Guest Post: Fostering Self-Discovery

3 Steps to Promote, Not Direct, Your Child's Play

“When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget

...Makes sense, right? Jean Piaget was one of the first to propose a connection between a child's play and cognitive development. Piaget focused on the how a child actively engages in the construction of her own reality through interactions with the world around her. Imagine a child deeply involved in a self-directed sink or float experiment in the bathtub; or an examination of the effects of gravity on various pieces of food from the tray of her high chair. Piaget saw children as little scientists, testing and re-testing theories, starting at birth.

...But aren't we "teaching" our children any time we are interacting with them? Another famous developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, highlighted something that Piaget neglected to include in his theory: the social aspect of a child's cognitive growth. Vygotsky coined the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD for short). A child's ZPD includes what she is able to accomplish on her own, and extends to what she is able to realize with the guidance of an adult. According to Vygotsky, the child and the adult co-construct experience. Perhaps the caregiver of the child in the bathtub doing sink or float provides a new item to test: the towel (though maybe unintentionally!). The high chair gravity experiment takes on a new dimension as the child is given applicable, and perhaps novel, vocabulary: "I can't believe you threw your ENTIRE bowl of QUINOA on the floor!".

The nature play programs I have helped facilitate seem to be structured from a Piagetian perspective. Children have many opportunities to construct their own knowledge through play. There are few directions on how to perform a certain task, and children are encouraged to use materials in their own way. This allows for an abundance of exploration and discovery. (Piaget would be proud.) But when I look at what is happening in a play program, I do not see children sitting alone. I see attentive caregivers sitting nearby, or engaging in play with the child. Co-construction is occurring all the time. In fact, the adult is encouraged to interact with the child as she plays. (Vygotsky would have smiled approvingly.)

Both Piaget and Vygotsky would agree, however, that when an adult steps into the childs play, that play changes. Is the play still directed by the child? Can it still lead to her own original thoughts and discoveries? I think that depends a lot on how this interaction occurs. To most effectively engage with our children in play, we need to allow for maximum child autonomy and discovery while providing opportunities to add meaning to what the child is doing. Though this is by no means the only way to interact with a child during play, it is one of the best ways to support the childs own personal discovery.

3 steps to promote, not direct, play: (Adapted from Powerful Interactions by Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon and Charlotte Stetson, 2011).

1. Stay in the moment. When you sit down to play with your child, let that be all you are doing. Though it feels almost impossible sometimes, put other obligations out of your mind for a short time, and really focus on what your child is doing. Take some time to get on your child's wavelength.

2. Relate to what your child is doing. Now that you are in the moment, allow yourself to return to your childhood mind. What might have made sand so fascinating? What is it about fall leaves that seems so special year after year? So much of a child's experience is based in the senses. Indulge your senses in what your child is engaged in.

3. Expand on the ideas your child is constructing. There are many ways to do this, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that you are thinking WITH your child. This can be as simple as making an observation about what she is doing: "Wow! You dumped that whole container of water into the bucket!". You can also provide new vocabulary: "The water makes that stone feel slippery!". You could even model curiosity: "I wonder why water makes things change color.".

...One final note: this will take practice! As I have observed my own interactions with my daughter, I have found that directing her play is much more ingrained in me than I ever realized. I often am asking "how many?" or "what color?" or "What is that called?". Though well-intentioned, I am turning her play into a sort of quiz show that she didn't sign up to attend. Instead, I need to take the time to be in the moment with her and if I do get involved, it should be to simply acknowledge or give voice to her "work".  I also need to accept that not all moments need to be teaching moments in the traditional sense of the word. When we direct our children's play, we lose the opportunity to observe their creativity and ingenuity at work. I can still share in my daughter's wonder, but I must continue to practice allowing her to control it’s source.

For more information on the work of Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon and Charlotte Stetson, visit http://www.powerfulinteractions.com/

Jennifer Stubbs is a currently a graduate student in Child Development at the Erikson Institute and a full-time mom. Her time volunteering and working at the Lincoln Park Zoo, along with her graduate program and the birth of her daughter, honed her interest in early childhood informal education, specifically in the realm of nature play. She is currently doing her internship at the Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo. She has recently taken up blogging about her reflections on nature play, motherhood, and the science of child development at www.wilderwonder.com

Guest Post- Chimp Play

I think play is incredibly important and fascinating, and not because I am a father who loved to take his daughter to LEAP at Lincoln Park Zoo last fall. My life has been submersed in play behavior ever since I studied the immediate and long-term benefits of play behavior in wild chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania… or as I like to put it, watching wild baby chimpanzees play all day. I was amazed by how much I learned about them, not only scientifically, but also relating to my personal life as well. In a strange way, I feel that watching mother and infant chimpanzees interact helped prepare me for fatherhood.  

One of the most amazing things about chimpanzee play behavior is that they literally play just like we do. Chimpanzees will run, chase, tickle and play games with each other just like we do. Chimpanzees will vocalize with laughter and will even point to which area that they want to be tickled by their friends. I have also seen them play different games like ring around the rosy as siblings run circles around their mom, or keep away with one chimp breaking a branch and enticing his friend to chase him to try to get the branch.

Chimpanzees really get into nature play whether it is with others or by themselves. They will test out the strength of branches and their reaction times as they fall from a branch and grab ahold at the last moment. And who doesn’t like getting dizzy? Young chimpanzees will spin around in circles to have some fun. Female infant chimpanzees have even been seen to carry around sticks almost as if it was their version of a doll.

So why do chimpanzees play? Well from my research it does seem that there is a relationship between how much they play and how quickly they achieve different social and motor milestones. Chimpanzees that played more were also seen to travel on their own and be further away from their mother at younger ages. I was also surprised to see a positive relationship between play and stress hormones, but this could be because play can be somewhat unpredictable and require additional energy so could be thought of as a positive stress. There is still much to learn through researching play but it is easy to see that much can be learned through play.

These days my observations include play and many other behaviors in my current role as a welfare monitoring postdoctoral fellow. In this position we observe animals of all sizes at Lincoln Park Zoo, from black-necked stilts to black rhinoceros to assess how they are doing and to help us make informed management decisions with our ZooMonitor program. Observing play from the black rhinoceros or Sichuan takins is always a highlight of my day. 

 

Matthew Heintz

Welfare Monitoring Postdoctoral Fellow

Animal Care &

Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology

Lincoln Park Zoo 

312-742-0221

mheintz@lpzoo.org

Guest Post: Chimp Play

I think play is incredibly important and fascinating, and not just because I am a father who loves to take his daughter to LEAP at Lincoln Park Zoo every Saturday. My life has been submersed in play behavior ever since I studied the immediate and long-term benefits of play behavior in wild chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania… or as I like to put it, watching wild baby chimpanzees play all day. I was amazed by how much I learned about them, not only scientifically, but also relating to my personal life as well. In a strange way, I feel that watching mother and infant chimpanzees interact helped prepare me for fatherhood.  

One of the most amazing things about chimpanzee play behavior is that they literally play just like we do. Chimpanzees will run, chase, tickle and play games with each other just like we do. Chimpanzees will vocalize with laughter and will even point to which area that they want to be tickled by their friends. I have also seen them play different games like ring around the rosy as siblings run circles around their mom, or keep away with one chimp breaking a branch and enticing his friend to chase him to try to get the branch.

Chimpanzees really get into nature play whether it is with others or by themselves. They will test out the strength of branches and their reaction times as they fall from a branch and grab ahold at the last moment. And who doesn’t like getting dizzy? Young chimpanzees will spin around in circles to have some fun. Female infant chimpanzees have even been seen to carry around sticks almost as if it was their version of a doll.

So why do chimpanzees play? Well from my research it does seem that there is a relationship between how much they play and how quickly they achieve different social and motor milestones. Chimpanzees that played more were also seen to travel on their own and be further away from their mother at younger ages. I was also surprised to see a positive relationship between play and stress hormones, but this could be because play can be somewhat unpredictable and require additional energy so could be thought of as a positive stress. There is still much to learn through researching play but it is easy to see that much can be learned through play.

These days my observations include play and many other behaviors in my current role as a welfare monitoring postdoctoral fellow. In this position we observe animals of all sizes at Lincoln Park Zoo, from black-necked stilts to black rhinoceros to assess how they are doing and to help us make informed management decisions with our ZooMonitor program. Observing play from the black rhinoceros or Sichuan takins is always a highlight of my day. 


Matthew Heintz

Welfare Monitoring Postdoctoral Fellow
Animal Care &

Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology

Lincoln Park Zoo
312.742.0221

mheintz@lpzoo.org