Preschool Play Patterns Environmental Assessment

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On September 15 I am a speaker at the annual Sacramento Play Summit. This is my favorite professional gathering and always sold out. Great sessions and attendees.

This year I will be presenting the culmination of ten years of work on an overall approach to creating play environments that are best for learning through free play. This will be the first time I’ve done this with a public audience and I’m excited to get feedback from teachers who use such spaces every day.

Here is the written portion of the talk including a site assessment instrument.

Preschool Play Patterns Environmental Assessment 8-15-19

Preschool Patterns 9-15-18

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You Know It When You See It

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For more from other sources see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2017/04/05/parents-its-time-to-get-out-of-the-way-and-let-your-kids-just-play/

As I continue my review of the play literature over the past two decades two things strike me, how complicated creating a comprehensive theory of play is, and conversely, how straightforward play is. I won’t go into all the academic stuff here, primarily because as a parent you don’t need to know that. I will, however, list the essential points these scholars generally agree on.

First, and perhaps most important, is that parents can relax and not work so hard at child rearing. It turns out that nature as embedded drives in kids that cause them to seek out the activities they need to develop. These child driven behaviors are very compelling and can be trusted to have the child seek challenges that are best for their maximum growth.  In a way, this is a self-evident truth because kids have been growing up in all manner of places and cultures for millennia and, by and large, they do just fine.

The logical conclusion from this observation is that many of the well-intended activities that parent schedule for their children are less beneficial than free play. The ballet class or soccer practice may be stealing time away from an adventure in their kid-made cardboard fort or creating a Heffalump trap in the backyard. Not that organized activities are bad in and of themselves but when they replace natural play they can be detrimental. When selecting structured activities, it is best that the children have a voice in what they want to do and that the program is playful rather than highly directed. It is even better if the programs include mixed ages rather than just limited to same age peers. See: http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/3-4-article-gray-age-mixed-play.pdf

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Of course, the question is how is a parent to know if their child’s self-directed play is what nature intended? It turns out that, while scholars may struggle to define what play is and cannot agree that “You know it when you see it,” for all practical purposes we can not only discern the play of our children but of most animals as well. It seems that not only has nature hardwired kids to play, but it has also given us the ability to spot it unerringly. They are a lot of elements to play that give us clear signals. A “play face” is typical. Bouts of intense play fighting are broken up by timeouts. Punches and bites are moderated. The players tend to be extremely focused, and the play sessions are often of long duration. During play, there is more communication, both verbal and non-verbal.

In addition to being what’s best for children, free play also gives parents a big reward as well. To see how that works let’s look at the sequence of play from birth on. For the first several months, almost all play is between mother and child. During the first couple of years, most play is within the family. By the time a child is out of diapers the play should become increasing among mixed age peers if possible. Parents benefit in two ways by allowing free play to follow its natural course during these years. First, and perhaps most importantly, your child will be happy and self-confident. Many of the difficulties we have with our children are merely because we are asking them to behave in ways that they cannot, i.e., be quiet in a restaurant, go to sleep quickly and for long periods, etc.

Another benefit is that your child will become independent and require less direct supervision which means that your role is more of a monitor than as a director. General household life will be more comfortable. For example, fights over their use of smart devices will be less volatile because your child will have a storehouse of interests that give them as much, or more, pleasure as screen time.

I realize that parents want to give their children the very best chance to be successful. That’s a good thing and admirable. The simple idea in this article is just to let nature help you achieve that goal. It works, and it’s fun!

Play and Survival of the Fittest

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I am about 1/3rd through reading all of the play literature published over the past two decades. Some of this review is reacquainting myself with authors that I have long admired, and it has been a delight to reread works in light of my experience.  While I do try to stay current, much is new in the field and extremely informative. So, while my studies still have a long way to go, I’ve already uncovered enough important insights that I’ve decided to give you a preview of some of what I’m learning.

Discovering the writings in evolutionary psychology has been especially exciting. The most revelatory insight has been the extent to which nature goes to ensure reproductive success. Here is the evolutionary challenge homo sapiens face. We are the most successful large animal inhabiting virtually every part of the globe. To accomplish this, we must be very smart, but we also have to be extremely adaptable. There’s the problem. To combine brains and flexibility babies are born with the enormous potential to learn but are completely helpless. Think about a baby chick who can mostly fend for themselves minutes after hatching and you get a sense at just how vulnerable infants are. Most other animal babies can be independent in a year, or at most two years. Our children require at least a decade before they can fend for themselves. The age at which reproduction occurs is similarly extended for humans as compared to other animals. From an evolutionary perspective, this presents a real challenge. What mechanisms has nature put in place that gives the best chance for our children to survive to become parents themselves?

The first obstacle to be overcome is maternal rejection. Having a baby hurts … a lot. It would be logical for any mother to get as far away from the source of pain as possible. To counteract the possibility of rejection, new mothers are loaded with hormones that foster bonding. Babies do all sort of things to make themselves adorable and less likely to be rejected, and nature helps out by making them cute. This natural protective process continues through the first few years as, for example, a mother will be awakened from a deep sleep in a noisy environment with the barely heard cry from her child.

Like most other primates, humans rely on friends and family for child rearing. Maternal grandmothers will help by, for example, preparing baby food and childcare. The mother’s mother is more likely to do this than the father’s mother since the grandmother has an interest in supporting her own offspring’s child.

Both siblings and other children have a significant role in helping toddlers become successful adults. It has been shown that children who frequently play in a group of mixed age peers gain skills sooner than children who do not have a chance to play with older kids.

What an evolutionary perspective gives us is to look at life as a cost/benefit dynamic. If resources are scarce what is the impact on the family? As harsh as it sounds, parents will preferentially support their older child as they represent their most substantial investment and, being older they tend to be less prone to disease. Likewise, a community will tend to be inclusive in times of abundance and less so when resources are lacking.

Play tends to occur most robustly when resources are abundant primarily, and the environment is reasonably safe. This means that a playful household or community is a healthy environment in which children will thrive. It is also the case, and heart endearingly so, that play will try to emerge even in challenging circumstances as is famine or war. This is a measure of how important play is to children’s development

For more on this subject see:

The Origins of Human Nature – Evolutionary Developmental Psychology, David F. Bjorklund and Anthony D. Pellegrini