Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Play, Brains, & Emotions

“Children today are under much greater stresses than were children a generation or two ago, in part because the world is a more dangerous and complicated place to grow up in, and in part because their need to be protected, nurtured, and guided has been neglected.” – David Elkind

6,000 children were kicked out of preschool last year – PRESCHOOL! They are hitting and biting each other at a higher rate than ever before. I think a large part of the reason is threat and stress. Their brains are not prepared for growing academic expectations of the new preschool, and the brains instruct their owners to bite out of anger and frustration.

One of the things we know about the brain is how it reacts to threat. When threatened, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, releasing cortisol and sending the individual into a state of fight or flight. Blood is taken away from the BRAIN and internal organs and is given to the extremities, so the individual is prepared to fight or run away quickly and NOT ABLE TO LEARN (Browder, 1984; Jensen, 1998). So, the first thing to do is eliminate threat (the negatives). Possible sources of threat and stress are nagging, scolding, loss of privileges, parent phone calls, sarcasm, high stakes tests, threat of harsh punishment, poor peer relationships, crowded environments, embarrassment, humiliation, inadequate resources, and language/cultural barriers. Eliminating threat makes it possible to learn and creates a condition where brain enrichment and playful learning will work. Then and only then can we work on the positive potential and power of play!

Educators can also teach children about stress and about how to de-stress themselves through time-management, breathing techniques, useful down time, relationships skills, and peer support. We must apply the research that shows that active playful learning with periods of rest, game play, dramatic play, exercise, discussion, positive rituals, celebrations, physical activity, stretching, dance, walking and creative writing are effective ways to reduce threat.

After eliminating threat, we can intentionally elicit more positive emotions. Emotions drive attention and create meaning out of dry facts and information. The brain is like the clay of the potter - shaped and formed. We know that through playful and enriching experiences, the brain will develop a thicker cortex, more dendritic branching, more growth spines, larger cell bodies, more support cells, more blood supply, more neural networks and more intricate connections between neurons.

While the brain is able to set goals, it takes emotion to build the motivation to accomplish those goals. The emotional “binding” or emotional “seasoning” affects of emotions such as happiness surprise or excitement enhances synaptic connections and provides an additional hook for remembering material. “The close emotional attunement derived from play is critical to healthy brain development” (Gunnar, 1996).

Recently my family took a trip to Hawaii. Before our trip I read travel brochures, watched DVD’s, watched travel channel shows, talked to people who had been there, and even read the novel Hawaii by James Michener. I learned a lot from my research. If we had cancelled our trip, I still would have retained some of that knowledge. But then we went there. We played in the sand, swam in the water, touched the plant life, explored tropical spaces, and experienced the emotions that came out of our playful experience in Hawaii. The amount that I learned through the experience far exceeds what I learned from the books, videos, and people who told me about it.

The emotional state of the children is directly related to student learning, so we must facilitate the positive emotions and emotional development. Humans often abuse substances to get to an immediate emotional state which may be more productively attained through playful experiences, successes, friendships, celebrations, community service projects, clubs, dancing, sports, and building positive relationships with peers and adults. We must create programs that provide the environments, relationships and experiences that promote the nurturing of a positive emotional state – playful learning does that. Learning should be intrinsically rewarding - it should be fun.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Play and Self-Discipline - Self-Direction

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
Vygotsky said that in play, children do what they feel like because play is connected with pleasure. Early on, play is more about the imaginary situation than the rules

At the same time, they learn to obey rules. Children learn to renounce what they want - obey rules and delay immediate desires in order to experience maximum pleasure in play.

Play continually creates demands on the child to act against immediate impulse. I’m playing hide and seek and I’m IT. I want to run off and seek at once, but the rules of the game order me to wait and count to twenty. Why do I not do what I want, spontaneously and at once? So that I can have fun! Because following the rules of the game provides greater pleasure than the gratification of an immediate impulse.

The will and sense of self-discipline that people develop originates in, and develops from, PLAY with rules. Children exhibit their greatest self-control in play. They achieve the maximum willPOWER by following the rules and resisting temptations to act impulsively. As they grow up and the imaginary situation is removed, the rules remain, and they behave as they did in play. They follow life’s rules as a choice – self-discipline.

There are famous studies of self-control where researchers have a child in a room with a bowl of marshmallows. The researcher tells the child not to eat the candy yet and then leaves the room to observe from behind a two-way mirror. Many children are unable to resist the temptation and eat the marshmallows, others use strategies like sitting on their hands or looking away in order to resist the temptation.

Now imagine another situation. A couple of kids are playing a game, using marshmallows as game pieces. In this game the children are not allowed to eat the marshmallows because they represent something inedible. In play, these children can exhibit enormous self control, and maximize learning when adults are there to scaffold the learning and help them learn more and make life connections.

Play is the primary source of development in children. Children develop positively through play. Play gives children practice figuring out what they want, coming up with goals and ideas – essential skills in self-disciplined adults. In play, children make decisions and determine the course of what happens in the imaginary situation. Play is the essence of childhood learning, the leading activity that determines the child’s development. Self-discipline, the formation of real-life plans, and decision-making motives all appear in play. Play gives children new forms of desires – to their role in the game and its rules. Therefore children’s greatest achievements are possible in play – achievements that tomorrow will become the basis for their life decisions and their morality. From a child development perspective, play is a means of developing the cognitive POWERS of abstract thought and self-discipline.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Play and Abstract Thought

In PLAY children learn to think abstractly!

“Through play the child develops abstract meaning separate from the objects in the world which is a critical feature in the development of all higher mental functions.” – Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky believed that in play, “thought becomes separated from objects” (a stick becomes a horse) and “action begins to be driven by meaning and ideas, not by the objects” (play is driven by the meaning of a horse not the stick).  The ability to separate the meaning of horse from a real horse, transfer it to a stick, and really act with the stick as if it were a horse is a crucial transitional stage toward the POWER of abstract thought, a giant leap forward in cognitive development.

In play, children unconsciously and spontaneously make use of the fact that they can separate meaning from an object without knowing they are doing it.  For example, children first separate meaning from objects when they play with a stick like a horse.   Unconsciously they are exploring metaphor and simile.  As this knowledge is internalized they acquire language and abstract thought (the ability to understand how “love is like a red rose”) because they already unconsciously learned that a stick is like a horse. 

When my daughter was five, we played the game “adult talk.”  We sat on the porch and had “grown-up” conversations – discussing the weather, the kids, the family, the job according to the rules of how grown-ups talk.  She would also ask me if I had any high-interest credit card debt or whether I had any stubborn belly fat (sometimes what they learn is TAUGHT, sometimes it is just CAUGHT, in this case from TV).  She was unconsciously making use of the knowledge of speaking formally, acting like an adult and having a grown-up conversation. She did not know that she was learning to speak in prose (formal, ordinary written language) – but she was. 

Adult life begins in imagination. Play is fertile ground for the development of imagination, but these days there is little time for exercising the imagination, fantasy, or creativity – the mental tools required for success in higher-level math and science (Elkind, 2007)  Piaget said, “Play is the answer to the question, How does anything new ever come about?”  Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Thomas Edison said, “To be a great inventor, all you need is a good imagination and a pile of junk.  When the greatest minds and inventors of our time were asked, “How did you think of that?”  They often respond, “Well I was in my lab PLAYING, when I had a thought…”  Children practice their thoughts in play.   Through play children learn how to think!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Promoting the Potential of Playful Learning

“Without Play – without the child that still lives in all of us, we will always be incomplete.  And not only physically, but creatively, intellectually, and spiritually as well.”  -George Sheehan

Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk about global warming – an eminent “crisis.”  I’m more concerned about another crisis – the withering of imagination and creativity, and the entrance of adult-like stress into the world of childhood learning.  I am more worried about the loss of childhood than the loss of the ozone layer.  Robert Fulgrum wrote a famous book entitled, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Life I Learned in Kindergarten.”  Robert might have learned life’s lessons in kindergarten, but not so for the kindergarteners of today.  Kindergarteners today learn what Robert might have learned in first or second grade.  Life skills are not on the tests, so they are eliminated because they are not essential.  With children, we are beginning to do things earlier and earlier that we shouldn’t even be doing later.  The elimination of physical education, art, and music; the elimination of project based learning in favor of push-down curriculum, standardized teaching, high-stakes testing and the counter-productive focus on “academic achievement” over LEARNING is a threat to our future of our planet.  Playful, social, interactive learning is threatened with extinction.  Life skills and social skills can help to solve most of the problems we have on our planet.  In the environment of learning, if play goes extinct – we can kiss life skills and social skills goodbye.  That’s the “inconvenient truth.”

There are people who believe that play is a slothful waste of time – “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground.”  I grew up with one - my next door neighbor.  He seemed to be lying in wait for a kids to play, so that he could put an end to it.  If a ball went into his yard, we would draw straws to decide who had to go into his yard to retrieve it.  At best he would just yell at us to get off his lawn, “You’re crushing my GRASS!”  A worst he would take the ball away and destroy it.

Play is not the opposite of work.  Together, work and play are pleasurable.  Play without work is merely entertainment.  Work without play is painful.  Play is the essence of childhood learning.  Playful learning assists children to develop to their maximum potential.  Through play children become bigger than themselves – larger than life.  They become kings of their own hills, athletes, heroes, magicians, or fairy princesses – beyond their own limits toward maximum potential. 

Recently, I was at the beach with my family.  My daughter built a sand castle and was playing by herself when a boy approached and asked if he could play too.  She agreed and for a while they both played by her rules.  Then the plot changed when the boy announced that the castle was on fire and poured a bucket of water on it – firefighter to the rescue.  My daughter was not happy about this turn of events, and the partial destruction of the castle, but she played along.  She rebuilt part of the castle and then decided to introduce a person to this situation and took out a Barbie-type doll – the princess.  A few minutes later the boy poured water on her doll and announced, “She’s drowning” – once again the plot thickens!  My daughter snatched her princess up and clutched her close.  At this the boy begged and pleaded her to let the princess drown, promising “this time I’ll save her!”  As their play continued I thought about how many things they were potentially learning about in this situation – conflict, pleasure, heroism, love, drama, destruction, construction, and making the best of whatever the tide brings in!

When children are playing at being a fire fighter, they are not learning to fight fires; rather, they are learning how to relate to people in diverse situations, how to adapt, how to think, how to make decisions, how to form relationships, how to generate possibilities, and how to guide their own behavior.  They learn how to make decisions and plans – in fact they often spend more time planning the roles of the imaginary situation than actually playing the game. Through play, children become wonderful learners.  Through play, children learn how to learn.

Lev Vygotsky's concept of a zone of proximal development (зона ближайшего развития) or ZPD is the gap - the distance between their actual developmental level (what children can do on their own) and their level of POTENTIAL development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers (what children can do with help).  It is the level of actual development that a standardized test measures.  Two children might have the same level of actual development, in the sense of being able to solve the same number of problems on some standardized test.  But, given appropriate help from an adult or another child, one child might be able to solve an additional dozen problems while the other child might be able to solve only three more. 

Vygotsky states “… play creates the zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior.” 

Speaking of being a head taller…I was at Disneyland a while ago.  At the entrance to many rides was a sign that said, “You must be this tall to ride this ride.”  I watched as children stood as straight and tall as they could; they poofed up their hair, they put on a hat, they stood on their tippy toes; they tried to be bigger than they are in order to have fun and play.  In schools, we do not say you must be this tall – be at this developmental level to start school.  We say you must be five years old by September 1st to enter Kindergarten.  Imagine two children at the same actual level of development.  Johnny turns five on August 31 and Amanda turns five on September1.  Amanda starts first grade while Johnny has another year to play and develop.  Within a few weeks, Amanda is being tested for dyslexia, developmentally delayed syndrome and a special education program.  Johnny starts kindergarten the following year in within a few weeks he is labeled as gifted!

The theory of a ZPD argues that children develop best, not through unaccompanied passive learning (on their own), but through
social interaction and collaborative problem-solving (with help).  Full development of the ZPD depends upon full social interaction. The range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone.  Playful and interactive learning drives children beyond their actual level of development.  Through play children develop MORE - towards a greater POTENTIAL. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

ABC’s of professional, purposeful, and powerful programming practices!

These ABC’s are philosophical foundations. They are new and powerful paradigms. Paradigms are like mental models that we all have about the way things should be done in afterschool programs. These ABC’s might challenge the paradigms or mental models that you might carry in your own mind. We challenge you to consider these shifts and the way you may think about how afterschool programs should be.


Autonomy is the ability to act independently, to be self-governing. Autonomy is a paradigm shift away from “herding.” Many in the afterschool profession view themselves as herders of children. After school, they herd children into an area where they take attendance, then they herd children into an area in which to “graze” on graham crackers and juice, then they herd them into an area where they all sit quietly and work on their homework, then they herd them into an adult-controlled activity or onto the playground for free play until their parents arrive.

In order for kids to build a sense of autonomy, they must feel that the program community values and appreciates them. They must be given useful roles in the program. They must be involved in service to others. Children plan and follow through with activity choices that have meaning for them. Children with autonomy have a strong sense of identity, sense of purpose and personal power. Adults see themselves as facilitators of children’s dreams and ideas. Children with autonomy are not controlled by adults – they are “self disciplined.”

Autonomy is a paradigm shift away from an “adult-controlled” philosophy. When we try to control children through power and punishment, children learn only to avoid our penalties. They become good at being sneaky and avoiding getting caught. The long-term consequences of over-supervision are children who cannot think and make decisions for themselves.

Children must learn to control their own behavior. To develop self-discipline, children must be given the opportunity to take risks without the fear of failure, and they must learn to try things repeatedly in order to succeed. If we do not give children the autonomy to solve their own problems, we cannot expect them to become independent problem solvers. Self-discipline has a positive effect on self-esteem, teaching children that they are significant and have autonomy and control over their own lives.


In the past decade children have lost 16 hours per week of unstructured free time. It is no wonder children are suffering from the same stress-related illnesses as busy adults. Children these days are being forced perform well on tests and to grow up too fast, and this pressure makes it difficult for children to build strong relationships. To become happy and successful adults, children need a sense of belonging and membership.

Play fosters belonging. Playfulness is a paradigm shift away from “busy-ness.” Play is more than having fun, more than resting; it is the essence of childhood learning. When children play and have fun in afterschool programs they remember what they learn better. What we learn with pleasure, we never forget. When children and staff play together they develop a strong sense of belonging and a strong sense of community.

Belonging is a paradigm shift away from “activity-led” programming. Activity-led philosophies create a curriculum that is centered on the activities without attention to purpose, to the ethical dimension of community building, thus missing an opportunity to facilitate the social development of the child. Community building must be built into intentional programming in the environment, relationships, and experiences. It involves leadership sharing, teaching caring behaviors, teaching altruism, and teaching empathy. Every decision that children make is filtered through the understanding of who they are and how they fit in to the group. Giving children in our programs useful roles, meaningful work and tasks to accomplish builds a strong sense of community and belonging and membership to the group.


To succeed in life, children must acquire adequate behaviors, and skills = competencies. Skills such as planning, decision-making, resistance skills, health skills, social, emotional, intellectual, and physical competencies are crucial. Poor social skills are linked to a number of problems in adolescence and adulthood including delinquency, school suspensions, truancy, dropout rates, and mental health problems.

Afterschool programs have a unique opportunity to facilitate the development of crucial competencies. Building competencies is a paradigm shift away from “sophistication.” People often exclaim how children are “so much more mature now than in the past.” What they actually mean is that children are more sophisticated or precocious. They know so much more about sex, drugs, and the dark side of human behavior or “street smarts.” This is sophistication, not maturity. This sophistication comes from the rapid bombardment of adult information freely accessed through television, the Internet, and developing technology. Adults must help children to develop the skills needed to process adult information and formulate ethical questions. Children develop competencies through interactions with others under the guidance of mature adults.

Social competencies can be taught formally and informally. Staff can sit kids down and describe the skill and provide opportunities to practice the skill through activities, skits, or role plays. Staff can also teach skills informally using the teachable moment in a natural setting – teaching conflict resolution when a conflict occurs, or teaching patience skills when a lack of patience occurs. Be intentional – design the environment, relationships, and experiences of your program in a way that strategically targets specific developmental outcomes for children and staff.

Think about the competencies your children need to learn at their unique stage of development, and design your activities around teaching that skill, OR think about what skills are needed or can be taught through an activity you already enjoy and incorporate specific skill building into the activity. Make the continual development of skills a powerful part of the culture of the entire afterschool organization. Ensure all of your activities have a purpose – building autonomy, belonging, and competencies.

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