the play instinct

I have a pond in my backyard.  By a pond, I mean, slightly larger than a puddle, about the size of a kiddie pool, sort of pond.  Apparently, the previous owners of the house had constructed this mosquito breeding ground themselves.  The first summer we moved in, I “stocked” the pond with a few goldfish in order to keep the mosquito population at a minimum.  Unfortunately, over the winter, the pond froze almost solid, since it isn’t very deep, only about a foot or so. Several dead fish were waiting for me in the spring.  Not pretty. So at the end of the next summer, I came up with an ingenious plan. I decided to rescue the new batch of goldfish before it got too cold and make my kindergarten classroom their winter home.  Perfect! I gathered supplies and prepared for a fish transfer.  

Have you ever tried to catch fish in a pond, with a net?  It quickly became clear that this would be a challenging task.  These fish were fast! An hour later, standing in the middle of the pond, in my knee-high waterproof boots, with my three children creating various distractions from the edges I still hadn’t caught a single fish.  I called it a day, tossing my net on the ground and offering to pay anyone who caught a fish $20. (Never mind that I had only paid 29 cents per fish three months earlier. It’s funny, the shifting value of things. . .)  But even my determined children had no luck that day.  

I had accepted the fate of my energetic, yet doomed goldfish and headed to a pet store to purchase new fish for my classroom aquarium.  While there, I told my story to the salesperson who snickered at my ignorance and naivety. That was when she informed me- when it gets colder, the fish will slow way down.  She assured me that I would be able to scoop them up effortlessly when the temperature dropped a bit more. Some pond owners even transfer them using their hands rather than a net.  And she was right. After a few cold days in October, the fish were easily caught- on the very first try.  

The lesson?  Nature should not be ignored.  Whenever possible, work with, not against nature to get the job done!  Children are like fish.  Ok, not really- children are almost always energetic and don’t slow down when it gets cold. 

But seriously, children have a natural instinct to play.   It is their default mode of being. Play is how children learn about themselves and the world around them.  We can choose to work with this natural play instinct or we can ignore, or even attempt to suppress it. Clearly, it is the wiser course to acknowledge and work with, not against, nature. 

Acknowledging and working with, not against, our young children’s natural play instincts is undoubtedly the wiser course, which would result in more effective and joyful learning communities.  

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.  -Roger von Oech



Once, during PBC block, I observed two students at the Imagination Center.  Tiny, shy Abby and boisterous, overbearing Nick, were certainly unlikely playmates. But they had already spent a good fifteen minutes happily arranging furniture in a dollhouse, and a handful of dolls had been negotiated and divided between them.  Now they were setting the scene. I like to call this metaplay, and it went something like this:  

Nick said, “Pretend I’m the dad and I have to go to work but I can’t find my keys.  And then a robber stole my car. And it’s a mystery.” Abby chirped, “Ok, pretend that I’m from 911.”  Nick began tipping the strategically placed furniture on its side. “And the robber dumped all of the things out to find my car keys, and. . .”  Abby interrupted in alarm- “No, don’t dump the baby crib,” rearranging the block that apparently represented the baby crib, “because the baby is sleeping in there.”  Nick paused, but accepted this demand and continued “ok, pretend. . . .” Amused, I am suddenly reminded of a different kind of “play”- that of adults in an improv group.  The first rule is to accept the other person’s “pretend” and to keep going. But here, shy Abby, half Nick’s size, and definitely half his volume, stopped and altered Nick’s pretend.  For her, tipping the crib was a non-negotiable. The baby was in there. Abby recognized that her ideas mattered, too. And in her play, she was practicing confidence skills and self-efficacy.   And Nick, in order to keep the play going, accepted her demand and continued. He was practicing compromise and perspective taking. In their play, without even realizing it, they were successfully practicing relationship skills– one competency of the five Social and Emotional Competencies recognized as essential for healthy development by C.A.S.E.L.



Love & Play

Play is an essential part of a child’s development and children learn and grow best through rich play experiences.  But what does quality play look like? The word “play” is used so frequently in everyday conversation to mean so many different things.  And defining play is like defining love. We recognize it most clearly by its effects. It is not always well-timed or well controlled. Play cannot be forced, it must be freely entered into.  You cannot reason yourself into play or love. It is or it is not. And it is best when done with abandon. Children are especially good at this, falling in and out of play without a moment’s hesitation.  

The true object of all human life is play. -G. K. Chesterton

streetlights vs screen lights

Are you from a generation that was reminded to “head home when the streetlights come on?”  Well, consider yourself fortunate. Things have changed. A lot. Increasingly, a rich, play-filled childhood is an exception and a privilege of the few.  Ask your average family to describe their days, and “busy” is the answer you’ll most likely get. And what about the children? Unfortunately, they just aren’t playing.        

Children are now primarily spending their waking hours in scheduled, adult-directed activities.  There is very little “free” time left over. And how are they spending the majority of this precious free time that is not controlled by adults?   You guessed it- on screens.  At one point children stopped playing when the streetlight came on, now they aren’t playing because they are distracted by the screen-lights of devices.  

No one doubts the substantial benefits of technology, and I want to make it clear that I am not anti-screen time.  I am however, an advocate of adult monitored, extremely limited screen use by young children. There are only so many hours in a day, and quality play is substantially reduced when screens become the primary way children spend their free time.  Why does it even matter? Why are play experiences so important?  

Researchers from diverse fields of study agree that play experiences provide numerous benefits that we are just beginning to understand.   Conversely, the absence of quality play experiences can have negative impacts on a child’s development.  So turn off those screen lights and go play!

“High-level dramatic play produces documented cognitive, social, and emotional benefits.  However, with children spending more time in adult-directed activities and media use, forms of child play characterized by imagination and rich social interactions seem to be declining.”  Developmentally Appropriate Practice Guidelines From: Principles of Child Development and Learning that Inform Practice Copyright © 2009 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children

Play is a Brain Changer

Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. -Dr. Stuart Brown, Play, How it shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Early play is practice for life.  



Life is hard, we can use all the practice we can get!  And the earlier, the better. The key to successfully playing the game of life is through executive functioning skills.  The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has a helpful summary of this complex bundle of skills: “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

Executive functioning skills are essential for success in school, career and without exaggeration- in life!  Play seems to be the primary way that children gain and strengthen these skills. Using MRI technology, “researchers have found that play actually develops the part of the brain that enables a child to have executive functioning skills .  . . which are essential to academic success and success in the adult years”. 7,4,22 Pretend Play and Brain Growth: The Link to Learning and Academic Success Gesell Institute of Child Development Marcy Guddemi, Ph.D., MBA Executive Director Gitta Selva Director of Programs and Editorial Services 

Alarmingly, statistics show that children are playing less and less each year.  Several trends are contributing to this childhood decline in self-directed free time, including increases in structured, adult-led activities, and significant increases in screen-time at every age level.  To put it simply- children just don’t have time to play. This significant decline in childhood play has consequences that we are just beginning to understand. In a 2018 statement on play, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that “Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function.  (

Playful vs Free play

In today’s world, many parents do not appreciate the importance of free play or guided play with their children and have come to think of worksheets and other highly structured activities as play.‍  –PEDIATRICS Volume 142, number 3, September 2018 5 Downloaded from by guest on December 31, 2018

Free-play, or simply “play” is defined here as freely chosen, self-directed activity, not to be confused with “playful,” adult-directed activity.  Research shows that children benefit from a balance of both of these:  adult-directed and self-directed experiences. Just as children benefit from both hearing books being read aloud to them by adults and practicing reading books themselves, a balanced classroom includes both adult-directed and child-directed experiences.  

Of course children learn through playful activities, but let’s remember what free play really means!   Teacher-led songs and games are wonderful, but they are by no means a substitute for free play.  Let’s not forget this!

Adult directed play is not “free-Play. . .”.  “Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives.  It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing . . . –Peter Gray, Free to Learn