A few weekends ago, I, along with hundreds of early childhood educators, play therapists, and toy makers, attended a “Play Symposium” at Stanford University. As the flyer for the event stated, play fosters confidence, resilience, passion and delight. Since I have devoted my adult life and business to the world of play and have been re-inspired by all that I learned at this event, I am moved to share my notes with you.
The symposium included three amazing speakers, who are leaders in the field of the importance of play for young children. Joan Almon, a former Waldorf teacher and the co-founder of the Alliance for Childhood, is passionate about the need for play-based preschools and kindergartens; she is working in Washington DC to help make changes in the educational system. Almon defines play as an activity that is: freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. And she asserts that it is play, not teacher-motivated instruction, which is the cornerstone of the child developing a spirit of creativity. Moreover, she spoke on how all children experience a sense of peace and calm while deep at play, especially those children who have experienced early trauma. “Children need free play so very badly now; it is sad that we take it away from them. They are feeling so much stress at such a young age, and play is a wonderful stress reducer!”
Stuart Brown, MD, a psychiatrist, clinical researcher, founder of the National Institute for Play, and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, has researched play for over forty years. He emphasizes that play helps us to develop curiosity, make sense of the world, and become more creative. Thriving companies in Silicon Valley hire Brown to come to play with their engineers and designers, for these companies want and need creative employees. And these successful businessmen and businesswomen are sending their children to play-based schools for they have learned first hand that it is creativity that sets people apart in the working world. Creativity is a commodity that cannot be taught—it can only be fostered—and play is where creativity blossoms. Perhaps what struck me most during Brown’s talk was that his research indicates that adults who had childhoods of play tend to be highly creative and motivated people whereas adults who had a serious lack of play in their childhoods tend to be depressed, rigid, suffering from addictions, and they lack empathy. “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”
Dr. Jam Ghajar, MD, PhD, FACS, a neurosurgeon and Stanford professor, studies play and brain development in ways that no one has before. His research shows that very young children need play for optimum brain development; play helps to connect neural pathways. He says that we are born with granular cells that start to develop as soon as we are born and that the more play we do, the more they grow. He is very clear that his own daughters will continue to have a play-based education. Interestingly, his research points out that play is not only essential for the young, but for people of all ages. Play greatly increases an adult’s sense of timing and prediction. But not just a few minutes of play; a person must be interested and engaged in an activity for it to be called play and for it to drive the formation of neural circuits.
Deep and engaging play is critical for our youth and for all of us, really. And how does such play come about? All three speakers spoke of the best toys being open-ended and simple. Bing Nursery School, the teaching preschool at Stanford, illustrates how to create an environment that nurtures deep play. We toured the preschool, and I was interested in what I saw.
Bing Nursery School’s classrooms are open to the outside so that the children have a lot of freedom. The children are provided with “loose parts” (such as simple logs, sticks, rocks, shells, cloths, simple dress-up props, etc.) to use in play. This is something that I have always loved about Waldorf schools. This teaching preschool advocates for “loose parts” because the studies show that such an environment results in more creative and inclusive play. It was amazing to see.
Over the years so many adults have asked me, “What do children do with playsilks?” The beauty is that the playsilk doesn’t demand any particular way to play. Gift the children in your life with toys of “loose parts”—let them play, deeply—you will be giving them a gift for life. Share what you have observed in your child's play!