There is a magic moment where play, work and learning all look like the same thing. It’s when the participants are engaged, interactive and open, and the process becomes the focus. Sometimes the moment looks like children taking turns and laughing in a game of  “Mother May I.”  It can be in a group of children carefully crafting a castle out of a tower of blocks – and starting over again to make the structure sturdier when somebody knocks it down.  It can occur as the string is let out slowly on a colorful kite, and we watch what happens when it’s caught on the wind. The moment sometimes arrives wrapped in the silly consonants and onomatopoeia of a “Swamp Song.”

The moment might be seen in a little boy running around the room with a “magic wand” that looks like a paper towel tube. It might sound like giggling children curled over their knees on the floor pretending to be turtles. (Oops! A “snapping turtle” just grabbed another student’s leg!) It could look like a game of  “going to the store” in the dramatic play corner or like a child quietly scooping water into a bowl again and again and watching it overflow. It could make itself known in a girl bent over a desk carefully creating a picture of a snail with backyard leaves, pebbles, a glue stick and an orange crayon.  It’s in the rapt attention paid to an engaging story or a child with a toy truck who just realized he can’t fit all the blocks into the back and so he makes two trips across the carpet, “vrooming” all the way.

I’ve been caught up in the magic while sitting in front of a computer experimenting with techniques to create the image I need for an assignment. In that moment I am not focused on the end result, only in the experience.  I am fully engaged – caught up in the process and the flow of creation. Work has become play. Learning has becomes play.

In The Power of Play David Elkind, Ph.D. identifies these 9 elements that often occur in that magic moment where play, learning and work merge:

  1. There are clear goals
  2. There is immediate feedback
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills
  4. Action and awareness are merged
  5. Distractions are excluded
  6. There is no worry about failure
  7. Self-consciousness disappears
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted
  9. The activity becomes an end in itself

Sure, eventually we make judgments: Did we accomplish what we set out to do? Was the assignment completed? Do we know something we didn’t know before? Have we added to our skill set? Can we use what we’ve learned? These are good evaluative questions. They address the goals and intents of learning and working. But the moment where these things were accomplished? Well, that was play.

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What Is It?

May 18, 2011

What’s your first answer?  A circle? A block?  What do you see when you look at the picture to the left?  When I pull this item out of my bag during a Playshop and ask that question, most adults gaze at me strangely then give me the “correct” answer. I  nod then ask the question again, “What is it?” Now the looks are both blank and a little concerned.  Didn’t they already give me the right answer? But I persist. Holding it up higher, I ask again. Finally someone ventures, “It could be a sun….”  “Yes! That’s great!” I encourage. I ask the question again. Slowly the participants began to look at the object in my hand differently.  “It’s a hockey puck!”  “It’s a clown’s nose!” “It’s a yo-yo!”  “It’s an earring!” The lid lifts off the Only One Right Answer box. And we begin to play.  We move beyond the limits of our experience with the item and begin to think in terms of possibility. We move from concrete to concept. It is here that innovation begins.

In Dr. Stuart Brown’s book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, the author tells the story of Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which had been the United States premier aerospace research facility for more than seven decades. In the late 1990’s, though, JPL was experiencing a problem. The engineers who had come onboard in the 1960’s were beginning to retire in large numbers and those who were hired to replace them, though coming from the most prestigious programs with the highest academic excellence, seemed unable to handle the difficult challenge of moving from theory to practice. Being engineers, the JPL management analyzed the problem and decided they were looking at the wrong metrics. But what were the right ones? Then came the discovery: those who had worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were more open-ended in their approach to challenges and thus able to see solutions that those who hadn’t played with manipulatives could not.

As Early Childhood caregivers and educators we have the wonderful opportunity to practice open-ended thinking – the stuff of creativity and innovation – with the little people in our care. This is play with a purpose. But it’s not just for little people. When was the last time you cracked open your “Right Answer” box? It can be fun!  And as easy as asking the question, “What is it?”

No. Really. I want to know. How many possibilities do you see in this next picture? Write and let me know!

Appreciation Day

May 5, 2011

I don’t remember what Mrs. Dodge looked like. I was in her kindergarten class at #4 School in Rochester, New York. The room smelled of crayons and tempura paints. There were small chairs and tables just my size and lots of light brown paper, which tore easily but felt smooth under my 5-year-old fingers. I don’t remember any of the other children in the classroom or even what learning materials were there besides the art supplies.  I discovered I could draw in that classroom. As I bent over the sheet in front of me, making thick waxy lines with the stubby crayons stored in the old coffee can on the table, the other children would cluster around and ask me to draw pictures for them. I liked kindergarten. And I liked Mrs. Dodge, even though I don’t remember her face or even her voice these many decades later. But there was one thing about her that I never forgot.  Mrs. Dodge could read upside down. Every day at reading time the children would sit in a semi-circle at Mrs. Dodge’s feet as she read from a book on her lap. The book would be balanced on its bottom edge with the pages facing outward so that we could see the pictures while she read to us, taking on the voices of characters and turning the pages slowly when it was time. It was the most magic time of the day. And I looked forward to it even more than art time. More than anything, I wanted to learn how to do that. This was in the days when we weren’t expected to read in kindergarten. The only way the stories in books could become real to me was through others. Mrs. Dodge opened that door for me in a way that has stayed with me forever.

I thought about Mrs. Dodge when I received an email reminder that May 6th is Provider Appreciation Day. What an excellent opportunity to let those who educate, guide and care for the littlest ones know how valuable they are. Early childhood educators can make an impression on the lives of the little people in their care that is deeper than any that comes after.

Not so long ago I was sharing stories of parenthood with the founder of Environments. She said, “My daughter is 33 now.  One day, a couple of years ago, I asked her what had been the most meaningful period of her life. I was expecting her to say something like ‘When I went to Europe’ or about some other great experience we’d provided for her. But instead she said, ‘When I was in Miss Linda’s Montessori school’.” Mother/founder then paused and told me, “That’s when I knew my life was on the right track, and I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

To all of you who work in the early childhood community — as teachers, administrators, curriculum developers, care givers, and in myriad other ways — I say thank you.  Good job. What you’re doing makes a difference.  And, yes, I can read upside down.

In Praise of Tadpoles

April 25, 2011

When my mother found the tadpole eggs floating in the kitchen sink, she drew the line. Loudly. My older brother and I scrambled to scoop them out, complaining all the time, “We just wanted to watch them hatch!” My mother was not moved. And, following the relocation of the potential frogs to a bucket on the porch, we were given SOS pads and were set to scrubbing anything the jellied mass might have touched. Given my mother’s nature, she handled it pretty well — at least better than she did the day my little brother’s king snake escaped from the box under his bed and met her on the staircase as she was coming up with a stack of laundry. I remember that incident being much louder.  And messier.  I think I owe my mother something really special for Mother’s Day.

But this isn’t about deserving motherhood. It’s about the wonderful opportunity my brothers and I had to explore the world around us and to discover its mysteries. As we wandered the universe of our back yard or the neighborhood, we had authentic experiences with our environment that piqued our curiosity. (How does a mass of eggs turn into frogs? Can I catch that snake before it gets away?)  We dropped rocks into puddles and built walls out of mud to create dams. We made “honey” from flower blossoms and water. (Okay, and I tried to get the little kid next door to eat it, but that’s another story!) We played freely and learned experientially.

There’s something about free play that fuels creativity and exploration. Unconsciously we begin to ask important questions like “What if?” and ”Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”  And we’re off learning and growing. Free play brings the gift of innovation and creativity.  After all, we don’t know how high we can build or how deep we can dig or, even, how fast that garden newt can run, until we play and see.  Free play offers the opportunity for discovery.

When my training partner, Ellen, and I work together we always like to allow some time for free play with the materials we provide. This is harder for some adults than you would think. By adulthood we are vested in expected outcomes. Sometimes it takes a while before our workshop participants allow themselves to explore materials openly and discover what they can do or be. It’s exciting when they let themselves go and become like children.

So – how can we provide opportunities for free play with the little people we care for from day to day?  Amidst the structure of curriculum and busy schedules, can we provide the time and space to allow them to discover the environment around them, whether that be a back yard, a classroom, or a learning center?  What would happen if you left a bowl of pasta noodles by the paint easel? What if toys from the water table were discovered in the playground? I’d love to hear about free play experiences that you might have.  And if they involve tadpoles – well, all the better!

What’s In Your Purse?

April 19, 2011

It’s always fun to see what’s in someone’s purse. During our April 4th training day in Kansas City, all kinds of items were pulled out of totes and shoulder bags and placed on the tables. No, it wasn’t a massive key search. It was an exercise in using open-ended materials to teach. Ellen Booth Church, the lead presenter, asked us to pull two items out of our purses and place them on the table in front of us. Then, we were to sort the items into categories. At each table we began to note commonalities — “well, the eyeglasses and the earphones are both worn on your head, so they can go together….” or “this pencil is yellow and so is that ipod…” Eventually we were all satisfied with our categories. “Good,” Ellen said. “Now mix things up and re-categorize.”

Once again we began sorting and asking ourselves the questions, “How are these things alike? How are they different?”  There was laughter and discussion as we began to look at the items in different ways. If prizes were given, I’d have to give first prize to the table that not only had the most unusual criteria (“All of the things in this group could fit in your nose.”) but also the most unique items (It’s amazing the things folk carry around!).  Even more amazing was how this exercise began to open up our ways of thinking and challenge what we thought we knew. And this, after all, is what education should do: Open us up. Turn the light on. Allow us the opportunity to be creative and innovative.  Education should move us beyond facts and into possibility.

That’s what I love about open-ended materials and experiences. They go beyond work sheets and create authentic “A-ha!” moments. Open-ended learning experiences encourage us to interact in new ways with our environment. Just like play. For the young child play and work involve the same actions: interacting with people, manipulating objects, and making discoveries that help make sense of the world. Learning happens naturally through play.

Why not try sorting activities with the little people in your care? Discovering how things are alike and how they are different is a great way to spark creativity no matter what the age.
So – what’s in your purse?


I’m excited about attending the National Head Start Conference in April.  It’s in Kansas City, MO this year and, once again, my training partner, Ellen Booth Church and I are offering our day long seminar, “A Day in the Life of a Preschooler.” Sometimes we adults get so caught up in the requirements, challenges and day to day grind that we forget what life is like in a child’s shoes.  In our seminar we allow ourselves to be little people again.  Sing songs in circle time. Play math games. Pretend that we’re statues!  Tell each other stories.  And as we play, we learn — just like children do.  We also take the time to model and discuss what CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System) looks like in practice.  And we have a great time as well! So — if  you’re coming to NHSA this year, sign up for our training session.  Play works!

Ellen Booth Church and 2009 Playshop Participant

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