Why Are We Play-Based?

"Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning." - Magda Gerber


Human beings, like many animals, are biologically programmed to play. From the moment that new parents lock eyes with their infant and begin the involuntary exchange of smiles, coos, and gazes, their brains are alight with play.


When families seek care for young children, it’s not uncommon to find programs that talk about how children “learn through play” because this is solid science that should be well understood by anyone who works with children or has studied human development at all. We all learn through play. It’s when we’re at play that we’re most alive and engaged, all our lives. What’s important to understand, as parents and caregivers who create environments for children, is that play for the sake of play itself is more than enough.


What is play? It’s an activity that is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and involves an alert mind. In play, there may be goals chosen by the player, but the goals are less important than the means of achieving them. That is: it’s the process, not the product.


We often spend a lot of time, money, and mental energy on choosing toys for young children. In “play-based” programs, we set up classrooms with provocations and invitations to play -- toy kitchens, blocks areas, soft toys, and numerous other props. We stage our play yards with riding toys, climbing toys, hoops and balls. We think a lot about this, as adults. Possibly even too much.


That is not to say that toys don’t have value or that setting up a classroom or play yard in a way that is welcoming and open to children is wrong. It’s wonderful! And if it is something that an adult chooses to do and enjoys doing, it may even be a kind of play for them, lighting up their brain and engaging their senses.


What we must be mindful of is allowing the time and space for children to independently construct the play experiences that they need to. We need to provide passive play objects that don’t do the play for children (be wary of things with too many bells and whistles), but instead allow them to cultivate their own stories and create their own meaning. Throughout time, across the globe, children have made rich play from almost nothing -- rocks, sticks, a body of water, a tin can … All they have “needed” is the opportunity and the motivation.


The experience of unstructured play in childhood is what changes the prefrontal cortex, wiring the executive control center of the brain. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for solving problems and regulating emotions. We’re finding that children today are spending increasingly less time on unstructured play, especially outdoors. Even during so-called “free choice” or “free play” times in preschools and childcare centers, children are often restrained in play by adult directives, restrictions, and involvement.


Several factors can make it difficult for caregivers to allow children the freedom of unstructured, unobstructed play. Just a few of these factors are: fear of injury, discomfort with conflict, the pressure to meet certain curriculum or program standards, and a lack of understanding of what “play” might look like.


Many years ago, I worked with a very little boy who liked nothing more than to bounce his body against a particularly bouncy section of fencing on the preschool play yard. He was quite content to engage in this activity for extended periods of time. Longer than most adults were comfortable with. They could call his name repeatedly, entreating him to, “Come and play!” or, the more disturbing preschool phrase, “Find a job!” (born from the notion that play is a child’s “work”). In his mind, he seemed to be miles away, but he would drag himself back and look at the adult, confused. He might indulge them for a few minutes, bouncing a ball back and forth, or halfheartedly rolling a car or truck across the ground, but he would soon be drawn back to the fence. While I don’t know the full extent of what he was experiencing within his own mind, I can speculate as to what his body was craving: vestibular stimulation, sensory input, coordination and balance, and fun. When allowed the space and time to trust themselves, young children’s bodies most often compel them to engage in exactly what they developmentally need. Biologically, they know best. We’d do better to not get in their way.


We impose rules and guidelines on toddlers and preschoolers like, “Gentle!” “Careful!” “That’s not a place for …!” We set limits and we “teach” them to follow these restrictions, which is right and good, within reason. But we must consider that their bodies are primed for rough and tumble play. It is through this play that they not only learn about themselves and the world (physics!), but also about how to engage with society. It’s through bumping up against other people that we learn how to not rub them the wrong way.


When we spend too much time creating “safe” spaces for young children, we may forget that our ultimate goal is for them to grow up to live in the world. The real world. The one where it may hurt when we fall down because not every surface is padded. The one where we know not to prick the rose stem because it has thorns. The one where we understand that we can make decisions to keep ourselves safe. (This is not to say that we shouldn’t baby proof our homes or closely supervise little children! Of course we should. It can be argued that it’s our eye for safety that has lowered infant and child mortality rates over time. But we should also consider children as competent humans capable of independent growth and learning. We should respect them as whole humans with their own unique passions, interests, and joys.)


At Nature’s Explorers, we’re “play-based” because we offer children long, unstructured opportunities to play -- to explore freely, to choose their own experiences, and to think their own undisturbed thoughts. We’re always available to the children, to scaffold their language, to encourage them in taking a risk (we encourage growth mindsets with positive phrases like, “Keep trying! It’s hard to do, but you’re almost there!”), and to observe and reflect on opportunities for learning that we may wish to extend. We don’t tell children how or where to play and we try to be respectful about not interrupting or ending it as well. We do our best to trust the children, allowing our knowledge of brain development to guide our decisions on curriculum. As Lisa Sunbury has said, “When your child plays, he is not only learning, he is learning how to learn!” Nothing could be more important than that.

Dr. Stuart Brown's TED talk on why childhood play is key in psychological development.