Sunday, June 30, 2013

Boosting Play Value

The frequent use of the phrase open-ended qualifying toys and materials in order to signal rich, elaborate play raises a flag for me. I catch myself using this phrase as well. For me it serves as an intentional cue that I mean real toys and materials: ones without bells and whistles, ones without the faces of mascots or the voices of commercial characters.

Drilling down on terms like real play materials or true toys mentioned in the recent American Academy of Pediatrics report on play, (or open-ended, for that matter) is, in my mind, about getting at a deeper understanding of high play value of objects for children. High play value engages children’s interests, invites them to use their imaginations and ingenuity, and holds their attention. Especially when children play in the same setting day-after-day with the same objects and materials, play in groups, or are older with greater potential to engage in elaborate play, high play value is important in providing new possibilities and discoveries for all types of play– social, physical, object, or as if play.

Consideration of high play value is, by no means, limited to toys and not every play object enjoys high play value. Fortunately, boosting the play value of most play objects, materials, true toys, and even ho-hum objects is not only possible, but also easy to take on. Most any play outfitter, whether a parent, teacher, grandparent, aunt or uncle, babysitter or nanny, neighbor, teacher, older sister or brother, can amp up play value across ages, genders and settings. Play value can increase with thoughtful attention, resourcefulness, and selecting for:
• Loose parts
• Abundance
• Generative capacity
• Complexity

Loose Parts
The theory of loose parts proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970’s has enjoyed a resurgence recently with increasing interest in assuring that children enjoy rich play experiences. Nicholson believed that loose parts in an environment offer enormous possibilities and invite creativity that is unlikely in settings with only fixed elements.

Loose parts in the play yard
Loose parts unleash children’s imaginations and their spirit to play. They feed imaginations, inspire scripts and stories, fill children’s pockets and backpacks, elaborate structures, and build familiarity and confidence with the principles and properties of materials and tools. Children’s control of their environment increases significantly with the addition of stuff that they can move, combine, and recombine. They become not only the directors of their play, but also shapers of their settings.

Environments–indoor and out, large-scale, room-sized, and table-top–are richer places for play with portable, totable, manipulable, changeable objects and materials. Virtually every corner of our lives is a source of loose parts: sand and water, sticks and stones; seeds and leaves, pods and pinecones; plastic crates and sofa cushions, duct tape and clothespins; hoses and tubing, sieves and shovels; boards and boxes, rope and string.

More and more loose parts are filling maker spaces, populating building platforms, and loosening up playgrounds. Adding new, or more, loose parts from one day to the next changes a space or modifies an activity. A box becomes a treasure chest; a cushion serves as a trapdoor; a wooden spoon is a wand, an oar, and then a doll. Tree cookies are wheels one minute, plates the next, and towers the next.

Multiplying Possibilities
When a single object joins a large crowd of similar, if not identical, objects, its play possibilities expand significantly. This is the abundance that fuels play and increases play value.

Buttons, buttons, buttons
A child may use a solitary cardboard tube as a specific object like a telescope, a sword, or a megaphone. Yet, add a dozen or more tubes to the setting and a child or group of children make the tubes into pillars, posts, supports for a building. Quantity blows a second wind on children’s play, inspiring a story of a crashed-up raft, a race to build a space station, or construction of a ball maze. Similarly, a single sponge may be used for washing while dozens of sponges become building block, cars, bumpers, or skates. A lone swimming noodle is, well, a noodle or a snake, while one hundred noodles becomes a noodle forest.

If, as Martin Buber says, “Play is the exultation of the possible,” then abundance is a trumpet call to children to exult. Quantities fascinate. Even humble objects, like Dixie cups, pinecones, toilet paper rolls, or metal washers assume an aura of richness or magnificence when present in vast quantities. These objects are easy to gather and at little expense, but offer great play value. Great quantities invites children to entertain a grand, even extravagant idea, one worth being lost in–exploring big numbers, buying the Moon with bottle caps, or building a tower to the sky. In groups, everyone–each child–can have her own stockpile of leaves, sheets of cardboard, stash of clothespins, bin of ping-pong balls, or sheets of stickers; and all can find the possibilities of sharing in abundance.

While pure abundance is not always necessary, thinking about the quantities of play objects and materials for children’s play is.

Generative Capacity
Toys, play objects, or materials with greater generative capacity enjoy considerable play value themselves: they can be played with in various ways. What really distinguishes, however, are qualities they have that activate or modify the attributes of other materials or objects in ways that add to their play value.

Children build with boxes; they stack them and knock them down, open-and-close them, and line them up like a train. Children might even get inside of a box and try to see if they fit. Inevitably children use the volume of boxes and some times their size and lightness in combination with other materials for another play episode. They add rocks or blocks and fill the box, use it to move or hide other objects. With a shake and a jiggle, children discover the box intensifies the sound of chestnuts rolling around inside. A box has generative capacity as do mirrors, tape, wire, balls, and tubes.

Stretchy is generative
A stretchy circle, a rubber band has generative capacity and is alive with possibilities for binding, bundling, snapping, and propelling objects. A recent video of twin toddlers fascinated with rubber bands illustrates the generative play value of this familiar object for even very young children.

Sticky, stretchy, sparkly, springy, pointy, perforated, and absorptive are among some of the generative qualities children use to investigate and improvise. They manipulate them in various ways and combine them with other materials to amplify possibilities for their play, whether it is imaginative, large motor, or playing as if.

Seeking Complexity
Recently I recalled a scheme for engaging children’s interest and attention in play that suggests an additional approach to increasing play value: complexity. Using research done at Pacific Oaks College, Sybil Kritchevsky, Elizabeth Prescott and Lee Walling developed the idea of simple, complex, and super units in a preschool environment, presented in Planning Environments for Young Children: Physical Space. 

A simple unit is a material with one obvious use, like clay or sand. A complex unit has two essentially different
A magnifier at the water table opens possibilities
parts or materials; put the clay on the table or introduce tools to the sand area. A super unit has three or more materials; add tools to the clay on the table, or add water to the sand and tools. Moving from a simple to a complex to a super unit significantly increases children’s engagement.

This scheme suggests the potential of going beyond increasing objects or relying on the effect of sticky, stretchy, or shiny attributes–although they are important. Interactions of materials or objects that modify the properties and change other play materials or toys increase complexity. They open and cue new directions, choices, and possibilities­ in ways that extend children’s interest and attention and invite them to elaborate on their play. While borrowed from a preschool setting, complexity works in a wider array of play environments–a museum, park, playground, backyard, beach, or nature center.

Water changes sand so children can change it more
Water changes sand’s qualities to make playing with it sufficiently different from playing with dry sand. Digging deep and sculpting wet sand that holds its shape when pressed, pinched, carved, or molded is very different from sweeping and sifting dry sand. Adding light modifies a space and objects, altering the appearance of surfaces; the shadows of objects, hands, and bodies that it casts become objects of play themselves, moving, growing, shrinking, and disappearing. Fabric encloses, conceals, and absorbs; it can be cut, pinned, and sewn together again. A large piece of fabric, like a bed sheet, can divide space, capture shadows and, stretched tight, it can toss objects (and children) into the air.

Mirrors; tape, fasteners and adhesives; tools that pierce, cut and drill; movement; and changing heights and inclines also increase complexity. They introduce new possibilities, revealing properties of other objects that make them more interesting to explore, use, and put into play.

Expanding Play Potential
Instead of reaching deeper into our vocabulary lists to cue a sincere interest in providing rich play for children,
perhaps we really need to push ourselves harder to find and make available a rich range of objects and materials that inspire, enrich, and extend children’s play. We can start with sharpening our alertness to the attributes of materials and objects and what they bring to play . We can tap our own imaginations to see new possibilities for play in everyday materials. We can explore our surroundings for toys and materials and places to play that go far beyond the usual. 

What play objects, materials and toys are on your list that expand the possibilities of what happens during play?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

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Summer Greetings!

Tsvetnoy Central Market (Photo: Lifschutz-DavidsonSandilands)

While summer is taking hold and the next Museum Notes post is percolating, I wanted to let you know that, if you haven't already heard, Google will retire Google Reader July 1st:
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For more information, you might also check out the link that Paul Orselli put on his ExhibiTricks blog in March when Google first announced it would be retiring Google Reader: Thank you, Paul, and thank you, readers. I appreciate your interest in Museum Notes.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Play Outfitter

For those concerned about the presence of play in children’s lives, the recent appearance of books, studies, and reports that promote to play and its benefits should be encouraging. Here are just 3 highlights.

• The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its 2007 clinical report, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” It affirms that play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being of children beginning in early childhood.
Alliance for Childhood will be publishing “Adventure: The value of risk in children’s play” this summer which looks at the importance of risk for children’s healthy development.
American Journal of Play from The Strong explores play in its fullness, deepens our understanding of its dimensions and value, and brings a credibility to play with academic and international perspectives.

A lot has been happening on the play front in about the last 5 years. These and other studies and resources are making abundantly clear that children’s free, self-directed, play enhances resilience, creativity, social understanding, emotional, and cognitive control, and resistance to stress. This is not a tepid endorsement for the value of what children love to do and do naturally. For some reason, however, this not so secret strategy for success struggles to find broad, gripping traction.

Mounds of mud for play
Having over-scheduled children’s free-time and scoured our yards and playgrounds of loose parts for safety and convenience, we may now need to back up and revisit what, at its most basic, could readily engage children in play. Perhaps if children had lots of loose parts, mounds of mud, messy garages, piles of junk holding up an outbuilding or two, or tinkery basements where they could harvest stuff, they would be playing in that whole-hearted don’t call us in until dark spirit of play. Unfortunately, too few children are able to do that.

Always and Forever in Play
Every so often I come across lists of what people consider the best toys or play objects for children. I am interested in scanning the lists and thinking about the nature of the items–how universal, commercial, educational, natural, nostalgic, novel, everyday, ubiquitous, or adult-defined they are. How are these objects likely to engage children’s play? In what ways do they extend children’s play that other toys are less likely to? What do these lists say about play and, more specifically, about our view of children’s play?

One list I made note of was that of Howard Chudacoff, author of Children at Play: An American History and a professor at Brown University. In an interview with the American Journal of Play, he said he is often asked to name the 3 best toys. His choices are a:
• Stick • Ball • Box

Wired’s GeekDad posted 5 time-tested and child-approved items that no child should be without. These items fit easily within any budget and are appropriate for a wide age range. He recommends a:
• Stick • Box • String • Cardboard Tube  • Dirt

On Providence Children’s Museums’ Playwatch listserv a reader responded to GeekDad’s list with 5 items:
• Water • Blanket • Chair • Bubble Wrap • Tape

Princess Summerfall Winterspring added a seasonal variation with:
• Shadows and Silhouettes • Leaves • Snow and Ice • Mud

Thinking about  the children in the family daycare she runs with her sister and what they will play with always and forever, Nina listed:
• Tape • Boxes • Blocks

Paula Meijerink of WANTED Landscape considered outdoor play at the recent InterActivity 2013 in mentioning:
• Dirt • Critters • Matter that Deteriorates

Loose Parts and True Toys
Little hands, big hands at play
The items on these lists are not just sweet, familiar, or harken back to simpler times. They also have substantial play value. Children get a lot of play out of boxes, tubes, tape, string, and sticks. The collection can be extended to water, wire, fabric, wood pieces, rubber bands, paper, blankets, and clothespins. Easily moved, lifted, transformed, combined and recombined, these are loose parts that activate and engage a child’s disposition to play. Their play possibilities elicit a full range of play–sensory, constructive, imaginative, large motor–individually and sometimes richly blended in extended play episodes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ report refers to "true toys,” ones that engage children’s interest, invite them to use their imaginations and ingenuity, and hold their attention. “True toys” leave room for children to direct their own play and tend to develop with the child; they are not strongly gender specific. 

This was very apparent recently in how children 18 months to 8 years, and both boys and girls who I was observing used tape, tubes, fabric, sticks and string for building and making. Comfortable in multiple contexts, children work wonders on cardboard boxes indoors and out; in small city spaces, suburban lots, and rural landscapes; in yards, schools, daycares, and museums. These play materials are everyday, easy to round up, and, as GeekDad points out, affordable.

Step Right Up At The Play Outfitter
Traces of taping
Outfitters provide specialty equipment, supplies, and gear for canoeing, hunting, fishing, skiing, and trail riding so the experience is top notch: safe, easy, enjoyable, and without unnecessary interruptions. Those who enjoy a sport or hobby–their type of play–enjoy it even more when well prepared and well outfitted. It is no different for children's play. Why not a play outfitter? 

The play outfitter fills a hole in the high-quality experiences we hope children will enjoy in the backyard, nature center, park, bedroom, garage, attic, playground, museum, beach, barn, cabin, cottage, campsite, or classroom. Many people can, and should, fulfill the role of play outfitter: a mom, dad, aunt, uncle, grandparent, daycare provider, nanny, teacher, babysitter, friendly neighbor, or scout leader. Actually, there’s no reason children themselves cannot be play outfitters.

Well-supplied at the Play Outfitter's
Working with the lists above, expanding on them, drawing on previous experience and observation, and responding to preferences, a play outfitter might stock up on cardboard tubes, string, dirt, tape, clothespins, buckets, and fabric. They might make water, scissors, grommets, or paper and pencils available. Consideration is always appropriate about whether to offer a wide variety of play objects and materials or a few in larger quantities. A play outfitter takes cues from the players they are serving.

The play outfitter would be a strong addition to a variety of settings. Imagine the Play Outfitters at a museum as part of a building zone, maker space, or outdoor play yard. Children step up and inspect what’s available. They select interesting play supplies that they are curious about or choose specific materials they need to explore an idea or make something. Their requests, describing what they need, estimating necessary quantities, and naming related gear and tools offer new ways for them to direct their play as well as expanding on and enriching the play experience.

Perhaps The Play Outfitter could become a new version of the grocery store exhibit as a place where children buy the cardboard tubes, clothespins, boxes, sticks, string, and fabric that they need for another aspect of their well-being–their play.

“….magic is in the child’s mind rather than in the toy…”

Yi-Fu Tuan in Passing Strange and Wonderful