplicate it is a real challenge. The good news is that we don’t have to replicate the forest precisely to deliver most of nature’s benefits. What are those benefits?

  • Trees – Shade
  • Trees – Climb in
  • Rocks – Climb on
  • Hill – Roll and Run Down
  • Grass – Soft path
  • Bushes – Hiding place
  • Dirt – Dig
  • Sand – Build
  • Water – Flow and float
  • Loose Parts – Perhaps nature’s greatest gift to children

The goal of the Preschool playspace creator should be to come as close as possible to giving children the same experiences and benefits as are to be found in nature. The following are suggestions about how to accomplish this when space, time, or budget mitigate against their inclusion.

Barefoot Preschool Playspace Design Suggestions

Landscape Considerations

  1. Pathways – Limit the use of concrete and asphalt as much as possible

The routes of travel must conform to ADA guideline for accessibility, but that does not mean they have to be tricycle freeways. Trikes and wheelchairs can negotiate grass, decomposed granite, wood decks, and other surfaces just fine. Consider using as much grass as possible. Using a rubber turf protecting mat system will vastly improve the durability of the grass by reducing compaction and protecting the roots while enhancing drainage and also reducing maintenance. Trikes are a means of transportation and are not of themselves play activities. Wheel toys that allow more than one child or hauling stuff is best.


  1. Shade – Should be where children play

Unfortunately, most playspace shade falls where the children are not playing. The best solution is to just shade the whole playspace just as plant nurseries do. Heck, if it is good enough for plants it should be good enough for kids.

Slide shade 1

  1. Plant Materials – Editable as much as possible

Select plant materials that produce fruit smell great can be harvested for loose-part play, or attract birds and butterflies. The very best information on plant selection comes from Robin Moore, Plants for Play: A Plant Selection Guide for Children’s Outdoor Environments.

  1. Fixed Elements – Only those elements that are used every day should be fixed permanently in place.

Anchoring to the ground limits flexibly and increases the cost. Limit fixed elements to sandboxes, hills, trees, shade structures, and the like.

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  1. Hills – Needed but are problematic.

Hills are one of the best ways to enhance the playspace. Unfortunately, they come with problems of their own. When we use the grass-everywhere rule, then grass at the top of the hill will tend to die. One could cover that spot with a play feature, but that will trigger the ADA ramp requirement which requires far more space than most preschool yards will provide. The best solution is a four-foot circle of decomposed granite at the top.

Apparatus Considerations

  1. There should 1½ play opportunities per child.

Most playground problems come from boredom and competition. Ensuring play opportunities are abundant is the best way to have the playspace truly become the third teacher

  1. Only introduce plastic when no other material is available to perform the function.

Plastic is the least natural material that we find in the playspace. Almost all functions can be performed by wood, glass, fabric, or metal.

  1. As much as possible, elements within the play space should be able to interoperate.

While each feature, like the sandbox, has a specific function, many of the loose parts associated with that function can become play objects in other elements. For example, a simple plank can be used almost everywhere.

  1. Every element should have two or more functions.

The plank mentioned above can become a bridge, a balance beam, a teetertotter, or a slide.


  1. Climbers should be both inside and outside

Climbing outside is mainly the same movement as walking, whereas trees allow for inside climbing that requires very complex movements and strength.

  1. Active play areas should also contain places or materials for quiet play.

Kids play hard and then need to catch their breath and self-regulate. Perches on climbers, nooks next to blocks and other cubbies for withdrawing from the more intense play should be in as many places as possible.


  1. Children use loose part accessories in direct proportion to the proximity of storage.

Designing a playspace should be very similar to designing a kitchen with the arrangement of the work surfaces and the storage of tools carefully laid out for maximum efficiency.

  1. Storage should be designed or selected to match the items to be stored.

For example, sand toys should be stored in wire baskets.

  1. How elements trigger play behavior, and how that behavior changes over time, should be known and integrated with the curriculum so that teachers can initiate desired play episodes and manage transitions.
  2. Where possible storage can provide space definition, look for opportunities to place them back to back to separate functional areas.

For More on the benefits of nature play see: