Tag Archives: play

With Great Power

Today at the preschool, it’s superhero day! Kids will be picking superhero names, discovering their super-powers, and making all-important costume choices. But it’s not all about dress up.


The teachers know that a day of making superhero costumes won’t be like a quiet sewing circle, with kids sharing ideas for color combinations and snappy logo designs. No, superhero day means that the planet is in trouble and we need our super-kids to call on all their powers to help! And if we’ve learned anything from recent superhero movies, our heroes will win the day, but bystanders better run for cover because it’s highly likely there will be some collateral damage. Parents are excited for superhero day; kids are excited for superhero day; teachers are thinking crowd control.

Ok, not really. If there’s anybody rooting for the inner superhero, even as all that inner super-power comes busting out, it’s preschool teachers, who’ve always known the power is there, and are all about training it.

And the kids? Yes, they love the dress up, they love the make believe, and they love the drama of it all. But it’s also true that young children are drawn to superhero play when they feel weak, or frightened, as when events in the world are overwhelming. They’ll try out their power to resist, experiment with moral choices, and even practice forming ad-hoc super-groups: the Fantabulous Four, the Super-Duper Friends. They will learn, in the words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, that “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Sure he’s probably quoting Voltaire, but try teaching Voltaire to 5 year olds.)

If we believe that play is how young children learn (and we do) … then Superhero Day is when they get to learn what resources they have inside of them, to discover their own responses to the great challenges of this life, and have a chance to practice acts of kindness, justice, and protection. And they will do it all anonymously, letting an idea win the day while keeping their not-so-secret identities under the mask and cape, and just out of the spotlight.


Post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

An Education

Recently a young girl of 4 1/2 sat on her own in a corner of the preschool room. She had a little dish and little tongs and she was feeding little plastic counting bears to a great big stuffed animal. She was totally focused. She was gentle, patting and cooing to the dog. She whispered to her charge inaudibly. She took her time.

Was this big stuffed dog (easily as big as the girl) a proxy for a pet at home? Or was the floppy toy reminding her of a sibling, and was she playing parent or big sister? Was the dog a ‘friend’ who needed love? Or was it a stand in for herself? What relationship (friendship or family) or what needs (loneliness, hunger, or security) were being worked out? Are these questions surprising?

For a child, play is not separate from life. Play like this is a kind of theater, where a child rehearses … everything. And for a child, everything is relational: children learn who–and how lovable–they are from those they relate to; and they learn about the relative trustworthiness and goodness of the world from those they interact with. Since childhood can be fraught with uncertainty, often children work out their own responses to relational anxieties through play.

Who knew that plastic bears, tongs, and a stuffed animal could engage a child’s attention exclusively for long periods of time? And who knew that spontaneous dramatic play could be so rich and meaningful? In fact, the meaning of this brief vignette goes beyond the sweet implications of a young child working out compassion, or whatever.

When we think about the skills our kids will need to be successful, it’s normal to want to be able to check off requirements. In fact we usually want to check them off early (so they will never be behind!). For example, we want the kids in our charge to learn writing, spelling, and language– skills that get a disproportionate level of attention from new parents who feel an intense responsibility to give their child every academic advantage. So we look at this kind of quiet play with a touch of anxiety … shouldn’t we be preparing her for the challenges of Kindergarten? Shouldn’t we be spending more time laying a foundation for later language requirements?

But what if she was laying that foundation already … with no intervention from a teacher or a parent?

Practically speaking, this little one was encompassing a well-rounded preschool curriculum, one perfectly suited to her age. She was manipulating small toys using a tool, and working her fine motor skills, which are the essential precursor skills to writing (using tongs to accomplish a concrete task, this girl was getting ready to hold a pencil to accomplish something more abstract, using symbols to represent language). She was verbalizing her thoughts to another, working out the communication of feelings in a low pressure environment (stuffed animals are known to be very good conversation partners). She was building relational confidence. And all of this was happening in the context of a drama largely hidden to the observer. What thoughts or feelings drove the girl to minister to this creature in this way? It doesn’t matter. They were important enough to require special attention, and that in turn became an occasion for her to accidentally practice a number of really useful skills.

Good preschool curriculum should always allow for a child to choose, as often as they like, their own self-directed play. In this context, children are learning how to learn. Such play always—always—encompasses a rich and multi-layered assortment of learning opportunities. How is this possible? Because a child will call on all their skills, even new and unrefined skills, to accomplish the tasks that they care about. This is where the best learning happens.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

Rain Days

We enjoy long stretches of mild weather here on the San Francisco Peninsula. You would think we’d be excited about the rain when it came, and the chance to introduce our little ones to something different. But it’s clear that rain messes with our quality of life, judging from the way normally good drivers go to pieces and act like they just got their learner’s permit. We are an indoor culture, used to being dry. Rain is an inconvenience, and our children pick up on our frustrations when it gets wet.

rainday_Anghelika recently visited friends in rural Washington State, and saw the “outdoor school”, where their 3-year old attends. For four hours, in temperatures in the 40s and drizzle, the students learned, among other things, how to howl like coyotes.

But for both parents and teachers in our neck of the woods, rain days evoke images of stir-crazy kids bouncing off the walls and provoke fantasies of eight-hour Disney video marathons. We’re here to help. Our prescription for surviving rainy-day madness? Send your kids outside.

From a kid’s perspective, rain is not an inconvenience … it’s just exciting. They want to understand it; they want to experience it; they want to play in it. We say let them.

Of course, when a child is sick, they should be protected against extreme weather. But, in general, there is nothing wrong with a cold, wet child. Some facts: being cold and wet is not a threat to a child’s health; ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ are reversible conditions; and, if they are having fun, then they are not too cold or too wet. You will know when your kids have had enough, because they will tell you, and that’s the time to get them dry and warm. Bonus advice—you only get to ask this question once: “Would you like a jacket?”. If the answer is “No!”, let them go. Think about it: if your child goes out without a jacket and gets cold, they can always come back for one. Two things we love: an empowered child, and a child learning the consequences of their choices.

We tried to take every opportunity to go out whenever storms came through. I (Dave) took our oldest up Windy Hill in Portola Valley during a particularly big blow. We summited at the peak of the storm, and spent about 5 nervy minutes braced against a horizontal rain, before she said, “I’d like to go home now!”. But facing the wildness of nature gets under your skin. It wasn’t long before she was coming to us to ask, “Let’s go for a hike in the rain.” But fair warning! If you send your kids outside in the rain, they will probably keep going. Today, our daughter (pictured above) lives in Seattle, and is probably still making that face in the rain.

[Originally posted on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog]

How Big Of A Spill Do You Want To Clean Up

At one of the schools where Anghelika works, a dad helping with the 2 year olds approached the teacher with a question before snack time. “How much water should I put in the children’s cups?” The expert response? … “How big of a spill do you want to clean up?”

One of the great stresses that parents (and their helpers) face when hanging around small children is the way that those small children insist on a not acting like adults. So we adults have a choice. We can either 1) force them, 2) freak out, or 3) adjust. We’re going with #3. For maximum happiness at the snack table, craft table, or playground, there are a couple of essential adjustments we can all make—first, to our expectations, and then to the environment we share with kids.

Adjusting expectations is as simple as remembering that young kids are messy. Children spill stuff. Plan on it.

Adjusting the environment is not so simple, because we have to straddle two worlds … the kids’ and our own. We find that kids always want to do things that are a little too hard for them—“No sippy cups for me!” And we like to encourage these mini revolutions of childhood so they can finish the day saying, “I did it!”. But we also have to keep a foot in our own world and remember that we will be cleaning up after the revolution. A well-designed environment honors the desire of children to do it themselves, and it also honors the physical limitation of the cleanup crew. If I don’t have a ton of patience for clean up, it’s better for me and for the child if I set up the environment in such a way that it will be close to impossible to make a bigger mess than I am willing to clean up.

We’ve always been impressed with parents who are not (overly) frustrated by their children. We suspect that part of the secret is designing children’s environments to minimize frustration, for child and parent. Children will be less frustrated when they can do what they want. Parents will be less frustrated when “what the child wants” does not create extra trouble for them. Keep in mind that kids have (nearly) unlimited energy, and parents have (increasingly) limited energy. Set up your child’s environment with both in mind.

How big of a spill do you want to clean up today?


[Originally posted on Parenting On The Peninsula]

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play

Really great story of a hero kindergarten teacher who tries an audacious experiment in kindness. Author and kindergarten teacher (and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Vivian Paley’s story is told on This American Life in a recent re-broadcast.

A highlight: 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders being nostalgic about the kindness of their younger selves. Be sure to listen through to the end. So encouraging.


(11 minute long audio, available through the player on the radio show’s site)

Screen Time

The people who study development in young children admit that we don’t yet know the effect of video screens on the brains of the very young. However, we hear a common warning from these same camps: children under the age of three should not be pacified with video screens. This includes phones, tablets, computers, and TVs. Ok, we know: this is hard. Recommendations for the later years vary, but some say that an hour a day should be the max for kids up to age nine.

If we don’t yet know what effect a video screen has on a young brain, we do know that what young children need is physical human interaction and engagement, balanced with times of quiescence. Quiescence is unstimulated inactivity, and is the soil out of which grows creative and imaginative play. No matter how interactive an app is, there is a serious limit to how creative you can be within the fixed boundaries of a glass screen.

Any repetitive stimulation effects brain wiring. That is, you train a brain to depend on a source of stimulation. Too much exposure to limitless visual excess can wire a child to expect instant gratification (and not just of a visual nature) and become intolerant of any environment where they cannot have what they want when they want it.


(Image from eBay user l8ouise, who will sell you an iPad mount for your baby’s car seat … if you are determined to do your own research on these matters.)


A beautiful picture of a community of adults, playfully passing skills to a child: she participates in the building of a critical piece of beach infrastructure near her home in France. At home the child replays the exercise on a smaller scale.

Though on the surface this looks like simple fun, we see that play is how children learn, and that play is a child’s work — through play, children internalize skills, find success, and learn confidence.

When patient and playful parents enter into a child’s world, they give the gift of affirmation to a child, along with all the benefits of play listed above. The lucky child is in this way encouraged and emboldened to risk more excursions into the adult world with all its challenges.

To put it another way, when we adults are willing to get down on the floor to play with children, those children will be better able to rise up and work with us.