2010-11 Retrospective
More than Child’s Play

As a culture we tend to discount play as a resource beyond the ages of childhood, and yet play is often how we navigate any new experience. Play is an integral element in our lives, enriching how we interact with the world. In the educational curriculum play is often delegated to early learning centers where it then becomes derailed in middle school to be replaced by catchy gadgets designed to stimulate and entertain. The value of play is in its creativity which engages the mind to create and make connections out of the unknown. The process of play has the potential to develop multiple learning dimensions that are relatable throughout one’s life. While play is often considered a trivial childhood pastime, its resource for developing innovative and flexible problem solving is needed for navigating many of the complex issues we face in society.

The role of play in Early Childhood Development (ECD) facilitates multiple learning concepts. The four basics are physical, cognitive, social and emotional. In the early childhood setting play is the first tool to facilitate learning of these concepts that will continue into adulthood. In “Teaching Young Children: An Introduction,” Michael Henniger a professor at Western Washington University, shares that “play is a crucial way in which children learn about language, develop intellectual concepts, build social relationships and understandings, strengthen physical skills, and deal with stress” (Henniger 5). Play provides multisensory experiences that engage children to make sense of the world around them and their place within it. Advocate for children through research and educational speaking platforms, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg reports that when children play “they become masters of their world through the development of new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges” (Ginsburg 183).  As each challenge is accomplished, children begin to build a base of resource able elements that can be called on for each new challenge.

Play teaches children how to adapt to change with the flexibility of innovative thinking, decision making and the self-confidence to experiment. Jean Piaget, an early philosopher for (ECE) who established several theories on cognitive development, has termed ‘constructive learning’ as a descriptor on the process of learning. In constructive learning “we are all constantly receiving new information and engaging in experiences that lead us to revise our understanding of the world” (Henniger 45). Play is the vehicle of discovery for developing infinite possibilities which cultivates early problem solving and adaptability in children. An example is two children who are playing with blocks to create an elaborate structure. Working together, they are negotiating the early signs of problem solving by sharing in the development of their construction. One wants to build tall sky scrapers while the other wants to build a small city by the bay. All four of the basic learning skills are engaged in this activity: The physical with fine motor skills; Cognitive development with spatial awareness towards balance, shape and color, plus early mathematics; Social and Emotional development is engaged as the two generate ideas through interaction and the testing of solutions. These children begin to gain self-confidence and control by their shared ability to co-create their inspired vision. This illustrates how play stimulates active learning for children by engaging their naturally innovative minds. The importance of play has been “recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child” (Ginsburg 182) This law recognizes the multi-dimensional value of play as a facilitator for education, abstract learning and the pleasure of free (non-adult-directed) play. Play allows children to be themselves, to reflect on what they know by implementing it in their play, to interact with peers, and to experience the fun of learning new things.

Creative play has taken a recent backseat with the passing of “No Child Left Behind Act” in 2002. The act was formulated to provide support to children who were falling through the cracks in academia, yet its repercussions have changed the curriculum offered in many schools. It is a reflection of how the best intentions can have adverse effects for children. Nationwide, many school districts are “responding to the pressure by reducing time committed to recess, the creative arts and even physical education in an effort to focus on” academic standards for all children (Ginsberg 4). Though some of these standards may be important for advancing children’s ability to meet the competitive job market in today’s society; “this change may have implications on children’s ability to store new information, because children’s cognitive capacity is enhanced by clear-cut and significant changes in activity. Children need free unscheduled time for creative growth, self-reflection and decompression” (Ginsberg 4, 185). By lessening play opportunities, many educators are discounting the value of free associative play that fosters cognitive development through social-emotional learning in favor of intellectual standards. In “Play and Social Interaction in Middle School,” Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology, and  Doris Pronin Fromberg, a professor of education, show that “when children have had opportunities to practice pretense and use their imaginations, researchers have found that they’re more able to be patient and perseverant, as well as imagine the future” (Bergen & Fromberg 4). Children need this down time in order to absorb and learn advanced reading, mathematics, the critical thinking of the sciences and the cognitive development involved in social interactions. Fostering imaginative play provides children with non-adult-directed activities and supports children’s abilities to make their own conscious decisions, allowing them to have some control within their lives.

Through play, many children experiment by role playing adult behaviors, exploring their evolving self-identity by acting out different “selves.” Similarities are seen across the species as many young animals use what appears to be play to explore themselves and their environment. William Crain a psychology professor at the City College of New York has been researching the connection to play in our earliest ancestors. In his article “Is Children’s Play Innate?” Crain explores through research, the role of play across all young mammalian species. Studies are showing play as a universal presence for every mammal observed. There are several hypotheses on the adaptive value of play seeing it as “developing the capacity to improvise and therefore handle unexpected events” (Crain). Play is also seen as a self-assessment tool of animals’ potential capabilities. Watching young kittens is an example of learning through play. Their rough and tumble aggressive rushes relate to hunting behavior which aids in their survival. Cats constantly modify their behavior as they observe and learn; in this way, play provides a blueprint of social skills that are learned through creative exploration.

This early wiring of connective links is the brain developing synapses through the vehicle of experience. Human babies are born with 100 billion neurons awaiting the forming reinforcements that the experience of their environment provides. In “Learning with the Brainin Mind,” Frank McNeil, an educational researcher, shows “it is our sensory experience which provides the brain with the basic resources to make sense of our world. Children need time to attend, observe and engage in the world with their senses in order to differentiate and form concepts” (McNeil 61). Play facilitates this by its open-ended and often multi-sensory engagement.  Chris Mercogliano, author, editor and writer for the journal Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, addresses the role of the brain through play showing that when the brain “encounters something new it releases increased quantities of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. At the neural level,” these hormones “activate the brain’s attentional networks and energize all of the cognitive areas that cooperate to make learning happen” (Mercogliano 13). Play stimulates our active brains to make new connections which build on the matrix of evolving concepts. The experience of play is often the most enjoyable because it is the exploration of new and exciting territory.  There has been “recent brain and heart research showing that positive emotions have profoundly beneficial neurological effects on the learning process” (Mercogliano 13). Play makes learning fun and by fostering play as a useful tool throughout life society may reap the benefits of its innovative problem solving potential.

The development of learning is often stimulated by product play. In the early stages of child development young children begin to conceptualize the world around them through products that enhance their creative learning. A few examples are playing with blocks, puzzle shapes, books, art and dramatic play. As children progress in age, however, product play can become the standard activity that drives their creative play. As a culture many humans are driven by the commodification of acquiring and playing with their adult toys. Through the media we are driven by the newest and greatest “something,” which culturally models to children our materialistic values. By “modeling this materialistic approach to play and childhood, many children have gotten the message that valid experiences are bought experiences” (Wilson 9). This changes the perception of play as a creative endeavor for children’s expression of self. For play to develop innovative thinking and problem solving skills, children need opportunities to engage their minds beyond some of the passive play that can develop with an attachment to products for their entertainment.  In older children it is important to counter balance product play with equal amounts of process play which engages their natural curiosity and aids in the progressive development of problem solving (adapting to change), a needed skill in today’s society. In life there are various events which call on us to adapt and respond to changes, like housing decisions, job/career/education, personal relationships, community service, birth of children, environmental concerns, voting/politics, personal expenses, travel, etc. These experiences require creative adaptability to the changing landscape within one’s life. Children need to develop the resiliency to cope with change by strengthening their innovative and imaginative critical thinking skills; and children need adult mentors who will support their creative process (often through play) for discovering their own path through the diverse problems/changes we face as an evolving culture.

Process play is a creative outlet that is often facilitated by open-ended play experiences which engage children’s minds to think outside the box. In process play ordinary objects become extraordinary. Dorothy G. Singer, a research scientist and Jerome L. Singer, a professor of psychology, share insights from their research in Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age.Child development shows that “when children use objects to replace other objects in play (a block becomes a boat) this sets the stage for abstract thought” through symbolism (Singer & Singer 28). An example is the power of an ordinary cardboard box. It has the power to become anything a child imagines: a race car, a house/fort, a submarine, a robot, a flying saucer, a doorway to another realm, etc. The box represents a vessel for whatever the playful heart desires. (My cat loves cardboard boxes, no matter what the size. Is he engaging in the mystery of infinite possibility by playing with unknown and abstract images?) Penny Wilson, a “playworker” around the world who facilitates play studies and creates environments driven to cultivate self-reliant and exploratory risk takers shares “it is a universally acknowledged truth that a child will play more happily with a cardboard box than with the present that came in it” (Wilson 10). Granted this usually peaks between the ages of two to six years, however, give any child an appliance box and watch the creative innovation of process play emerge. Play is rooted in our “biological, psychological and social genetics. Children need to discover the world for themselves if their play drives are to allow them to come at the world creatively” (Wilson 30).  Process play stimulates problem solving solutions through its adaptive reactions to changing experiences and environments. Using the creative imagination in this way enhances the joy in play; and considering the last 20 years of research in positive psychology, “positive emotions increase attention and memory, facilitate open thinking and innovative problem solving, and promote cooperation and sociability” (Mercogliano). Play changes the dynamics of problems or obstacles making them games or puzzles to be solved.

Process play is considered unstructured play because it creates open-ended opportunities to learn and adapt too many of life’s complexities. The process of unstructured and “undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills” (Ginsburg 2). This illustrates the need for balance between the structured play of academia and the free associative play of diverse learning styles that are unique to the individual. Penny Wilson adds that when we organize every second of children’s awake time, filling their days with action plans devised to mold them for adulthood, we teach them to bypass play in favor of our own structured and hurried lifestyles (Wilson 15). When adults support the expression of play for children, we model the value of creative diversity for exploring the world. By engaging and supporting children in play “adults provide real choices where children can build the trust they need to cope with solving physical,” emotional and social dilemmas/obstacles (Bergen & Fromberg 4). Instead of creating carbon copies, we can teach and support children to honor their uniquely creative adaptations in the world as they eventually evolve toward leaving the nest to become competent, independent and community conscious individuals.

Early problem solving is strengthened when children are left to their own devices such as that in nature. A fairly new concept called “nature-deficit disorder” considers that children lack direct exposure to the natural world which they need to develop a healthy physical and emotional self-concept. However outdoor play is dwindling for many children in our culture and “nature-deficit disorder” is a response to this disconnection from nature. Outdoor play creates opportunities for children to investigate their environment and their own minds. Nature engages the senses and “allows children the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity,” imagination and developmental strategies which strengthen critical thinking (Ginsberg 4).  The natural world is a place of wonder and awe that has the potential to inspire children to explore their vivid imaginations. InLast Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, author, writer and spokesperson for “nature-deficit disorder” explores the growing body of research connected to ‘nature’ driven play which unfortunately is showing a “new trend for the landscape of childhood”-indoor entertainment. An example is a fourth grader’s comments to Mr. Louv during an interview about playing outdoors: “I like to play indoors, ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are” (Louv 10). This simple statement speaks volumes to the direction that play has become for many children. Many are now passively engaged in play like experiences which basically appears to have made play a catch all for media and technological entertainment.  Children’s minds are now stimulated by many programs and activities which suppress their naturally inquisitive minds. They are learning about the world and themselves through the media. The natural world has become a distant and abstract concept for many children. An example is in the evolution of play. Up until the 70’s and early 80’s, the landscape of unsupervised play was very different. Children were more apt to be encouraged to go play outside producing, as Chris Mercogliano calls it In Defense of Play: Protecting Kids Inner Wildness, “hardy and self-sufficient youngsters.” Shift to today’s landscape and we have many children who are “delicate, and dependent creatures who at any moment might be struck down by germs, or unforeseen circumstances,” like the many dangers present in society (Mercogliano). Today’s children lead protected lives, and rightly so in many circumstances, and yet what is the cost of sheltering children to the extent that we limit their natural curiosity and opportunities to play in creative ways? A study from “2005-06 reported that children between the ages of 8-18 spent an average of 6.5 hours per day plugged in electronically” (Louv 119). This illustrates children’s connection to the often passive form of entertainment and a further disconnection from the engagement of the natural world.  There is a “new study suggesting that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression” (Louv 35).  Nature’s sensory world is full of multiple levels of stimulation which engage our process orientated brains. The natural world is a huge resource for children (and us) because it engages all our senses, stimulating our brain to make multiple neurological connections about the wonder and mystery of our environment.  Being in nature helps us reflect and reconnect to something bigger than ourselves and our hurried lifestyles; helping us slow down and honor the quality in our experiences. This feeling is reminiscent to awe and wonder which the essence of play and creativity is.

The role of play in childhood is an essential skill that shapes what is needed as children transition into adults. As an evolving culture there is a necessity to go further than training children to emerge as “cogs in the machinery of commerce. The international community needs resourceful, imaginative, and inventive problem solvers who will make a significant contribution, not only to the Information Age in which we currently live, but beyond to ages that we can barely envision” (Henniger 442). In the work force, society needs people who can think on their feet and are not afraid of fast changing environments that require flexible, innovative and often hands on proactive approaches to problem solving. To illustrate this, imagine you work in a community center as a lead cook and it is your job to feed the hungry masses. On a hypothetical Tuesday afternoon an unfortunate occurrence happens when the planned meal for 300 burns. You have 20 minutes to come up with a solution. Putting on your thinking cap you quickly take stock of available foods and begin to delegate the production of a large pot of tomato soup. You accomplish this goal by quickly assessing the situation and taking a leap of faith. This example is creative problem solving and taking a risk in the unknown. Instead of choosing to flee or remain frozen, problem solving uses existing resources to adapt to change. Play facilitates this by creating opportunities to experiment and find solutions. In Creative Expression and Play in the Early Childhood Curriculum Joan P. Isenberg and Mary Renck Jalongo introduce the big picture with:

“In the future, children will need to know how to learn, how to cope with change, how to build and evaluate a body of knowledge that will evolve throughout their life, and how to adapt to a changing work environment. They will need to acquire critical thinking, decision making, and communication skills with an emphasis on the cognitive processes of inquisitiveness, sequential thinking and problem solving. Children need to learn flexibility, experimentation, autonomy, risk-taking and innovation” (Isenberg & Jalongo 329).

This example illustrates the broader picture of the role that play has in fostering innovative and capable adults who are empowered by their vision and willing to take risks in unknown situations which require flexible hands on problem solving. Play is the resource for these skills.

Often play is not recognized as a learning source that facilitates a broad and wide spread resource in society; specifically in today’s work force. There are researched studies across the globe that has discovered that many of today’s young adults do not have adequate, hands on problem solving skills. An example of the need for hands on learning is in Stuart Brown’s researched book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates theSoul.  At Cal Tech’s aerospace research facility (JPL) in the late 90’s, management began to hire young engineers and scientists to replace the large group who were retiring. Though many of the new potentials were at the top of their field, they lacked the hands on problem solving skills common within the older generation. A consultant was brought in to discover why this was so. In the process of talking to a wide range of employees, it was determined that the older generations had more skills in problem solving because their childhood play experiences were often outdoors, in woods and fields with hands on activities which supported innovative thinking and creative solutions around obstacles. The younger generations did not have these skills because their play experiences were more structured and often confined to the school yard or indoors with limited free associative imaginary play. In addition, it was determined that “academic excellence was not the most important measure of the new graduates’ problem solving skills;” instead what was needed was a balance of both because as a “premier aerospace research facility,” complex problem solving was/is a key ingredient for safe space travel (Brown 10). This example addresses the complexities of incorporating both play and academic achievement to gain employment. It also illustrates the importance of process play for engaging children’s minds.

Innovative process play is a growing need for the children of today to succeed in our world. There are many reasons for this shift away from avenues which support imaginative or process play: Many children are more apt to play indoors due to the results of fear among parents about the dangers of the outdoors and unsupervised play which tends to be geared toward active engagement within parks, fields, and woods; children are more engaged in media and electronic entertainment which can lead to passive play, limiting the innovative problem solving skills developed through process play; children’s lives are more structured and adult-directed (sports, music, dance and various educational afterschool programs). The reasons for these are multiple as well; a few examples are that parents are working longer hours and or are structuring their children’s lives in order to prepare them to succeed in school and the often demanding and competitive work force. More and more, children do not have the opportunities and support to seek pleasure in the leisure of play. By structuring their lives with a full course meal of adult-directed activities we (may) lose sight of the development that takes place in child-directed play (not to be confused with the passive programming of television, computer/internet, texting or structured toys that limit creative play). Play has become secondary to many of children’s organized lifestyles and by removing it from children’s lives we may be educating out the very skills we desire from these generations who will help shape the direction of our global communities in the future.

As a culture we need to take play more seriously, to ignore the critics who deem play as unproductive and instead realize the multi-dimensional learning that takes place through the avenue of play. We need to let children to have ‘their time’ in the wonders of childhood by supporting their meandering and creative journeys’. The future needs well rounded thoughtful people who can easily engage and adapt in the complexities that life has to offer and play is the creative pathway toward realizing this reality.


Works Cited

Bergen, Doris, and Doris Pronin Fromberg. “Play and Social Interaction in Middle Childhood.”Phi Delta Kappan  90.6 (2009): 426-430. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Feb. 2011.

Brown, Stuart M.D. w/Christopher Vaughan. “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.” New York, New York: Pearson, 2009.

Crain, William. “Is Children’s Play Innate?” Encounter 23.2 (2010): 1-3. Academic Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Feb. 2011.

Ginsburg, Kenneth R. MD, MSEd., ‘‘The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-child bonds.” American Academy of Pediatrics 119.1 (2007):182-191. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.

Ginsburg, Kenneth R. MD, MSEd. “Testimony of Kenneth Ginsburg on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, No Child Left Inside: Reconnecting Kids with the Outdoors.” May 24, 2006.

Henniger, Michael L. “Teaching Young Children: An Introduction.” Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, 2009.

Isenberg, Joan P., and Mary Renck Jalongo. “Creative Expression and Play in the Early Childhood Curriculum.” New York, Oxford, Singapore, Sydney: Macmillan, 1993.

Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder.”Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2008.

McNeil, Frank. “Learning with the Brain in Mind.” Los Angeles, London, New Delhi,Washington DC: Sage, 2009.

Mercogliano, Chris. “The Three P’s.” Encounter 22.2 (2009): 12-14. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 7 Feb. 2011.

Mercogliano, Chris. “In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids Inner Wildness.”BostonMassachusetts: Beacon Press, 2007.

Myers, David G. “Psychology.” Worth Publishers, New York, New York, 2001.

“Where do the Children Play?” Dir. Jennifer B. White. Michigan PBS, 2007.

Wilson, Penny. “The Playwork Primer.” Alliance for Children (2009):1-35. Web. 16 Feb.2011.