What can quarantine teach us about play?

I used to love reading, but after studying for too many years, and then having small children and being tired all of the time, I just lost my love of reading. I read when I have to, mostly for work. But thanks to lock down and multiple trips to medical facilities’ parking lots, I’ve had a book with me to pass the time. And I’m loving it!

The joys of autumn in the garden

I’m currently reading Perspectives on Play: Learning for Life. It is a wonderful book covering a wide range of topics, is well-researched and edited by thought leaders in the field. It confirms so much of what I believe about our communities, how I feel about education and about how children spend their time.

There is so much positive to be taken from play in the 0-3 year old category. Children are learning at such a rapid rate, that every opportunity for play holds a vital place in brain development. The opposite also holds true. Children deprived of adequate play opportunities suffer developmentally.

The deprivation suffered by children in orphanages has been well documented. But as suggested in our book Playvolution: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Valuable Experiences Through Play, what if middle class children could also suffer from play deprivation as a result of a top-down education structure, and over-scheduled days?

In Perspectives on Play, it is stated that “Anything that suggests a top–down model of early learning should be avoided, particularly the application of an outcome based curriculum” (p 121). Hold on. Hasn’t our country been fighting for outcomes based education for the longest time, to assist and prepare our children for the world? All of our nursery schools seem to want to impress parents with the wonderful outcomes (on formally structured reports) of their playful learning approaches. But when is it okay to structure our preschoolers’ play, and when should we just observe from the shadows?

This worldwide lock down has given parents a unique opportunity to observe their children in play, to notice whether they are able to play independently or not, and to decide how to structure daily routine. Many children, especially of preschool age, are thriving in a less structured, more flexible and more accommodating environment.

Studies have shown that “anxiety-provoking experiences in early life – which importantly link to over-busy, over-controlled lifestyles in working families and outcome-dominated care and education settings – increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can interact destructively with the biochemistry of the brain, particularly in the first three years of life” – Sims, Gguilfoyle & Parry (2006). “This has the potential to create ongoing problems for emotional regulation, by misaligning the biochemical mechanisms relating to emotional control in infancy”. They further explain that children experiencing ongoing stress have higher resting levels of cortisol, and take longer to return to baseline after individual stressful experiences. Besides the obvious emotional downside, higher cortisol levels are linked to memory and learning problems, and these children typically perform poorly at school.

But it’s not all about how busy the children are, but also how stressed the caregivers are. Vermeer and Van Ijzendoorn (2006) found that caregivers who show signs of stress while at work in daycare seemed to produce more stressed children. So while we might argue that we are forced to have our children in nursery schools so that we can work, the choice of a homely and happy care centre seems more important now than ever.

So how do these thoughts relate to our current lock down status?

Many children receiving occupational therapy services seem to be doing really well at home. They appear to be better regulated and happier, getting along with their family members, and not keen to return to school. On one hand this raises the alarm about our schooling systems, and how they contribute to stress in our children. On the other hand it is a wonderful feather in the caps of the parents who are working hard to keep their children happy and content at home.

It will be interesting to see what research develops as a result of the unchartered waters we are navigating. Do children thrive as a result of a slower pace? Are sibling relationships stronger? When will we see the effects of a longer period of isolation from their peers?

I’m sure there will be negative effects too. I think daily about the children removed from their school meals and caring teachers. I am also concerned about those with unlimited internet access, and infinite screen time.

We are living in uncertain times. That’s for sure. But we would do well to use our free time to read more about what we do know, and then think about what we don’t know. Because when we know better, we can do better.

Does a fun learning programme equate to PLAY?

I was confronted with a thought: is play-based learning and learning through play the same thing? I really don’t believe it is.
 
Many people are starting to understand that we are pushing academic programmes at younger ages, and that children need to play more, so they advertise fun in learning. Fun letters and phonics, Fun maths lessons. Fun emotional intelligence classes. Fun language skills. Fun sports. Fun music lessons. There is a franchise for every extra-mural activity you can imagine that promises your toddler or preschooler will have fun while learning.
 
The problem with all of the above activities is that they are highly adult-directed. Play is supposed to be open-ended, novel AND fun. There should be no adult agenda, no output or goal other than the activity of play itself. Play should stem from a place of “What now? What next?” and even boredom.
 
All of the above activities start and end with adults in control of pre-planned activities. There is little to no space for age-appropriate creativity.

How can we promote play, without that agenda taking control of the play space?
1.  Time
Children need time to create their own thoughts and play scripts.  It often first requires that they get “bored” for that innate creativity to be stimulated.  Don’t be tempted to make suggestions too early on, or provide them with one-dimensional toys.  You might want to follow the podcast and hashtag #1000hoursoutside, which equates to about 3 hours per day, EVERY day of the year.
2.  Space
Where are the children going to play?  As a parent you probably know that children can play anywhere, although nature is the most wonderful space for children to explore and create.  Remove technology and interferences and let go.  Loose parts, or random objects that can be played with, are a wonderful way to stimulate their creativity.  They will ask “What can I do with this?”
3.  Wait
You might have heard of the Watch, Wait and Wonder principle.  This involves taking a step back and not intervening in the child’s process.  Give them a chance to get going and actively wonder what they will do next, rather than suggest what you would do next.
4.  Repeat
In a world of instant gratification and tech devices, your children might struggle to play on their own at first.  But start with a few minutes per day and gradually build up the time that they are able to spend entertaining themselves.
It’s hard not to push an agenda because we really do want what’s best for our children.  It’s hard to trust the developmental process.  It’s even harder when you have a child with special needs and you are trying to help them catch up with their peers.  It’s hard when you compare your child’s daily programme to that of their peers.  It’s hard when government dictates education expectations before age 7.
But if only we could all have the patience to see what our children figure out for themselves, and the pride of their faces.  They will learn how to climb and build, to be brave and to take turns.  They will wind daisy chains and comfort a child that falls.  They will build sequences with rocks and sticks, create complex structures and develop their own social rules.  They will learn to communicate and to stand up for themselves, and for their friends.
We, as the adults, place so much importance on what we think we know, and how we can make the world a better place.  When it comes to children, I am convinced that the innate process of development holds so much value and importance that is getting lost in our busy, over-scheduled and tech world.
#letthemplay #letthembelittle
Be part of the #playvolution and join our Facebook group (www.facebook.com/playvolutionbook) or order the book,  Playvolution: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Valuable Experiences Through Play (2014) by Karen and Alex Powell, on Amazon.

Your pocket or your conscience?

We all know times are tough.  We are all parents who want to give our kids the best possible opportunities, right?  At what cost?

Last week I was contacted by one of our biggest supporters and fellow mommy bloggers.  She was in a large retail store and found something that looked like Moluk’s Oogi, but wasn’t.  It was combined with a similarly designed toy by one of their competitors, used their same marketing photos, but cost a fraction of the price.  What was going on?

Unfortunately South Africa, as the rest of the world, is plagued by cheap rip offs of products.  We can’t seem to stop them from entering the market, and patents only protect so much.  So why should we as parents pay more when we could be paying so much less and keep our kids happy?

1.Design and Safety

All of Moluk’s toys have been carefully designed, with your child in mind.  The ideas come from a place of supporting open-ended play, and providing your child with a multi-dimensional toy that will evolve into different things as your child grows.  Swiss design means exceptionally high standards, as we know.  And with that comes compliance to international safety standards.  Did you know that the size of the hand, the thickness of the silicon and the manufacturing process all have to meet certain requirements before the toys can be sold?  Toy safety standards also have an impact on the age for which a specific toy is recommended.  When you buy the original product, you know that your child’s best interests are at the forefront of the design, before any profit can even be considered.

2. Sustainability
Did you know that Moluk was featured at Design Week Milan in April 2018, and they were part of Play It Green, an exhibition by afilii about sustainable toys during Kind & Jugend Fair in Cologne.   Sustainability has always been an essential concern when they develop toys. They use recyclable plastics and avoid any painted parts or composite materials. No PVC, no phthalates, no BPA. The resources and energy it takes to produce a toy always stand in relation to the play value and years of use you get out of it. Moluk toys have a stellar track record in this regard and a minimal ecological footprint.

3. Supporting local

We know that this is such a wonderful community of mommy bloggers, all trying to do the best for their kids.  In the end, supporting a local business that believes in only the best quality, rather than a cheap knock off comes down to your conscience.  There will always be a market for cheap toys unfortunately.  But what are you exposing your children to?  Who is getting the credit for someone else’s hard work?  If you cannot support the original designer and legal imports, why not use the principles of the design to do some homemade crafts this Christmas, and create your own figurines for your kids.  While this will be a lovely bonding time for your children and enhance their creativity, you will also know that you are supporting fair trade, ethical business principles and local entrepreneurs.

It’s up to you!  We can only survive on the loyalty of our customers to the brand and all that we stand for.  Moluk and Straight Zigzag promise to never compromise on quality, sustainability and ethical business practices. We all stand together!

Note: if you should come across counterfeit versions of any of our toys, please pop me a message at info@straightzigzag.com.  Will be much appreciated 🙂

Toddlers in training

I wrote the following article for the South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) magazine and it was published in June 2019.  In the opinion piece we explore why it is so important to value the traditional trajectory of development and let little ones play with the physical world before exploring the virtual one, if we hope to develop technicians and engineers of the future.  It was so wonderful to be given the opportunity to share the value of play beyond the fields of health and education.

Click on the link to read (pdf). Toddlers in Training – SAICE June 2019

Guest post by Jacqui Couper: If Relationships Matter, Play is the Medium

Our guest today is Jacqui Couper – an occupational therapist, wife and mother.  This post first appeared here, and we are so grateful that Jacqui was happy for us to share it.

 

Riding the wave of play

As mentioned in our last post, I’ve recently finished reading the most wonderful ebook by a lady who has pioneered and led the field of playworkers – a field that I think holds such value.  In her book The Playwork Primer (2010), Penny Wilson shares the delicate tiptoe between facilitating play on the playgrounds of London, and interfering in the developmental process that is the child’s work.

Today I would like to share her explanation of the critical balance in the child’s play process.  Many occupational therapists need to understand and use this concept for the beautiful art of therapy to be successful.

Below is an excerpt from the book.

Complexity theory is a way of understanding natural systems.  We look at a flock of birds or a school of fish moving in magnificent order and symmetry and wonder how they can do it.  Both are examples of complex adaptive systems.  In these natural systems, order is not the result of a pre-established plan that maps out, say, the flock’s flight path.  Instead, the overall order, the graceful flocking, emerges from a few very simple rules about finding direction, keeping a certain distance from other birds, and so on, that govern individual birds’ flying behaviours.

The theories of complexity provide some interesting metaphors for understanding playwork.  Arthur Battram describes an ideal state for a play setting by likening it to a wave.  Before the wave breaks, there is stasis, order.  After the wave breaks, there is turbulence and chaos.  At the curl of the breaking wave there is a delicate balance between order and chaos.

If we relate this to a play setting then the static, ordered state is a very controlled setting.  It is rule-bound, highly organised, and prescriptive; timed activities will take place.  There is no room in this play setting for the creative spontaneity of playing children.  If we look at a chaotic play setting, it is poorly organised.  The hours when it is open are irregular.  The toilets might not work.  The staff might display a wide variety of moods and temperaments, with unpredictable attitudes towards the children and their playing.

Look at the curl of the wave, which is where we surf because that is where the power is.  We see the meeting of order with spontaneous activity and unpredictability.  Thus, an underlying order can support freedom and unpredictable play.  It is a framework for creativity.  Battram offers us the image of surfing on the edge of chaos and order as a metaphor for how a play setting works.  It is our role as adults to understand this and create the solid foundations on which the children play.

Isn’t that just beautiful?

I must admit that I am person who likes order and it is hard for me as parent and homemaker to be playmaker too, to stand back and watch the beautiful chaos unfold.

What are your experiences of beautiful chaos?  Aren’t they some of your best memories?

Play-makers: the subtle art of not interfering

I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful ebook by a lady who has pioneered and led the field of playworkers – a field that I think holds such value.  In her book The Playwork Primer (2010), Penny Wilson shares the delicate tiptoe between facilitating play on the playgrounds of London, and interfering in the developmental process that is the child’s work.

Children need to organise and direct their own play, but the reality is that few of today’s children are allowed to play freely, as earlier generations were.  Some don’t know how to get started.  Others need some adult support.  Playworkers fill this space.  They:

  • create playful environments
  • support children’s own play
  • assess risk, and
  • help out when needed, without directing or controlling.

Above all, playworkers strive to be as invisible as possible.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

In 1946 a a quirk of fate led Lady Allen of Hurtwood to visit a junk playground in Copenhagen-Emdrup, designed by the architect C. Th. Sorenson in 1943.  He was commissioned by the authorities to create a place for children to play in response to increased levels of child delinquency during the German occupation.  So Sorenson went back to look at other playgrounds that he had designed.  He found them empty.  Where were the children?  They were playing in the wreckage of bombed-out buildings.  So this is what he created: A place with materials that children could manipulate, where they could spend hours rooting around unnoticed and lost in their own worlds.

Lady Allen said of her first visit to this playground, “I was completely swept off my feet by my first visit to the Emdrup playground.  In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities.”  She brought the concept back to London and gave it the name “adventure playground”.

At that time London children had little space to play except for bomb sites left after the Second World War.  Here they spent their time building, making fires, digging for treasure from the dead homes, and generally scrubbing around on their own.  Lady Allen had had a very playful rural childhood.  She thought that her own experiences had been ideal and recognized in the sites she created with local communities a “compensatory environment”.  By this she meant they were the nearest thing to her rural childhood that could be created for urban children.

Over the next few posts I’d like to explore more of the ideas shared in this book.  But for now, what is the closest thing we have to an adventure playground here in our cities?  We’d love to hear from you.

The not-so-fun fair

Holidays and high days.  Family time and high expectations for fun time together. Every now and again we’re confronted with scenes that dredge up not-so-great memories from our childhood.  Maybe it’s a social situation.  Sometimes it’s sensory.  I’m not particularly fond of swimming.  I was never a strong swimmer.  We didn’t have a pool at home and I ran across the width of the pool in my Grade 1 gala.  To this day, as much as I enjoy the view, the sound of the waves and the romanticism of the holiday, the beach, sand and wet costumes are not my favourite things.  But I put on my mom-face and my costume and head down to the sand twice a day when we’re there.

So everyone is supposed to like fun fairs right?  Water parks?  Adventure courses? Big slides, rollercoasters, rocking horses and fun fairs are scary. Some little kids struggle to enjoy outings because these typically fun childhood experiences cause them so much angst.  They avoid the swings and jungle gym at preschool which not only affects their gross motor development, but in turn their social development too.  They become isolated and lack self-confidence.

Movement is registered and processed by part of the brain called the vestibular system.  The sensory organs, located in the inner ear, have little hairs and crystals which respond to changes of the position of the head or the speed of movement of the head.  Nerve signals are fired and the brain is able to adjust muscle tone to bring the body upright again.  Some (most) kids love movement and spend the day seeking out movement opportunities – rolling, jumping, swinging, tumbling and sliding.  Movement also has a very close relationship to the limbic system, responsible for emotion. The joy of movement feeds the desire to be active, thereby developing muscle tone and gross motor skills.

For some kids though, those little receptors in the ear are oversensitive.  The rapid fire response of the nervous system to changes in head position results in a fight-or-flight response, rather than the joy we expect.  Not only does the child feel fearful and avoid movement, but they also have a negative emotional response.  These kids have delayed motor developed, poor balance and often low self-esteem to go with it.  This often presents as whiny behaviour on a family outing that was supposed to be fun, and can negatively affect family dynamics.

If this sounds like your child, you could perhaps benefit from consultation with an occupational therapist (OT).  OT’s work with children who have sensory integration difficulties. Some children need help learning how to process movement in a way that is less threatening.  They also need to learn coping mechanisms, and their families need to understand how to help them.  These children often struggle with car sickness. They might have had many ear infections in the past, resulting in thicker fluid in the ear which affects speech as well as movement and balance.

The vestibular system has a huge impact on behaviour – both the highs and lows of emotion.  Fun fairs tend to bring out the best or worst in our little people.  They are an ocean of sensory overwhelm. Noise, movement, hustling people.  Not always the fun day out you wanted for your family.  Here are some ideas to make the day more peaceful:

  1. Go early when there are less crowds
  2. Find a quiet corner to unwind between activities
  3. Take some calming snacks : chewy dried fruit, biltong, popcorn
  4. Drink a thick drink like a milkshake through a thin straw
  5. Consider ear plugs or headphones to reduce noise
  6. Know when enough is enough and time to go home.

Hope that helps!

Growing up in a bowling alley

We know that our play spaces are shrinking.  Winter is coming, and the little time that our children spend outdoors after school is cut short by the sinking sun.  In our family we eat quite early, which leaves some free play time before bath time.  On long summer evenings this is an ideal wind-down time – kicking a ball, cricket, trampoline time, watching the sun set.  But the cooler evenings are chasing us indoors, even if we’re not quite ready to bath.  The kids do quite a lot of fine motor play at school so we need to find a way to play and move indoors, without wrecking the house.

This is where the bowling alley comes in.  Every house should have one.  I grew up in an oldish house in the older suburbs – a big property and a long house with all the rooms coming off one central passage.  Not by design, my husband and I ended buying a similarly designed home.  Large garden for two busy boys, and very long, smooth, wooden floor passage running down the middle of the house.

The kids love playing here.  It’s the ideal space to skid along in bed socks, slide around in  the washing basket, and of course, throw/roll/kick balls.  Sometimes the doors to the rooms are open and add goals or traps to the game, other times the doors are all closed to create a darker bowling alley.

Here are some of the games the boys are enjoying at the moment:

  1.  Seated soccer: rolling the ball to each other and scoring a goal by getting it past the other’s legs
  2. Bath mat golf: rolling a golf ball down the passage and getting it to stop on a bath mat at the other end
  3. Bouncing ball mayhem:  throwing a handful of bouncy balls at once and enjoying the chaos

There are photos along the walls so we have some rules regarding the size and type of ball allowed for the various games.  To date, no casualties.

What are your children’s favourite play spaces in your home?

 

But Mommy, little girls DO exist!

It was without any planning that our most recent trip to the library resulted in reading bedtime stories that assume the wonderful imaginations of our children are based more in reality that those of  their parents.  My eldest is definitely at the age where he is constantly at war within himself, trying to figure out what is real, what is play-play and what is in his best interests to believe in (i.e. Father Christmas and the Tooth Mouse).

We came home with two wonderful books:

  • “I want my light on!” by Tony Ross
  • “There’s no such thing as a dragon” by Jack Kent

I want my light on! is the story of a little princess who doesn’t want to go to bed, because she believes there are ghosts in her room, despite all the palace staff trying to convince her otherwise.  In a lovely twist, the book ends with the little ghost convincing his mom that little girls are real.

There’s no such thing as a dragon is of a similar theme, although perhaps with a slightly more poignant theme for us to take note of. The little boy’s dragon grows bigger and bigger, eventually carrying the family’s house away on his back, just so that he will get noticed, taken seriously, and that the parents will believe he is real.

These books highlight the role of imagination in early development, specifically in toddlers and preschool children.  Reading plays a vital role in the development of imaginative narrative, that the children then play out in their play routines.  While dragons, fairies, ghosts and the like show evidence of the child’s community’s beliefs, they also play a significant part in shaping the child’s world view.

What should imaginative play look like?

Between 18 and 24 months toddlers will start to play their first pretend games, acting out things that they see the adults in their lives do.  This may include talking on the phone, cooking, driving a car.

By two years, they understand that an object could stand for something else e.g. this spoon could be my “phone”.  They also like to pretend e.g. that they’re eating.  I couldn’t believe it when my husband taught my toddler to fake sleep, eyes closed and snoring and all!  It was definitely his first demonstration of understanding “play-play”.

As the child nears their third birthday they will really enter the world of imaginary play.  You can look forward to more complicated scenes: boats and railways, tea parties, fight scenes and careers start to emerge.  By age four they’ve moved from action and sound effects to complicated story lines and character traits.

So how can you as a parent foster this vital form of play in your child?

  • Read read read! Books are a wonderful way to develop imaginative skills, abstract thinking and an understanding of story lines.
  • Provide your child with props for their play time. These need not resemble anything in particular.  Old curtain rings, wooden blocks and pieces of material can be used to create all sorts of scenes.
  • Keep some old clothes for dress up and role play. These could be specific outfits from a school dress up day such as a doctor or princess, or a collection of hats, jewellery and shoes that they can use as their hearts desire.
  • Get on the floor and play! There’s a fine line between teaching your children to play on their own, and promoting their play by acting as their play partner.  If your child invites you into their story, by all means play along.  Ask questions: What happened next?  Who is this?  Who am I?

Imaginative play is such a wonderful phase of development.  Your child will develop their cognitive and social skills, as well as test out their own theories of how the world works.  It is their safe space to explore interactions, sequences and consequences.

 

The information provided in this article is intended to foster a playful spirit in homes and to provide parents with ideas.  This blog cannot replace a consultation with a health professional.  If you have any concerns about your child’s development please seek individualized advice.