The Best Place to Play

It has been known for well over a hundred years that children’s natural play patterns include gross motor, constructive-manipulative, and pretend-social play. As humanity has moved to become increasingly urbanized it is interesting to observe how these needs are accommodated within our communities.

playgrounds_in_1900_1Dedicated places to play have only been part of humanity for two centuries. Until the late 1800’s kids just played, when and where they could. Starting with the industrial revolution, dedicated places for children to play were invented to get “urchins” off the streets as they were disrupting the smooth flow of commerce. These spaces were designed not for play but to improve health and moral character.

Today’s playgrounds follow this paradigm to the extent that they provide exclusively for gross motor activity, primarily swinging, sliding and climbing, and to a lesser extent balance. The degree to which such playgrounds meet at least the physical needs of children depends on the diversity of apparatus and graduated challenge. Unfortunately, the vast majority of today’s playgrounds are one-size-fits-all.

adventure pgAt the end of WWII, Lady Allen created the concept of Adventure Playgrounds and, with the exception of sandboxes, for the first time constructive-manipulative was introduced into the commons. Recently these permanent spaces have been supplemented with pop-up adventure play programs.

Playhouse-29b-sjPretend, and social play has appeared sparsely in public settings. These are generally created by DIY community groups wanting to provide miniature houses or even towns. Commercial apparatus producers will occasionally add decorative facia to their gross motor play apparatus in an attempt to meet this need with varying degrees of success.

Currently, the only play spaces that meet all of the children’s needs are found in early childhood education centers and the updated version of adventure playgrounds in Europe. The primary reason that these facilities are able to provide support for comprehensive play is the presences of supervision.

Recently in some of the larger and more complex playspaces such as those in children’s museum and at Magical Bridge playgrounds, restricted access and volunteers have enabled such playgrounds to be both more inclusive and offer a wider spectrum of play opportunities.

anjiThe finest example of accommodating play in all of its richness is to be found in the AnjiPlay early childhood education. What makes AnjiPlay the apex is that in addition to the most inventive and creative environment, the program includes supporting the children in documenting what they learn through play. This fostering of recursive play is both extraordinary and potentially disruptive.

 

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Play Superpowers

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More than four years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Laura Seargeant Richardson. While talking with her she introduced me to the concept of “superpowers of play” which I thought was just magic. My hope at the time was that my client, Gymboree Play and Music, would pick up on the idea and collaborate with Laura to integrate the approach into their programming. Unfortunately, that cooperation did not materialize. Laura’s continued development of her concept has resulted in the Periodic Table of Play and the Play Possible Schools curriculum which has received the 2018 IDSA’s Silver IDEA Award for Social Impact.

Meeting Laura has left an indelible impression on, and continued to inspire, my thinking. Where her work is focused on how play can be a tool to open up creative thinking, my focus has been on play as the motivator for development. This line of thought has resulted in my Play Patterns concept, mentioned in a previous blog, that looks at the relationship between observable play behaviors triggered by elements in the environment and the neurological development in the child’s brain.

So, what about superpowers? Consider this. A spider’s egg is about as big as this period (.) When she emerges from the egg the spider already knows how to pick a suitable spot for a web and how to weave it. She knows how to capture, immobilize and store prey. She can mate and lay her eggs in a protective sack. All of these skills are preprogrammed in a few neurons that you can only observe with a powerful microscope, but those minuscule brain cells are powerful enough to motivate and structure all this complex behavior.

Let’s compare the arachnid above with the human Spiderman. Whereas a real spider has a tiny brain that provides all the knowledge she needs to thrive, Spiderman was born totally helpless and remained incapable of surviving without a lot of support for nearly a decade despite having a brain that weighs 380 grams at birth and grows to 1440 grams, or just over 3 pounds, by 10 years of age. That massive brain equals the total weight of a huge number of spiders and yet the pre-teen Spiderman is still not fully mature and capable.

This observation illustrates the incredible power of inborn drive mechanisms versus learned behavior. What current research in evolutionary psychology is showing is that animals with complex brains are strongly motivated by innate biologically drives to express certain types of behaviors, ones we see as playful. While there is not an exact match with insect drives, the drives in animals are also extremely strong. Indeed, babies start out being predominately driven by instinctual motivations that become more complex over the first three years during which the core structural capacities of the brain are formed. The following three years are similarly driven but the child has a more conscious choice about following these impulses. The main goal of these preschool play activities is to refine and calibrate the behaviors so that they are more coordinated and faster.

The point of this somewhat silly comparison is that parents need to understand the power and efficiency of innate play patterns to maximize their child’s development. Nature, it turns out, is an incredibly good teacher. So mom and dad go, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say, with the flow and have fun playing with your child and don’t worry that they are not learning, because they really, really are.

Preschool Play Patterns Environmental Assessment

2018-Fairytale-Web-banner (1)

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

You Know It When You See It

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 3.32.23 PM

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

Play-bow

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

The Play of Girls

xiong

Xiong Jing Nan (Courtesy of ONE Championship)

Search the web for gender-neutral toys and you will get back a ton of option and advice. This brouhaha has been going on for a couple of years and shows little sign of abating. The driving energy behind this discussion is twofold. We have come to recognize that sexual identity is a mixed bag, if you will, with all sorts of expressions. Second, we have also begun to understand that women have been conditioned to take a subservient role to their detriment and that of society. The one positive outcome of this debate has been the rejection of gender-stereotyped marketing as, for example, large chain stores like Target get rid of the pink and blue aisles.

At the core, this discussion of the role of sexual stereotyping boils down to a much longer and older debate about the influence of nature versus nurture. From a physiological standpoint, a baby is a boy or a girl at about nine weeks from conception, that is, very early on.  For a baby to become a boy the presence of androgen hormones, specifically testosterone is required. Indeed, the amount of testosterone during gestation largely determines the range of sexual expression in the baby and its later maturation; thus, sexual identity is a range rather than a binary result.

What does this mean for parents and society at large? The implications are that a child’s sexuality and its expression is fundamentally “hardwired” from a biological standpoint

The following fact may come as a shock to some, but boys and girls really are different:

  • Boys engage in more rough and tumble play than girls
  • Boys tend to be more aggressive than girls
  • While boys and girls show the same interest in infants, by the age of 6, girls are more interested
  • Boys are more interested in object-oriented play and use more tools than girls
  • Girls develop earlier, and more, language skills than boys

What is difficult is to sort out how biology and culture influence these tendencies. Let’s look at rough and tumble play for example. Fathers engage in more of this type of play than mothers and when they do they give more and rougher play to boys. Such vigorous handling conditions the child to aggressive behaviors in a playful way. As children begin to play with their peers

How is a girl to learn to become a winner if she never wins a play fight? Coming out a winner in play is not only possible, but it is also part of what makes play fun. First, the players have to be able to read each other’s faces and actions so that they know that the “fight” isn’t for real. Such combatants will often change roles with the dominant child “pulling their punches” so the other player gets to win. If the dominant child doesn’t turn down their aggressive responses, then the game will soon be over, and nobody wins. This sort of generosity builds social bonds of trust and respect and play is the perfect venue for such learning.

The bottom line?  Dads, it is OK, in fact, it’s great, to play rough with your girls. Moreover, it is time we accepted as a society that it’s really is OK for kids to play fight.

Our child-rearing practices regarding vigorous play is just one example of how we get child rearing wrong. So, when people talk about women having equal stature in society, we need to take a very critical look at our child-rearing assumptions and practices. In my next blog, we will examine the role play and careers in technology.

For more on this subject see:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/28/toys-kids-girls-boys-childhood-development-gender-research

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/parenting/gender-neutral-parenting-has-gone-far/

Play Triggers

Lone-rngr

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.

Resources

What Triggers the Brain?

https://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2011/12/07/what-triggers-the-brain-new-technologies-aid-discovery

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

https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2016/03/05/brain-heart-emotion.aspx

 The Brain-Gut Connection

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection

A Thinking Person’s Guide to Going With Your Gut

https://www.thecut.com/article/a-thinking-persons-guide-to-going-with-your-gut.html

5 Strategies for Maximizing Your 4 Brains

https://www.brittandreatta.com/5-strategies-for-maximizing-your-4-brains/

Scary Play

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I had to get away from it all and so went to Yosemite to find peace. Once there I took my bike and road for hours to find just the right spot. It had to have easy to access and be high enough to do the job. My meditation walk calmed me on the way up to the top. At 90 feet in the air, it was too high for me to look down, so I backed up to the edge. Two deep breaths later, I bent my knees and jumped!

Fortunately, my rappel knot and rope held and it was great fun bouncing my way down the face of the cliff and dropping 10 feet at a time instead of 90 all at once. The feelings that I had that day are very close to what a toddler feels as they approach their first trip down a slide. Like me, their amygdala is on overdrive and flooding their brain with noradrenaline. Ah, but once fully into the adventure our brains are flushed and dopamine and oxytocin, the so-called “pleasure chemicals,” take their place.  So, here is Mother Nature’s problem when she is trying to get us to do something that will help develop our competence but is, at the same time, potentially really dangerous.

To answer this question, I’ve gone back to one of my most used references,

The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience by Sergio and Vivien Pellis. A little confession here, I have used the text at least once a month since it was published in 2013 to find specific support for assertions that I make in my writings. Here’s a case in point. The book goes into great detail about the role in calibration.

“… to a large extent, improvements in motor, cognitive, and social skills arise indirectly through play acting on the improvement of social skills, or more accurately, in refining the calibration of one’s emotional responses to unexpected events in the world.”

In a practical sense what this means is that to become a challenge seeking child, it is best to sneak up on the scary stuff a little it at a time. Small steps allow us to adjust our fears incrementally.

An interesting parallel observation from Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams  by Dr. Matthew Walker is that our REM sleep provides the brain with a great “fear eraser.” A good night’s sleep, which is for toddlers like 12 hours, sanitizes the day’s experience, so we don’t have to relive the scary stuff we go through. Without this wonderful capacity, we would, like those suffering PTSD, have to repeat our traumas nighty.

So, dear reader, this is the where, for lack of a better term, “mindfulness” comes in. Intuitively we sense the child’s stress when they are approaching a new challenge and want to ease their fear. We need to be sensitive to this moment for, while it may seem trivial to us as adults, we have to feel in our gut as if we too are standing at a precipice. I use the term “gut” here with special emphasis. Too often when playing with our children we are completely in our head, while the child is using their sympathetic nervous system, literally the brain in their digestive system. This means that we have a real emotional disconnect with our child that does neither of us much good.

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Our colleague, Lenore Skenazy, at LetGrow.org writes daily about the evils of helicopter parenting. Her blogs are very worth checking out as she deals with the everyday fears and challenges that come with raising children in a society that will lock you up for letting your kids play in the front yard without you standing over them with an umbrella in one hand and a first aid kit in the other.

Over the next month, I will return to more of the discoveries that come out of my reading of the Playful Brain. I figure that’s one of my jobs, to read the studies and bring you their insights, so stay tuned.

Play and Nurture Space

 Mom

Curious creatures that we are, humans seem to be able to make anything into a “science,” empty space, cow farts, literally anything. Did you know that there is a science of how close we stand to each other? It’s for real, and it’s called Proxemics, which is a part of Kinesics, the study of body language, I kid you not. These disciplines may seem obscure but, because they enable us to make visible the otherwise hidden, they can tell us something significant about child development and parenting.

Why is this important? Over the last several decades, early child development experts have established that there may be no more critical parental task than ensuring a secure child/parent attachment. Children with insecure attachment can be disruptive, destructive, controlling or attention-seeking. At the other end of the spectrum, they may be withdrawn, rejecting or clingy. And here’s the thing, these days about 50% of all children come to school with attachment issues, 50%!

Now, for many of these children, their lack of a secure attachment may not become a significant disability but just be one of the many challenges they face in life. But as a parent, you will want to know how your child is doing in this regard and how to ensure a secure attachment. To do this, you will have to become a bit of a scientist yourself.

Let’s see what tools the science of proxemics can offer us.

6127-09035002elevator 2

Humans are supremely social animals and being able to successfully navigate among all the people we encounter takes very sophisticated social skills. Proxemics looks at the space that surrounds us and identifies four different types of space, public, social, personal and public. The images above illustrate the all too common challenge of moving from public space to intimate space with total strangers. While this is uncomfortable for almost everyone, individuals who have insecure attachment find this highly distressing.

The issue is control. We generally don’t object to other people being in our intimate space if we give permission. Thus, the elevator is uncomfortable, the doctor’s office somewhat less, and nursing our baby actually pleasurable.

Children who have secure parental bonds are able to move from public space to intimate space effortlessly. Insecure children will struggle in various degrees. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage socially, and eventually academically and professionally.

space

Antonio Damasio (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

 What does this have to do with play?

I’ve made promoting rough and tumble play something of a personal campaign as I believe that play in all its forms, but especially those types of play that involve personal contact, act therapeutically for that 50 % of children who are insecurely attached.

If children do not have close and trusted bonds with their parents and siblings, how do children learn to express affection in appropriate ways? How do they learn their boundaries and communicate them?

rough

The good news is that there are great ways to overcome the lack of social competence that results from insecure attachment.  Babies, of course, break down all of our barriers and this shows us that the earlier we address the issue, the easier and more natural it will be. I’ve tried to get adults to give each other a big group hug and, believe me, you can cut the initial discomfort with a knife.

I am committing the last few years of my career to Gymboree Play and Music because one of the highest priorities for Play and Music is to create a safe place for parents and children to play, and through play to develop and enhance the child/parent bond.

Oh, and have fun too.

Play and the Thinking Body

 

Ice cream sunday

When it comes to educating children, we seem to be stuck with what I call the “ice cream Sunday” model. That is, we focus on the cerebral cortex as if this was all there is to thinking. Imagine if all there was to desert is the over processed cherry on the top, ugh.

Our fixation on stuffing more facts and learning into the brain ignores how we really think. It’s as if the only thing that counts on a computer is the microprocessor, when in fact, the display, mouse, memory, keyboard, and most fundamentally the connection to the internet is what turns a lump of silicone into a thinking machine.

I like the Sunday meme, let’s go with that. If we think of the cerebral cortex as the cherry, what lays below is the limbic system, or so-called “lizard brain” because it is so old, which controls most of our emotional life. For the for first few years babies are almost entirely controlled by this area of the brain. A lot of the function of this organ is to regulate all of the various chemicals that modulate and control emotion. In our Sunday meme, all that whipped cream.

Most of the information processing is conducted by neurons, also known as nerve cells.  These are electrically excitable cells that receive, process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Surprise! Neurons are not just located in the head.  They are also found in the heart. If you’d like a deep dive on this subject and learn about the parasympathetic nervous system, there is a great film, Of Hearts and Minds, that goes into the science in great detail.

But wait there’s more! How about the old saying “Go with your gut”?

Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.  Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract. 

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection

also see: https://www.thecut.com/article/a-thinking-persons-guide-to-going-with-your-gut.html

OK, that’s it, right? Wrong. There is a whole other system you probably know very little about. You see, every muscle, every organ in your body is held in what is, in essence, a bag. These bags are made up of collagen and are called fascia. It is said that skin is our largest organ, but the facia is many times larger, and yes, in a way it thinks. Facia contains neurons and participates in the chemical soup that is part of the whole process.

So back to the Sunday. What we are talking about is the mind. That mysterious entity that has confounded philosophers from time immemorial. We literally think with our whole Sunday of body parts.

As impressive as all this is, what does it have to do with play?

Children spend the bulk of their first six years learning through play. Play is a whole-body curriculum and does a truly astonishing job of turning a baby into a functioning human. And then just when the kids are getting ready to take flight, we send them off to school where 99% of the curriculum is about only one part of the brain.

Just think about that.  No wait, feel about that, use your whole body-mind and ask yourself, “Is there a better way?”