What Makes Play, Play?

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Our topic today is the one I said I’d cover a while ago and then I got sidetracked with theorists and other things… but it’s one that’s really important to me. And it should be really important to you, as the parent of a toddler or preschooler as well.

And that’s “What makes play, play?!”

This is really important to nail down because the concept of play has been twisted in so many different directions. There’s “play-based learning”, “playful learning” and “play-centered learning” and I’m sure about 40 more. And it drives me crazy. I originally mentioned how nuts this makes me back in the Blanket Time post- in that post we talked about how proponents of that practice claim it teaches children independent play skills and I tore that notion to shreds. My basis for tearing it to shreds was one of the 7 of Brown’s Properties of Play. Because I don’t know if you know this- but there is actually an ENTIRE GROUP of scientists dedicated to studying play. And one of those is Dr. Stuart Brown.

I’ve talked a bit about him in dribs and drabs here and there- but I adore his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Mind, and Invigorates the Soul.  because, at the time of writing this, I’m reviewing it for my ParentAbility members. And because I’m going back through it for my members-it seemed like a very good time to revisit this topic of what makes play, play- while his 7 properties are fresh in my brain.

So what are the 7 properties of play? What 7 things make play, play?

The first is that it’s apparently purposeless. It looks like it’s being done for its own sake. Now, as we know- play is the work of childhood- while it may look purposeless, it has a myriad of neural, social, and developmental benefits. But play looks like it’s just for shits and giggles- it’s got NO survival value. In fact, it may be kind of dangerous. It’s not putting food on the table or providing shelter or funds. All of its value is invisible.

It is VOLUNTARY. It is child-led and child-driven. There is no duty to play. If there’s a duty or obligation to play, it’s not play anymore. It’s “playful”. Which is not the same thing. Playfulness has elements of play but it is not play and the main defining factor between the two is that play is 100% voluntary. Your kids want to do it. And they want to continue to do it.

Some people have this twisted around in their minds where they think that when they tell their kids to go play and they cry at the gate or the back door for 15 minutes that they don’t want to play… but then they give up the ghost and they go immerse themselves in a game that negates their game as play. Not so. If you were to take them outside and be like “Hey, you’re going to play in the water table here for the next hour.” and they resist and refuse- that is not a play. Right? You obligated them to a specific activity. But if they go find an activity to do and they voluntarily engage in it, even if they initially resisted- as long as they chose it without any input from you- that’s play. So those of you who loved gym class in school- for you- gym class was something you wanted to do. It was voluntary. For you- gym class was play. For those of you who hated gym class in school- for you, like me, gym class was hell. It was not play. So these criteria here- it is what defines one’s experience.

Interested in more information on how the brain effects learning? Take my free misbehaviour-proof class.

The third is an inherent attraction. It’s fun. Again- those of you who loved gym- you found gym fun. It was enjoyable for you. Those who hated it- it was not fun. It had no inherent attraction. It didn’t make us feel good- it was BORING and psychologically scarring. But for people who loved gym it was a boredom cure. It was a welcome break in the day. For the play to be play it has to have an inherent attraction. For my husband- nothing is more attractive than going out and camping in the woods. For me, nothing holds less appeal. For him camping is play. For me, play is painting furniture or baking. Different things hold a different inherent attraction for different people.

Fourth is Freedom from Time. When we’re deeply immersed in play- in what Dr. Brown calls a “play state”, we lose sense of time. We look up and are like “holy shit, how is it midnight already?!”  This is what happens to me when I’m refinishing furniture- and it’s not because of the fumes from the stripper. I put on some music and I get completely immersed in taking the old finish off of an antique bed or in painting it and making it look brand new. I go into a play state. I lose track of time. For my 4-year-old- he does this when he’s playing Super Heros. He’s out there in the backyard for hours and when I’m ringing the dinner bell he’s like “MAMA I JUST ATE LUNCH!” Dude that was 5 hours ago…

The 5th and very closely related to Freedom from Time is a diminished consciousness of self. When Logan is out there in the backyard in a costume- most likely with tighty whities over top of his pants, in a cape, and with a mask on- he’s not worried about whether he looks good or awkward. He’s in a play state. He doesn’t give a damn. Same with me when I’m painting- I’ve got paint in my hair and in my eyelashes and probably all up and down my arms and I don’t care. I’m playing. But- this is exactly why people like me- who hate camping- HATE CAMPING. For those who love it- they don’t care if they smell and their hair is greasy and they need to squat over a hole in the ground to take the dump- for them the whole experience puts them in a play state. For me it does not. So I am highly conscious the whole time. Freedom from Time and Diminished Consciousness of Self put us FULLY in the moment- with no worries of if we look like a rock star or an idiot.

The 6th is improvisational potential. We’re open to going with the flow, to chance. We can include elements in our play that are seemingly irrelevant. My son’s whole superhero narrative is totally open- he finds a stick “THIS IS MY STAFF OF JUSTICE!” and it goes in a totally different direction than it was originally going. Our pool isn’t open yet, so it’s disgusting right now, and he found a stick and a skipping rope so he was lobbing the skipping rope into the above-ground pool and when I looked out the window and asked what he was doing he was like “FISHING!” Okay… Sorry… You’re dressed like Superman, I didn’t know he fished. But neither did he! He was just going with what presented itself to him. He was in a true play state.

Last but not least is continuation desire. We find ways to keep it going. If something threatens to end the fun, we change the rules or we change the plot. We find a way to keep it going. Kids playing road hockey- and someone’s Mom comes by and is like “We have a doctors appointment” so they rejig the teams to make them even again. Or babies, when you take something away from them and they turn into octopus mode and immediately seem to land on something ELSE they shouldn’t be gumming. They don’t care- they were having fun and they’re going to try and find a way to prevent it from ending.

So those are Brown’s Properties of Play: apparently purposeless, voluntary, inherent attraction, freedom from time, diminished consciousness of self, improvisational potential, and continuation desire.

Those are the 7 things that make play, play.

For me, it’s basically all the elements of freedom. That’s why- when we look at a concept like Blanket Time where a child is compelled- and punished- for not occupying themselves with a set toy in a set space- that’s not play. When teachers say they’re “teaching math through play” and it’s at a set time during the day with a specific set of materials… that might be play for some of the kids, but it’s not for everyone. A true play-based learning environment is set up with what’s called provocations. Centres where the educators set up interesting displays or toys or materials that provoke children into exploring and learning from them. But for that to work you can’t compel a child to engage in it. They have to come to it freely. Which is a challenge- I completely recognize that- you have to figure out what will put that child who kind of hates math into a play state while learning math. But it’s not as hard as you might think if you have a solid understanding of the math concepts you want the child to learn. This is why “adult-guided play” is a bit of an oxymoron. It’s why I really recoil against things like Vtech toys that flash and say “Green triangle” when a child hits a green triangle- which a lot of people think is educational play. But that doesn’t fulfill those 7 criteria, does it? So if something doesn’t fulfill those 7 properties- it’s either work, or it’s entertainment. Which is okay- you can’t play all the time. But we want to make sure our kids are getting a lot of genuine play- because that’s what is linked to all the developmental benefits, all the social benefits, all the societal benefits, and all the cognitive benefits.

So I hope that that kind of gave you some direction when it comes to play. I find that when kids are resisting play, they’re avoiding play, their behaviors spike and there’s no time for play- if I come back to these 7 properties and make sure I’m giving each space to be- it usually helps pull kids out of the funk. And as counter-intuitive as it sounds- this is why things like my scripts for managing crazy-making behavior and the logical consequence process are SO IMPORTANT- because they provide the structure and consistency that children thrive on so that they feel safe and secure enough to lose themselves in play. And play builds brains. So the more they play, the better behaved they are, the less behavior management you should need to do!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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