Sunday, June 24, 2018

Do We Want Parents to Play With Children?




Playing or teaching?
I have no idea what the answer is to the question, should parents and caregivers play with their children? I am, however, quite certain there’s more than one answer. Moreover, I think we don’t have an answer because we are not even asking the question.

Recently I have posed this question to friends and colleagues in museums, in early childhood programs, and to parents. There’s no hesitation in their responses, at least initially. Whether they say, yes, why, or no, they pause and inevitably shift directions. Well, of course! might be followed by Why not? An emphatic No, they just get in the way might be followed by a pause and, I get bored playing with my kids. I always enjoy being asked, But, you do think play is important, don’t you?

Wanting parents and caregivers to play with children seems like a gem of an idea. We believe in the value of play and with the recent decline in opportunities for children to play, we are eager for more play opportunities. We know the parent and caregiver relationship with the child has life-long significance; that bond could be cultivated during play. In museums and on playgrounds we might also think, what else do these adults have to do anyway?

So, why isn’t adults playing with children such an obviously terrific idea that everybody gets?

It is, as they say, complicated. Realistically, sometimes adults as playmates advance these broader interests and sometimes they detract from them. For instance, if we view play as child-directed, then adults entering the play frame can crimp joyous child-directed unfolding play. Even if they don't intend to, adults will hijack play or pre-write the script; they may remember their own play. It can be difficult for a 6-year old to accommodate a parent’s fully scripted delightedly repeated childhood memory of “Little House on the Prairie.”

If as research shows that play is a valuable way for children to be with other children and figure out ideas with peers, then parents as playmates may be limiting development of valued social skills. And, when play becomes a duty for either the parent or the child (“I can’t disappoint dad, he really wants to play with me”), play loses the spontaneous, freely chosen quality fundamental to its spirit. Furthermore, if one person’s play is motivated by obligation and the other’s by the sheer joy of stacking sofa cushions to make a snake pit, then play is sorely imbalanced. 

In general, children make better playmates for other children than do adults. Even across a wide age range, children share interests, energy levels, current references, and a sense of humor.  Parents–adults in general–may not able to pick up the child’s cues during play, which evolves constantly, incorporating new ideas that sweep in from the edges of the play frame. The castle has become an underground cave; the block is a phone, a shoe, a candy bar. The rules of play that are important for children to negotiate may not be recognized at all by adults as worthy rules. But to children they are and they may also need to be broken immediately to advance the play.

On the other hand, if we value parent and caregiver involvement in the child’s learning (and children learn during play), then playing with their children may be a valuable opportunity for parents to get a closer look at their child’s learning.

So, do we want parents and caregivers to play with their children? Of course there is no simple or single answer. In which setting? Museums, home, school, backyards, playgrounds? One answer doesn’t fit all settings, all museums, or even one museum all the time. Children of what age? What kind of play? What’s the context?

These are not idle questions. With relatively few opportunities for children to engage in extensive play that they direct, it is important to expand, not limit, play opportunities. Making it easy for children to play freely with other children is important–not filling the void with adults pressured or guilted into play.

What might help? By exploring the larger question with others and pursuing new questions, we may be better navigating this territory, even if we don’t arrive at one place or stay there for long.

What roles are adult taking? There is often a hidden agenda when adults play with children. They may be directing large motor play out of caution so children won’t get hurt. Involvement may be motivated by making play more valuable, for learning academics. Pressure, however, is no friend to play.

Who's playing now?
If adult involvement in play is to correct or bring order, that’s a problem. I recently visited a “play and ingenuity” magnet school for kindergarten through 6th grade. In the 90 minutes we were introduced to the school’s approach, it became apparent that play was used for group management. It was fun and well done, but it was not play. The point of play is that there is no point, no agenda, no pre-determined outcomes.
In play, blue blocks become a lava flow become an obstacle course
Can adults really join the play without changing it? Without some attunement to children’s play, adults may not get the flow of the play or the rules. Adults may alter the play context with their suggestions and extend or cut short the play. On the other hand, if adults follow the child’s lead and engage in playful interactions with children, they may move the play along, as an older peer might.

Whose play is it? Even when the child is leading and telling the adult what to do, it might not be play. Bossing ruins play processes fueled by negotiation and figuring things out together. In play, children may deal with the crying baby, the angry mother, the scary robber, or the super hero in quick succession. Are adults able to keep up with that and negotiate with children in good faith?

Who gets to decide whether adults playing with children is a good idea in this setting or situation? In play, children can choose not to play. If the adult–parent, teacher, timekeeper, and general boss–is the play partner, can the child walk away and call it quits? If not, the play set up is probably not a great idea.

Should we expect parents and caregivers to play with their children? If we are serious about the benefits of play for children, we must get seriously better at providing more opportunities for child-initiated, directed, and unscripted play with adult-free options. This doesn’t mean that adults need to disappear, but they may need to step out of the way. Here are some thoughts of what this might look like.

• Parents and caregivers can do many wonderful things with children that are not necessarily play but do enrich and extend play. They can read to children, tell stories, listen to them, watch them, answer their questions, create a place to play, find props, tolerate mess, and be OK with risk taking. That would be big.

• More public, free access places where children can direct their play are needed. There are parks and playgrounds, museums, and schoolyards. It’s striking that the list isn’t longer. What about empty lots and alleys, backyards, the courtyards of buildings, school playgrounds after hours?

Playing with? Together? Along side of?
• Museums can offer times and places for children to play with supervision but without adults joining in. A museum for children should be able to have a place that is just for children. Could a museum field trip offer extended, play rich experiences instead of a program much like a classroom lesson? What if parents and caregivers accompanying children to the museum or playground could observe, listen, talk with each other, talk on their phones, or take photos? Would that be such a bad idea?

• Museums, libraries, preschools, parks departments, afterschool programs, and schools might consider playwork training that supports playwork principles. Playworkers balance many considerations around children’s play: a space to play, risk, and development in a role that enables children and young people to extend their play, not to play with them.

This is not to say that parents and caregivers can’t lean into children’s play now-and-then and provide guidance to help their child be aware of others’ feelings. Parents and caregivers are present in children’s lives. They know their children and they themselves play. Parents and caregivers will play with children, but it’s not their job and not always a good idea. Museums, parks, playgrounds, schools, along with early childhood educators, and parents have a role in play. Make it easy for children to play with other children. Give them the time and place to play, but don’t write the script.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

There Are Loose Parts, ... and Then There Are Loose Parts


Loose parts, or at least the term, has captured attention and imaginations in museums, early childhood centers, libraries, nature centers, parks, and playgrounds. The assorted, moveable and found materials and objects that spark, enrich, and extend children’s play and imaginations can be almost anything: feathers, pinecones, corks, bricks, shells, spools, or sticks.

In a world where increasingly little is left to chance in childhood and play, loose parts are wonderfully unscripted. These uncategorizable pieces and parts come with no specific directions for what they are or what children might do with them. Tucked into pockets, resting as a sedimentary layer in the bottoms of backpacks, clutched in small hands, or reverentially collected at the shore, children find, pick up, and carry treasured objects. They combine, line up, take apart, exchange, and rearrange loose parts in countless ways. In their play, children are writing the operations manual for shells, a cache of pinecones, bottle caps, or buttons with their play and imagination.

Loose parts, however, are not just stuff, junk, or a jumble of pieces and parts no one else wants or can use. To be sure there are treasures in discards and by-products of households, industry, and, nature. But since children explore the rich possibilities of these objects, meaningful exploration relies on thoughtful selection. Thinking with their hands bodies, minds, and imaginations, they observe, ask questions, and have ideas. They arrange and change objects, their settings, or even themselves. These explorations and creations are beautiful, but they're not necessarily art.

When children build, collage, or trade objects, they are comparing, sequencing, and seriating. They are valuing color, size, shape, and materials. As they lift, move, and occasionally drop glass pebbles, marker caps, or paper clips, they are discovering the properties of glass, plastic, and metal. In building with tubes and discs, they deal with balance and stability, use spatial reasoning, and solve problems three-dimensionally. New words about shapes, texture, designs, and structures are essential to describing how the fabric feels, the certain flat blue disc that is needed, or the delight a child is feeling.

We might think that only young children are inclined to explore possibilities and make discoveries with loose parts. In fact, anyone with limited experience to freely follow their curiosity and ideas about interesting loose parts–and do so often–will be engaged in similar ways. As more and more children of every background have fewer experiences of messing around with “stuff” from the basement workbench, the sewing drawer, or the town dump, they have less fluency with materials, objects, and their own vocabulary of materiality.

What Makes Good Loose Parts?
There are many objects that can be gathered for exploring in a classroom, an exhibit, home, under the bushes, or at the playground. Are all loose parts equal? What makes the difference between materials that foster meaningful, extended engagement and ones that fail or minimally engage children’s delight, imaginations, and experience?

As Without Windows Misha blogger asks, why not just shop at the dollar store? Cheaper materials do save money. But, he argues, their low cost is at the expense of child labor somewhere else. Why not make loose parts from scrap lumber? The measuring, cutting, and sanding are time consuming. Keva Planks/Kapla Blocks probably do it better with greater precision. Besides, loose parts are more than blocks. 

Why not use toys or commercial play objects as loose parts? Usually these are single purpose play objects. Once a child has mastered the key function—pushing the button to make a pinwheel spin—the child is ready for more. Due to their cost, these objects are seldom in great enough quantities to combine in novel ways. Ultimately, however, when children use designed toys, even very well designed ones, they become consumers of someone else’s creativity. With loose parts, children exercise their own.

Rich in Possibilities
While dollar store items and commercial toys may be loose and moveable, they lack other vital qualities that imbue loose parts with powers of attraction, fascination, exploration, and discovery: open-endedness, beauty, and abundance.

As Antoinette Portis’ book, Not a Stick points out, a stick is no single thing in children’s play.
It can be a wand, a baton, a fishing rod, or a snake. Like other open-ended materials, it is responsive to children’s questions, interests, and ideas and capable of changing use or meaning in a flash. Often an object’s very simplicity and its ambiguity lend it versatility and provoke new ideas. Small tree cookies, for instance, are variously stacked into a tower, used for money, or incorporated into a design–all in quick succession.

Features like shape, color, texture, and smell make loose parts even more interesting, suggesting new paths to explore. A child may gather all the red objects or all those that sparkle; arrange keys in a radial pattern and then end-to-end in a train; set pine cones on end to create a forest and arrange them in a spiral. Loose parts sized for small hands allow children to pick up easily, bring close for careful visual inspection, and arrange in many ways. Adding paper and markers to the mix can further extend the exploration and thinking.

Beauty
While saying that beautiful loose parts are more engaging than “ugly” ones may seem obvious, deciding what makes some beautiful is not. In the eye of the beholder will always be at work, but some qualities tend to make loose parts attractive and promising, if not beautiful.

When all of an object’s qualities are not immediately apparent, the objects can become more extraordinary. Up close, tiny sparkles in the stones are apparent, as is the fringe of the Burr Oak acorn caps. The crack in the stone looks like a bird. Objects that are similar but not identical are intriguing; natural variations in color, pattern, shape, carry information, reveal the diversity in nature and invite new language.

Ordinary objects and materials also become more fascinating when combined and mixed. Light interacting with objects shines through, reflects off of them, and casts shadows. Adding mirrors, multiplies objects. Water splashed on objects intensifies colors and makes them shiny. Combining ordinary objects points to new possibilities: shells arranged on an oval mat creating a mandala; sticks alternating with stones in a giant running pattern; a giant star defined by sticks filled with colored leaves; or multi-colored glass beads pressed into a large disk of clay.

Ideas for what is beautiful may be particular to the context. In a nature preschool, for instance, natural and local materials might be a high priority. Without Windows blogger, Misha, is particularly interested in “loose parts from the earth” that “can be disposed of in the earth.” Tree cookies, sand, rocks, and acorns might be valued over cardboard and buttons.

At the same time, manufactured discards and by-products can be compelling when carefully selected. Clear plastic colored shapes, especially when placed on a light table, or multi-colored plastic caps in great quantities can inspire designs, patterns, narratives, and self-portraits. Discarded objects like tubes, reels, and gaskets in similar shapes and sizes, and deliberately chosen in only black and white invite exploration of shape without the distraction of.  

Abundance
As important as open-ended and beautiful materials are, seeing objects in great abundance jolts us out of our usual mindset. Perceptions of the object itself and what it can do change. Seemingly ordinary objects like buttons, brushes, cardboard tubes, or rubber bands suddenly seem remarkable. The abundance of objects feels contagious, infecting us with a sense of expanding possibilities. Vast quantities seem to confer permission to explore freely, take risks, and make mistakes.

When time is also in abundance–when there is time to look closely at each pebble, feel and compare them, arrange them just so, and rearrange them again–then the possibilities for thinking and creating that loose parts offer also expand.