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:

Playing with Intensity

kids dancing

We tend to see what we expect to see. When we watch children often the first thing we notice is whether or not they are engaged and what they are doing so we can go about our business or be ready to intervene if needed. I propose this sort of caretaker mentality prevents us from truly seeing what is happening. What we do not attend to is the intensity of play in children. Why is this important?

It is now well supported scientifically that play is the main vehicle for brain development in the early years. This implies that the more intense the play, the greater the learning. While there is a lot of research that is very suggestive that there is a relationship between play intensity and neurological development, I have been unable to find a study that directly measures this relationship. But could this be true?

If such a direct relationship were to exist, then it would stand to reason that children would play with full intensity nearly all of their awake hours. As a parent, I know it sometimes it actually feels like this is so, and studies do demonstrate that children have more stamina than elite athletes. On the other side of the coin, the child’s brain consumes 43% of their energy. Indeed, this energy demand is so great that children’s growth slows dramatically during periods of most brain development. It stands to reason then that there is some sort of direct relationship between play intensity and brain development.

Clearly, the most physically active children are not necessarily the smartest, so the observed levels of stamina and high energy use must be used for learning in general. However, the high energy use and intensity suggest that we should be able to observe this development in action.

A great place to start is to listen to the play, not to make out specific words but rather to get a sense of the frequency and length of utterance; the more talking, the more learning.

Next, count the number of children involved in the play episode; the more players, the more learning. Finally, look for complexity and scaffolding. What does that mean?

Educators talk a lot about scaffolding, and we have many pedagogical elements embedded in that concept. For the developing brain, however, scaffolding means just one thing; starting with simple things and getting more complex. Recently the blogosphere was all abuzz about the finding that kids who obsess over dinosaurs tend to be smarter. Well, duh! This is just another example of parenting click bait because most kids get obsessed with something at some point: vehicles, insects, fairies, whatever. The point is that the brain seeks to find complex things to compare, contrast, and categorize. The brain tends to want to engage its ever-evolving complexity.

While having lots of these three components; words, kids and complexity, tells us that the play is progressing in a way that maximizes brain development, none of this will happen without one other key condition. That essential requirement is safety. For adults, we think safety means preventing harm. From the brain’s perspective, that is irrelevant. Surprisingly safety for the brain flows primarily from a strong parental bond. Children who are securely bonded tend to play more and to thrive. While teachers can help insecure children, this is a very sensitive subject with families and is one of the most challenging aspects of the early childhood education profession.

Classrooms and curriculum in early childhood tend to be highly siloed. We have block corners, pretend play areas, and play structures, etc. These are set up largely because this is always the way things have always been done. This environmental plan functions because the contents of these areas trigger the brain to deploy specific play patterns, kids play because there is stuff to play with. However, this pedagogical structure can only maximize child development when the children can choose where they want to play and to move freely from area to area. It is important to note, that there are many ways to create a learning environment and some ways may be superior to the current, often legally required, pattern and we are seeing new concepts arise such as AnjiPlay and Waldorf that show promise.

Finally, the brain will find a way to experience what it needs to develop. The good news is that there is a lot of flexibility and robustness to child development. The downside is that this very adaptability can mask less than optimal conditions. In the centers, I observe there is often too much of some elements and not enough of other components to ensure that all of the children’s potential will be realized, but as long as the children playing more or less contentedly improvements do not get made. The area that is generally most deficient is the outdoor play space which seldom affords sufficient opportunity for high energy motoric play and messy experimentation.

The beauty and power of children’s play are undeniable. Learning to observe it in action and recognize when things are proceeding as they should is one of the most critical roles the teachers and parents. It is a job worth doing well.


Play Can Save the Planet – Part Three

Bamboo play space

So far, we’ve covered giving children a direct experience with an ecosystem at preschool in Part One. In Part Two, we looked at how bringing animals into the classroom can expand on that understanding. Here, we will discuss how Vygotsky’s notion of instructional scaffolding can be the basis of seeing the whole school as a sustainable planet-friendly environment.

Over my 50+ years of creating play systems, I’ve used nearly every material imaginable from hay bails to stainless steel. This experience has allowed me to explore the limits of durability and cost. Lately, most playgrounds are on the outer edge of this spectrum with durability that far outlasts their play value as society changes and cost that are astronomical.

In early childhood setting, this balance of cost/durability has led to a proliferation of all plastic systems which are cheap and all but indestructible. Lately, we have come to understand better that the very durability of plastic has resulted in ubiquitous pollution that will last thousands of years. As we come to better understand the consequences of our bargain for high durability and low cost, we will need to seek better alternatives.

An alternative material option we have recently been exploring is bamboo. Here the cost factor of materials is competitive without the damage to the environment of petroleum-based plastic. The durability factor is good enough, by that I mean that it is comparable to other wood species that are not chemically treated or exotic and therefore not sustainable. Bamboo has a long life indoors and five years outdoors when natural weathering begins to take its toll. This means that it is an environmentally balanced material that does not trade the health of the planet for unnecessary indestructibility. Since our discussion so far has been about exposing children to natural systems, how can we use bamboo in this scenario?

Since young children develop at different rates and have different learning styles, it is essential to present information in many different ways. Lev Vygotsky is often seen as the leading advocate of the notion of scaffolding, which in simplest terms means creating an environment that presents information in ways in which children can best relate to the material. I like to add the idea of a real scaffold which allows us to start at the bottom and climb up. Let’s look at how these ideas can be modeled in an early childhood center.

bamboo in water

Let’s start with the notion that bamboo is a plant. We show this with a simple pot of Lucky Bamboo, preferably set up so children can see the plant’s roots. Outdoors bamboo can quickly be grown in pots, and children can harvest the stems periodically. Kids can also play with bamboo either as classroom toys or as construction materials outdoors. Finally, bamboo can be used for playhouses and climbers. There are children’s books about bamboo and its role in the development of Asian cultures. Children can paint with bamboo brushes. And on and on.

bamboo toy

This whole scaffolding process may seem like overkill but remember each child is encountering the bamboo one at a time during their play and so it is encountered in a very natural way where the child can feel the irregularities of its shape as well as the strength and weight of the material. Now that you have a sense of the power of scaffolding let’s take this to the next level.

Full and comprehensive understanding comes not so much from learning discrete information but from being immersed in complex systems. How would an early childhood education environment look if it became a real natural ecosystem? First, nothing would need to be subtracted. Well, except those things that are not sustainable such as all of the plastic! That alone will be transformative as plastic cups are replaced with glass and the play structure is removed. The outdoors will be the most changed as gardens are established, compost systems, and a water feature installed. Loose part play collections that use natural elements will be acquired and presented to children in ways that allow creative discovery.

The educational result of this transformation is that children will develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of natural processes and an emotional attachment to them … just as humans have for millions of years. Far too many children today have none of this vital connection. As we become increasingly urbanized and densely packed, we cannot assume that kids will get this grounding in nature when they are not as school as their home environment is likely to be as sterile as are most of today’s schools.

Schools that wrap children in a green environment help them to adopt earth-friendly behaviors. Early environmental awareness increases resilience and will allow children to better cope with the psychological impact of climate change.  What’s good for the planet is good for children and vice versa.




Play Can Save the Planet – Part Two

G Pig

In Part One, we looked at the idea that kids should learn about ecosystems and illustrated what that might look like in the classroom. The example used was tiny, short-lived brine shrimp as their lifecycle comes close to matching children’s attention span. While these little swimmers are interesting for children, bigger animals are much more engaging. They are also much more challenging to administer. Let’s look at the options.

NOTE: I have excluded dogs and cats from consideration as most children have ample opportunities to interact with them. I have also excluded exotic animals, such as parrots, as the ethical considerations of keeping such animals needs to be carefully considered.

To maximize their engagement, kids should be able to handle and ideally cuddle with, the animals that we bring into the school environment. This requirement severely limits which animals are appropriate. Even within this narrow range, there are undesirable traits. Snakes, for example, are easy for kids to handle but, as carnivores, feeding them may create questions such as will children be allowed to observe feeding or will this be done during non-class time. Turtles can certainly be picked up, but they may not be ideal in that they often try to run away, they are generally taken from nature rather than being bred in captivity, and on rare occasions, can be contaminated with salmonella. Tortoises don’t have this problem but are still not all that engaging, their slow movement may, however, can be perfect for certain children who find them calming.

I think you can see where this discussion is headed.  Two main species have been very successful in ECE programs, rodents and chickens. In the rodent family, rats and guinea pigs are the best choices as mice and hamsters are less robust and cannot be handled as much. Although not in the rodent family, rabbits can also be very successful, especially does as they are calmer than bucks. The larger, heavy bodied hens are a great choice. Roosters for obvious reasons should be avoided. Whatever you choose, the animals should be obtained as young as possible and handled frequently. If the outdoor yard is well fenced, most of the animals in this recommended group can be allowed to roam freely, which is ideal from a learning perspective. Now that we’ve narrowed the field to those animals that have the best chance for successful integration into the school environment let’s consider the more challenging issue, livestock management.


Let’s face it; having animals at school can be a hassle. Although this added work is a pain, all of the challenges are really where the most learning for the children can be found, so the more that children are engaged in the safety, feeding, and clean-up the better. Let’s take these issues one at a time.

A frequent cause of school pet mortality is improper feeding. Generally, death is caused by overfeeding, but it can also be from contamination or even neglect. Teaching children proper diet and food presentation is a great way to build emotional intelligence.

Animal safety comes in two primary forms. The first is proper handling. Kids instinctually tend to be very gentle when first handling animals. Indeed, the most frequent problem comes from the children not being able to secure the animal, which results in escapes and possible injury. Teacher’s need to show proper handling techniques and as soon as possible, to turn this instruction over to the children so that this becomes a social norm amongst the children and empowers them to be vigilant guardians of the animal’s care.

Proper enclosures are another key to animal safety. It should be noted that it is pretty easy to contain the animals that are recommended and for animals in kept indoors, a standard cage is all that is required. Outside enclosures are a whole other issue in that the goal is not just to contain the animals as much as it is to keep other animals out. While there are many sources for outside cages, these are generally not explicitly designed for the school environment. For example, they do not consider that the caretakers will be children, so the dimensions are not ideal, and access-egress is not well thought out. We hope to address this need with suggested designs for schools in the near future.

The process of maintenance and cleaning up can provide children with very impactful lessons. All of the waste product such as cage litter, excess food, and excrement can be combined with lunch scraps and garden waste and put into compost. Learning how to handle these materials correctly and how to aerate the compost is a core ecosystem lesson. Indeed, it may be the most compelling justification for having animals in the classroom.

In Part Three, we will look at how Vygotsky’s notion of instructional scaffolding can be the basis of seeing the whole school environment as a sustainable planet-friendly environment.


Play Can Save the Planet – Part One


Ok, it’s a pretty outrageous claim, but bear with me for a bit, and I think I can make a compelling case that, not only is this true, but it may well be the best and perhaps the only way forward.

Recent studies show that kids are potent advocates for taking decisive climate change action in both their families and in the larger communities. The more kids know about the environment; the more effective they will be. Other studies show that just over half of our students receive instruction on the environment. Finally, we know that the earlier and more hands-on kids get exposed to information, the deeper their grasp of the topic.

Thus, my proposition is simple; we should allow preschool children to learn about ecosystems in early childhood. This is certainly not an outlandish suggestion since most adults learned about the environment in just this way by playing outdoors, exploring creeks, rescuing bugs and animals, etc. The thing is, fewer and fewer children are allowed, or have access to, free-range play in nature, so this knowledge that we picked up as a natural part of being kids is just not commonplace anymore.

My first inkling that this notion could be true was discovering how hard it will be to accomplish. Let’s look at the issues. To understand the core principles that drive ecosystems, kids need to be able to interact with living things and what is required to keep them alive. Few preschool environments have anything alive in them. To make an emotional connection, kids need to have responsibility for the upkeep of living things. Indeed, one of the greatest things most of us learned as kids is that when you keep a bug in a jar too long without seeing to its needs, it dies.

Water is the foundation of any ecosystem, yet preschoolers only know “tame” water that comes from a tap and have, in nearly every case, no experience with water that things live in. Lucky are the kids who have an aquarium in their classroom, but for all the hands-on learning these provide, they might as well be a video played on a screen. I don’t want to belabor this point anymore as I think you can see that we have a long way to go before most children have meaningful exposure to the fundamental elements of an ecosystem and how these work together dynamically.

I firmly believe that every early childhood program should have a closed ecosystem aquarium. The reason this is important is that such displays pose for children a great mystery; Since nothing can come in or out, how do the fish breathe and what do they eat? This is the fundamental question facing our planet today and for children to be able to see this in a microcosm can be profound. For kids, it can become a meme that drives their orientation to the environment lifelong.

Closed aquariums are commercially available as Ecospheres, and they can also be made from materials readily available locally or online. Ideally, there is an example present on the first day of class. This is followed by assembling one with the children as it takes a while for them to become stable, and this is a powerful way for the children to see the dynamics of how the system works.

brine shrimp

To further these lessons, it is great to hatch and grow brine shrimp. Brine shrimp require a lot of attention. As continuous filter feeders, they must be fed often; but at the same time, they are sensitive to poor water quality. Through trial and error, children will learn how fragile and complex the narrow range of conditions are in the shrimp will survive. As they succeed will be all the more rewarding as they directly experience life and death.

From this brief discussion, you can see that helping kids learn about the environment is doable. The problem is that so few programs prioritize this subject or a hands-on approach to learning. As parents and as a society we must demand that environmental education becomes a priority.

So far, this has been a relatively easy discussion. In part two, we will look at scaling this concept up, so children have the opportunity to have hands-on interaction with living systems on a daily basis which is much harder. Part three will look at the early childhood environment as an ecosystem and who it can play a crucial role in saving the planet.

A Play Designer’s Manifesto


A recent report on the speed and scope of the onset of climate change just gave us a gut punch. Eoin Higgins wrote in Common Dreams,  ‘Existential’ Risk of Climate Crisis Could Lead to Civilizational Collapse by 2050,

“The world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change.

Even by the standards of the dire predictions given in climate studies, this one’s extreme: civilization itself could be past the point of no return by 2050. 

That’s the conclusion from Australian climate think tank Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, which released a report (pdf) May 30 claiming that unless humanity takes drastic and immediate action to stop the climate crisis, a combination of food production instability, water shortages, and extreme weather could result in a complete societal breakdown worldwide.” 

A child born today will, over their preschool years, learn about all the wonderful animals on this planet. All too soon; however, she will begin to learn of their existential peril. Unfortunately, the bad news will only continue to get worse. This is unprecedented and deeply concerning.


In a recent article in The Nation, Parenting in a World Hurtling Toward Catastrophe, Frida Berrigan wrote:

I’m almost 45. My kids, Seamus and Madeline, are 5 and 6; my stepdaughter Rosena is 12. They are part of what journalist Mark Hertsgaard calls Generation Hot, “some two billion young people, all of whom have grown up under global warming and are fated to spend the rest of their lives confronting its mounting impacts.”

The phycological impacts of this reality are profound and pervasive. One of the primary responses to climate change is grief. Already we see programs to address this issue spring up around the globe. Avichai Scher reported to NMC new on Climate Grief: The growing emotional toll of climate change.

Young children do not have the emotional development to grieve. How then are they to deal with this tsunami of pain?

I believe that the most effective strategy going forward is to begin immediately to surround children to the greatest extent possible with what we know are the changes that must happen if we are to blunt the impact of climate change. Preschools must become uber-green, solar powered, minimalistic examples of the way all of us will be living a decade from now.

This means my practice as a designer must change drastically. I cannot substitute Robina wood for powder coated steel but must go all the way to bamboo. I cannot use redwood for garden boxes but must use hempcrete. I’ll have to abandon all polyethylene and hope that algae-based plastics are good enough. I will need to find ways to support teachers conducting climate action projects such as a way to use single-use plastic in the play environment, so children learn about “upcycling.”

The idea here is simple. When children grow up living in a world full of solutions then when they ultimately do discover the extent of the crisis to the planet, they will be less likely to despair and much more likely to grab what they know can make a difference and see to it that those solutions become ubiquitous.

This is not only good for the children, but such a design manifesto will be a very effective agent of change. In the May issue of Scientific America, an article: Children Change Their Parents’ Minds about Climate Change reviewed a study that showed that when children learn about climate issues, they are powerful agents of change.

The results suggest that conversations between generations may be an effective starting point in combating the effects of a warming environment. “This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” says graduate student Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”