Play Triggers


The only way we can see what is happening in the brain without an MRI is watching for the smiles that happen reflexively when the brain is getting the experiences it needs to learn and function optimally.

When I was a little kid, I knew about two “triggers.” One trigger was on my cap gun, and the other was, the famous cowboy, Roy Roger’s horse.  As a dyslexic, it drove me nuts that the same word could mean different things. By the time I was in college I had learned that, in addition to mechanical triggers, they are also completely different biological ones.

Our crazy practice of using the same word for different things has serious consequences. In this case, when we discuss the idea of triggers nowadays, most people imagine that both mechanical and biological triggers are much the same. This leads to gross misunderstandings. Let me explain.

A mechanical trigger initiates a series of actions; levers move, gears turn, the hammer trips and the shell fires. When applied to organic systems the term “trigger” covers a spectrum of mechanisms. Basically, it is used to describe a saturation or critical load at which a new or latent condition emerges. We might think of the term triggers applying to behaviors, like blinking when something flies into your eye, but these reactions are in actuality, a “mechanical” reflex that is initiated by the brain stem without the signal reaching the brain until well after the actions are completed.

To get a comprehensive picture, we need to understand a bit more about brain development. At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, and nearly all the brain will ever have. The problem is that these neurons are not connected, so the baby’s brain goes into a frenzy of creating links, a process called synaptic overproduction, which causes synapses to develop exceptionally rapidly. A pruning process refines these connections based on experience and is the critical process that shapes the brains of young children. With pruning, those connections used regularly become stronger and more complex. Connections not used are considered non-essential, and the brain eventually prunes them away to increase efficiency.

What do triggers have to do with play?

Did you notice the phrase in the above paragraph, “refines these connections based on experience”?

But wait just a minute! Play behavior is complex and encompasses behaviors ranging from swinging to peek-a-boo and changes dramatically over the early years. How can one mechanism possibly be responsible for all of this dynamic process?

I’m glad you asked. In the simplest terms, the baby’s brain has lots of different sub-parts and capacities that are latent potentials. This means that the nascent brain is just licking its figurative chops for experiences that will put those pruners in action to help it reach its capacity. A capacity, by the way, which is uniquely adapted to the child’s environment.

Here’s a great example. To be able to walk and run, movements called bipedalism, balance, technically the vestibular system, has to be given a thorough workout. This experience requires a lot more than just a few drives around the block. Indeed, it will be activated repletely thousands of times throughout childhood. This means that play triggers do not stimulate specific behaviors as much as they initiate a leaning program that matures over the first seven years and gets combined with other play patterns in increasingly complex ways. For the baby it starts with just moving her head, it gets a boost when dad tosses her in the air, and beings to come into its own with the first steps.

Have you noticed a family on a walk and the younger ones are balancing on the curb and twirling around the posts holding up street signs? Have you wondered what drives these behaviors?  These drives or urges arise from the limbic system, sometimes referred to as the lizard brain because it is so old. Essentially children’s limbic system will be triggered by environmental stimuli, and they MUST respond. As parents know all too well, often the only way to stop the play behavior is to intervene physically.

Here’s the plain truth, kid’s higher brain functions have not matured, so we need to relate to them in ways that they can incorporate. All too often we try to “reason” with children, we become exasperated because they behave in illogical ways, we can’t explain to them why they don’t need to cry. In other words, we are using our logical cerebral cortex trying to talk to their emotional lizard brain.

4 brains

Modern science has begun to realize that we actually have four “brains.” Our thinking brain (cerebral cortex), our emotional brain (limbic system and heart), our reflex brain (brain stem and facia) and our feeling brain (the gut). Good early childhood education programs recognize this, at least intuitively, and support the total child’s development.

How can you use this information?

We have identified 16 Play Patterns that are initiated by specific triggers. Our organization is based on observable environmental stimuli and the child’s responses. The organization could just as easily be based on various parts of the brain and how they reward the child with the so-called “feel good” chemicals. We have chosen this organization because that is how we as adults can most easily see the learning that occurs through play. The only way we can see what is happening in the brain without an MRI is watching for the smiles that happen reflexively when the brain is getting the experiences it needs to learn and function optimally.

As you begin to see more deeply into how play promotes brain development you can increase your ability to maximize its benefits. For example, it is very unlikely that your environment supports all of the play patterns. By knowing about how these patterns are triggered you can supplement the environment in various ways. Say your play space is at a place that doesn’t allow swings, a temporary hammock can work just as well. Perhaps you are not allowed to have sand. Many other small loose materials will suffice.

As we have pointed out, the play triggers and patterns change over time. This means that as a teacher or parent during the child’s early years your reaction to their being triggered will model the transition from being reactive to becoming centered again. In the later years when children become more verbal, you can teach kids to manage their triggers. Simple things like reminding them to take a deep breath will work wonders.

There are few more essential gifts you can bestow upon a child than helping them learn to recognize that they have been triggered and how to bring themselves back down.


What Triggers the Brain?

Modern Research Reveals Your Heart Does Have a Mind of Its Own

 The Brain-Gut Connection

A Thinking Person’s Guide to Going With Your Gut

5 Strategies for Maximizing Your 4 Brains


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