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Jill Bean's picture
Play as an Emergent System PLAY ... "is not purely entertainment or a luxury to be given up when things get serious ...playfulness is ... not only to be enjoyed but to be accorded high value for its fundamental role in the success of all organisms, including humans." - Paul Grobstein, Serendip's Playground

What is Play?  Play as an emergent process.  The role of play in the development of self-regulation.

Should teachers examine play as a model for instruction? 


1. My Starting Place

1.1 In February 2008, a series of articles in the mainstream press appeared all focused on the same topic: play.  These articles proclaimed the importance of imaginative play for young children, pointing to a variety of positive outcomes: 1) developing executive function and self-regulation, 2) since executive function is a better predictor of school success than IQ, better school success, 3) stronger langauge development, and 4) decreased impulsivity.  I read and discussed these articles with my colleagues and shared them with the parents of my students. These articles served to remined me of, and validate, some of the reasons why I insist that my kindergarten students have at least one hour of uniterrupted free-play each and every day.  The articles follow:

NPR article: Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control (February 28, 2008)

NPR article: Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills (February 21, 2008)

NY Times: Taking Play Seriously (February 17, 2008)

1.2 I have attached an essay that I included in my weekly parent newsletter this past year.  In this essay, I discuss a particular experience that occured during Worktime (my name for free time).  My story centered on what the magic that occurs during Worktime: children cooperating, responding, creating, experimenting, etc.  

Classroom Newsletter: The Magic of Worktime (October 17, 2008)


2. Brain and Behavior Summer Institute 2009

I am currently attending, along with 11 other teachers, the Brain and Behavior Summer Institute 2009, led by Paul Grobstein.  In this institute we are grappling with how the brain processes information and produces behavior, how to apply this information to our classrooms, and tying it together with the concept of emergence and emergent pedagogy.  Emergence is the idea that simple things interacting in simple ways can create complicated outcomes.  

Part of our responsibilities as a participant in open-ended transactional inquiry, is to explore a topic of interest to ourselves and creating a website to gather our thoughts and resources, and to present those thoughts to our Institute community and the external community as well.  I began my explorations here, with a big list of possible areas to explore.  I embarked on my journey without much purpose, just exploring to see what I could find (some of my notes and resources can be found here).  I began to notice that many of my possible topics could be, and often were, linked together under the broader topic of "the development of self-regulation" in children.  My next stop was here, where I began to develop a page on "The Development of Self-Regulation and it's Impact on Academic Success".  The research varies on describing the different kinds of self-regulation, the different links between the different kinds, as well as the areas of the brain that control self-regulation.  What became fairly clear to me is that the brain is an emergent system and within the brain are many different areas (or boxes) that interact together and trying to separate out each contribution to self-regulation was not really useful.  What was useful is that research seemed fairly consistent in one point: self-regulation is more strongly linked to school success than IQ. 

Now new throughts arose.  Perhaps instead of trying to determine how self-regulation develops in the brain, perhaps I needed to examine what kinds of experiences help promote the development of self-regulation.  I remembered the recent surge in interest in the role of unstructured play in the development of self-regulation.  I had arrived at a new starting point!  Time to focus on play as an emergent system...

3. What I've discovered and my Emerging Thoughts on Play and Emergence

Emergence: simple things interacting in simple ways with complex/sophisticated outcomes.  Play seems to be a ideal example of an emergent system.  

On the internet there is an ample supply of parents, educators, and researchers advocating for play and lamenting the shrinking amounts of time devoted to play in school.  Indeed the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) hosted its National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development in June 2009, "Play: Where Learning Begins".  The conference focused on the importance in play in learning.  There is also a large supply of research linking open-ended play to the development of self-regulation and academic success. 

Why is it then that the amount of unstructured play time for kids has been largely phased out of schools, even at the kindergarten level?  A review of the first ten results of a google search for "kindergarten daily schedule" revealed that many kindergarten classrooms have no indoor free play time and an average recess of 29 minutes.  What is causing this disparity between what we say is important and what is the reality of the school experience? Perhaps it is the pressure from external assessments??  Other ideas?

Can we begin to look at play as not just something fun and physically important?  How about play as a powerful form of emergent pedagogy?  Furthermore, can this play pedagogy be utilized beyond the early childhood realm?  Why does the emphasis turn away from play once children enter the grades? 

Upon further investigation, I discovered there is actually strong support this idea of play as a curricular model, from both classic and modern educational theorists.

In the article Serious Play in the Classroom: How Messing Around Can Win You the Nobel Prize (Childhood Education, Spring 1992), Selma Wassermann argues, "virtually every important concept to be taught - whether it be at the primary, intermediate or graduate level or whether it be in science, math, economics or business management - can be taught through the medium of serious play".

Jean Piaget, famous for his theory of cognitive development, frequently championed play and described the kind of experiences characteristic of play pedagogy.  
        “Play is the answer to the question -- How does anything new ever come about?”

Childhood Education, Sandra J. Stone an article entitled Integrating Play into the Curriculum (Winter 1995)

David Truss: The Pedagogy of Play - David is pondering many of the same questions that I am about play...

Topoi: Pedagogy of Play (September 2005)

Early Learning: Play as Pedagogy

Studying Teacher Education: Developing an Integrated Play-Based Pedagogy in Preservice Teacher Education (November 2007)

Interestingly, the video game industry seems to have embraced this idea of Pedagogy and play:

People and organizations proclaiming the importance of play:

National Education Association: The Power of Play (May 2009) - This article actully focuses on the importance of play for adults. 

NAEYC: The Importance of Play

American Association of Pediatrics: The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (January 2007)

Alliance for Childhood: Crisis in Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School

Illinois Early Learning Project: Young Children Need to Play

Braden Kelley of Business Strategy Innovation: The Importance of Play to Innovation

National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education: Recess and the Importance of Play

People and research linking play to development of self-regulation:

Science Daily: Self-regulation Abilities, Beyond Intelligence, Play Major Role In Early Achievement (May 29, 2007)

Young Children: Developing Self-Regulation in Kindergarten (March 2008)

Illinois Early Learning Project: Play and Self-Regulation in Preschool

Early Childhood Research Quarterly: Self-regulation in Young Children (Summer 2002)

More detailed information about my examination of play time in kindergarten schedules:

Sample Kindergarten Schedules

4.  Other Resources

Wall Street Journal: German Tots Learn to Answer the Call of Nature (April 14, 2008)

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' Conventions on the Rights of the Child, "recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts." 

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