Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Better Than Words

I was honored that Chicago’s WGN television presented, in their broadcast, a little feature about my work yesterday.   Since the holidays are nearing, I had been asked to prepare to offer parents, as part of the segment, a “helpful tip” about play to keep in mind. 

The interviewer never got around to asking me for my “tip,” so I thought I would offer it here.  I can’t let all of my preparation go to waste!

As you are putting together the gift list and trying to picture your child playing with those gifts after the holidays......put yourself in that picture.

Over the years the toy and game industry has, successfully, "sold" parents on the idea that the play value of a toy is measured by the amount of time that children can be off on their own.....leaving the adults to enjoy a bit of their own time.  

It is certainly exciting when young children enter that “magical world” and get “lost” in play for hours on end.  But it is important to remember that the young children who have had a caring adult "in the picture," joining in the play for a time, are the ones that become the most competent and, eventually, the most independent players. The little things that parents do to help young children, in the beginning, learn about the possibilities for play often go unnoticed, even by parents themselves as they are doing it. 

When parents put themselves in the picture for a time, the rewards last a lifetime. Child development experts will tell you that the children are rewarded with enhanced developmental abilities.  The parents are rewarded, as well, with more capable children and great memories of time spent together.

I never got around to sharing those remarks and, frankly, I am thankful for that.  The parents and children that joined me on the television set provided, by their example, an even more significant lesson.  I am thankful to them for showing, through their family play, what my words would have missed. 

Of course there are developmental benefits to play, but around the holidays it is best to remember what we know in our hearts

More than any toy or game, children will look back and remember the time they spent playing with the ones they love.  And, for the rest of their lives, they will own those memories and expectations about how we act towards those we care for.

You can watch the brief segment here:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The “Play Library”

 “What got you interested in music and play?” 

“Was it something you studied in college that led you to this?” 

If you “play” for a living, folks are bound to ask questions like this.  And they do.  No answer would be complete without beginning here:

I began this “work” while in college. But the most influential experience I had during my college years did not occur in a college lecture hall…….or in elementary school classrooms where I  carried out my student teaching. 

My interest in play – and my advocacy for recognizing all that children learn while playing – began when I was asked, at age 20, to lead weekly music play groups at a program called Lekotek.  Lekotek  is a support program, of Swedish origin,  serving families with children with special needs.   The word translates as “play library. ”

Lekotek programs (there are currently 19 of them across the United States) all feature a toy lending library, but I learned early on that the focus of the program was on play, not toys.  In fact, the reason why I was asked to lead the music play sessions, according to the Director of Family Services, was to help clarify the mission of the program:  play is an activity that is, by nature, inclusive for all children.  And while toys are sometimes a great vehicle for play, play has very little to do with toys. 

In fact, my instructions were to create music play opportunities.  No toys, just family play. 

I led weekly music play groups at Lekotek for many years and brought the same model of programming to a number of different therapy and family support programs  in the Chicago area.  I led weekly family music play sessions, at one site or another, for 20 years.

After graduating from college I worked at the Lekotek program as a staff member leading individual family play sessions.  My college studies prepared me to be a classroom teacher, but my experiences with the play groups led me to pursue work where I could, on a daily basis, be involved in play… both a joyful and  a serious way.   Many of the ideas that I will be addressing in my blog - such as the inclusive nature of play and the “language” of play  -  first inspired me, many years ago, as a staff member at Lekotek. 

As I mentioned, there are 19 Lekotek sites across the United States and even more programs with affiliation to the “play library.”   You can learn more about Lekotek at

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Just Play?

About 20 years ago Robert Fulgham  became a best-selling author with the release of his inspirational book  All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  One couldn’t doubt his sincerity as he recalled the lessons he learned about fairness, sharing and order: lessons he attributed to time spent in the sandpile, at play. 

Soon after that things began to change in America’s kindergartens. 

With school boards and administrators clamoring for a “jump start” to higher test scores in later grades there was a great shift in the schedule towards academics and away from time spent “just playing.” 

Many child development experts will tell you the same thing that Mr. Fulgham did in his simple way: it was never “just play.”  Today’s kindergarteners may be better prepared, at their age, to recite the life cycle of the butterfly, including the use of the word “chrysalis.” (I’ve witnessed this!)  In other words, they may be taught more. 

They may, however, be learning less than kindergarteners in the past.  Today’s kindergarteners may lack abilities to “self-regulate” (which is essential for sitting, focusing and enjoying a book) and be challenged in their use of executive functions of the brain (the kind that keep us from making impulsive choices) that are all developed in play

Those of us who work in early childhood know that it has even been a challenge to maintain “play based” preschools.

15 years ago I attended an open house at my daughter’s preschool.  As the teacher was describing all of the things that children learn at the various centers in the classroom while at play I noticed one father, in suit and tie, reading notes from his briefcase, only occasionally looking up. (A few years later he’d be tapping at his Blackberry.)

After the teacher was finished with her presentation she asked if there were any questions.  That father was the first to raise his hand and ask, "We’ve heard all about all of the play that goes on here.  How much time do you spend at this preschool just playing and how much time do you spend getting these children ready for school?” 

The teacher, a veteran professional, silenced the man by confidently stating, “We do play here in preschool.  We play because play is the context where children develop and express abilities across all domains of development - physical, cognitive and social.”

Then she added, matter-of-factly, “That is why we play.”

And, because of this sort of understanding and advocacy, my daughter’s hours at preschool were filled with play. 

I dropped my daughter off at college last month.  On the drive home I had enough time to think about how thankful I am that everything she really needed to know……she was allowed to learn in preschool. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Words On Play

Anyone familiar with my music and books…..or my family concerts ….or my conference sessions knows that my interest has always been in play.  I’ve tried, over the years,  to create music that inspires active play and create books that become playful read-and-sing-alongs between adults and children.  And in my professional workshops I have always made it a point to share my excitement about what children are learning while playing and how, if we watch that play,  we can learn so much about the children we know and love. 

I’ve come to understand that play is an activity that is simple, yet profound.  When playing, children learn lessons that are broader than any lessons that adults might dream up to teach them.  When adults study a child’s play, if they are reflective, they end up learning not only about the child, but something about themselves as well.

I’m planning, when I post on to this blog in the coming weeks, to explore aspects of play that I don’t have time to share in my conference sessions.  I’ve collected more than twenty years of stories, anecdotes and thoughts…..all about play.  I’m excited to put them in order and make them public.

I’m hoping that early childhood teachers, children’s librarians and parents will find my words on play thought provoking.  And I am hoping that they might find an occasional piece worth sharing with others.