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?

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