Development of Play

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Well, August sure did announce itself didn’t it? Phew, triple digits here in the Valley today! I hope you are all someplace cool and/or wet and shady!

What a fun morning! I had a big group on the morning call, and it just so happened that 3 of the families who joined at one point had children who had been in class together before, so it was a bit of a reunion. What a treat! It was a delight to have the opportunity to watch the children become aware of someone familiar on the screen…to a person, they went from animated and boisterous to suddenly very still and watchful, for about a minute…then back to play, while sometimes occasionally checking in. Yes, there was definitely some checking in as two of the children imitated one another’s play…who knew? Parallel play via zoom? Yes! It can happen!

I really enjoy having the opportunity to watch children play again…It is such a gift to watch how children think and problem-solve, and just like we do in classes, on these zoom chats, you can see the variations in children’s interests. I like to emphasize interests over ‘abilities’ here because yes, children have varying levels of adeptness in basic skills. As we observe each other’s children, it’s easy to wonder why your child can’t do something you see another doing very well. After all, when I watch my husband play his guitar beautifully, I know it’s because he has skills that I don’t have, but wish that I did. It’s tempting to apply the same idea to your child…I wish my child could put together puzzles like that child does! But it’s not that the other child is more brilliant…just differently brilliant. Development doesn’t seamlessly unroll, but often occurs in steps. So a child who is obsessed with blocks and building may not have as many words as a child that is more focused on books and pretend play. That’s okay! They will catch up! And interests definitely lead development, all through life…my husband is so skilled with the guitar because he was passionately interested in it as a teenager. Me? I was into babysitting and writing short stories. Hmm….

But speaking of block play, which I saw quite a bit of this morning, it took me back to a Pikler Training I attended several years ago. I was telling parents on the call that we spent a week on block play alone, but I went back and checked my notes…nope, only a day, but still…it made quite the impact on me. As well it should have. “Block play stimulates learning in all domains of development, intellectual, physical, and social-emotional and language. The current research shows that block play is fundamental for later cognitive success for learning math and numbers.” I pulled that quotation for a summary on the importance of block play for preschoolers, but what is interesting to me is that they start with toddlers. In my Pikler training, we went all the way back to infancy. We started by watching children discover the relationship between their own hands, then the relationship to a single object in a hand, then an object in each hand…the exploration and learning at each stage was vital to the next. How does block play evolve? First an object on the floor, then objects in a line, then the line of objects gets adjusted and refined…and then the building begins to move vertically.

Why is that so important? Why is block play so vital?

It shows us that children now are synthesizing many domains…spatial awareness, balance, motor planning, fine motor skills, an understanding of gravity and physics… Going deeper, it shows us that they can create something new that wasn’t there before. Yes, block play is more than spatial awareness and physics…it is also part of symbolic thinking and therefore part of the building blocks* of language. So when I see children nesting objects, lining them up, and the stacking and building, I get so excited! When you are watching children’s play, you are literally watching their brains grow and develop!

That’s something I always say, too, about watching children’s physical play and movement, which I also got to see a little of on the call…one toddler delighted in jumping on her bed, sliding off of it, flipping and kicking her legs, rolling around, and, of course, running in and out of the room. Another explored a very awesome looking indoor playset that I fully plan to look into (or encourage my husband to replicate…!). As we were checking it out, I remarked that children love to swing because it helps organize their brains (and yes, spinning in circles does, too!). It reminded me of Sally Goddard-Blythe’s lovely and short piece, Why Children Love to Roll and Tumble. Her work is where I learned that the first sense to develop is actually balance… “it is vital for posture, movement and a sense of ‘centre’ in space, time, motion, depth, and self.” The vestibular sense matures around ages 7-8, so until then, children absolutely need to be in motion to learn…indeed, I think I still need to be in motion to learn! I’m a kinesthetic learner…I feel like I know the information better when I process it physically somehow…it’s in my body as well as in my brain.

I love how she talks about how a child that is still working on muscle control will practice walking along a low wall: have you seen children do that? Balance along a curb or low wall? One foot over the other, arms outstretched? That type of movement may not make you nervous, but how about when it’s along the back of a couch? Or, as happened frequently in my classroom, along the tops of the boxes? It’s hard to watch children challenge themselves, putting themselves into risky situations. But risky play is also vital and important to children’s development (which is why it is imperative to have a safe environment…and to be close and observe when the environment isn’t safe). Risky play in early childhood can help develop a child’s self-confidence, resilience, executive functioning abilities and risk management skills…and it even can reduce the risk of injury! Did you know that in 60 years of operation, Loczy only had a single instance of a significant injury? It was a broken arm…a 2 year old who recently came to the orphanage, having not had the opportunity for natural motor development and risky play.

What is involved with risky play? Climbing high; going fast; using real tools and objects; being in a slightly dangerous environment; hiding; and rough and tumble play. As I look over the list, I’m reminded again of Anji play and the pictures of their outdoor environments, because often risky play is in nature (and sometimes the kitchen!). Risky play is also risky for you, as parents, am I right? It is hard to watch your child balance precariously or use scissors for the first time…it is our job to protect, right? But remember, as Ms. Cheng of Anji Play says, “Risk is not danger. It is risk, and it prepares the child to adapt better in new environments and responsibility for her own safety.” This article provides an excellent overview, and I appreciate their idea of the 17 second rule…when you want to jump in because you see your child doing something risky, see if you can wait just 17 seconds. Step back “and see how your child is reacting to the situation so that you can actually get a better sense of what they are capable of when you’re not getting in the way.” (You knew I would love that right? The advice is what the Educaring Approach is all about: slow down and observe!)

Lastly, a continuing conversation that I have with folks is about how to engage with other families in the time of covid. There are so many articles and studies coming out, it’s enough to make your head spin. Ultimately, each family will make their own decisions about how to spread their wings and start engaging again. And again, I’ll point you to the very excellent Facebook group, LA Peds and Parents: A Covid Kid Forum. It has a wealth of information from both parents and pediatricians, with lots of articles and things to think about. But one of the first things that people talk about in these conversations is worry about accidental exposure because not all families are on the same page in terms of social-distancing and mask-wearing. That makes sense…we’re not all on the same page about co-sleeping, preschools, media exposure, boundary-setting…we’re all individuals. But the thing that makes fear fade is communication; communication leads to trust.

Thank you for your time today. I can’t wait to do this again.

*Sorry, couldn’t resist…”building blocks” during a discussion of block play…

Oh, and of course, our weekly excerpt from The Parents’ Tao Te Ching:

39. Are You in the Way?

Wise parents let things unfold
with as little interference as possible.
They remain out of the way,
not calling attention to themselves.
Their children discover
the natural harmony of things,
and work out their conflicts
in ways that establish true peace.

When parents interfere,
and constantly meddle in their children’s lives,
the natural order is forgotten.
Conflicts are escalated,
learning is curtailed,
and confusion reigns.
There are certainly times when we should guide.
We naturally want to protect our children,
and teach them what we have learned.
But it is best when we let that guidance
be as unobtrusive
and gentle as possible.
Forcing lessons on our children
may get the immediate results we want.
But our children may be left without discernment,
unable to build internal strength of character.
What are your children in the midst of learning now?

Are you in the way?