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

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