Children Learn What They Play
A clinical look at how the play environment impacts value development.
(This paper contains research material on the development of the brain and memory. The first half is explaining the science and the second is discussing the impact on child development.)
“O.K. now sit still while I buckle your seat belt. I love you and want to keep you safe.” Sally only four years old says kindly to her doll-friend. Bang! Bang! Bang! Startled, Sally’s locks of curly amber colored hair whip around as she quickly looks over her right shoulder. With his child’s Home Depot hammer in hand and tool belt swung on his slender hips like a modern day home improvement warrior, Sam looks up at his father and says, “Dad can I help you? I can do it, see…look at me!”
Each of us has stories and memories of our children at play. It warms our hearts and makes us smile. But what is play? We define it as fun, free time where imaginations and energy move in a flurry of laughter and social bonding. Though this definition holds true, let’s look beyond the surface and into the working of your child’s mind. The claim to be proven is: playtime is actually the rehearsal of who your child(ren) will ultimately become.
The study of the brain as anatomy combined with the mind through psychology and fields of linguistics, information science, and philosophy has evolved into today’s cognitive science. The now famous Dr. Spock of our parents has been joined by legions of professionals to unwrap motivations and the why of what we do. When I teach adult professionals business skills or the masses fitness moves, I always start with the fundamentals and build out from this point. I suppose this passion for the development of skills is what drives me to research and write about what fundamentals are being programmed into our children while at “play.”
Let’s start with the basics of Cognitive Science (I’ll try to make this as interesting as possible!) The first principle has been pondered since before the days of Plato and Socrates. Nativism—how our brains are wired at birth and how the environment either nurtures or distorts it by withholding nurturance such as food, shelter, warmth, touch, affection, attention, values and so on. The mind of an infant is amazing. Studies show that in as early as four months old a baby can detect statistical patterns in sound. At six months they have developed the ability to tell helpful people apart from the non helpful. During this early stage our children are developing their “neuronal workspace”—kind of like a desktop on your computer–each program arranged in a space where it can later be utilized.
Unity is a principle of Cognitive Science that states the mind and the body are interconnected. Meaning, a change in one will create a change in the other. Think of your own experiences if you wish to challenge this tenant. When you are feeling sad or depressed, what are the physical characteristics played out in your body? Feeling achy, low energy, sleepy…etc? On the other hand when you exercise and eat well there is an increase in optimism, confidence and energy. Yes, our children’s sense of wellbeing is directly dependant on our understanding of the mind-body connection.
Remember that mental desktop or neuronal workspace mentioned above? What good would the building of fundamentals do if you could not build or connect them into higher skills? The principle of Connectivity states our ability to connect new with prior learning is the essence of growth and development. It is this principle along with the principle of Interconnectivity that forms the basis of the theory that “play time” is in fact the rehearsal of who our children will become—what values, attitudes, problem solving skills and temperaments they ultimately carrying with them throughout life.
The last principle of Cognitive Science is Control. The degree in which we feel in control of our situation directly impacts health and performance. With less perceived control there is a correlated reduction in health and performance, with greater perceived control the reverse is true. I highlight the word perceived because this is a critical element in the statements made. We often associate a negative feeling toward the word control. Wars of men, children and parents have been waged over who has the right to be in control. Since this article is about children and parenting, I’ll address the issue in this context. We are gifted our children by God to guide and bring them up to be healthy, value-centered people who contribute to society—not to control them.
Responsibility cannot be taught without the understanding that our children control their own behavior. So, in parenting we must utilize various tools to help guide our children while creating an environment where making the right choices yield the greatest reward. Reward being defined not by “things” but by experiencing positive results. When a child remains in “control,” it helps to build a healthy mind.
Now that we have the fundamentals down let us talk about how we can make all this come together for the good of our children. I mention rehearsal above so let me define it in the relevance of this topic. Rehearsal is the act of repeating behaviors, assimilating environmental conditions such that it forms a lasting biological connection in the brain from which the child will draw to facilitate higher level cognitive behaviors throughout their lifetime. It does not require a Ph.D. to recognize, as the famous poem writes, Children Learn What They Live.
My mother had this poem hanging life-sized when I was a young girl. I remember many times stopping and looking at the child-friendly wall hanging and reading it over and over again. I would pick out the lines from the poem that represented how I wanted to be when I grew up. I bet you, to this day, my mother does not know how this wall hanging encouraged the values she sought to instill in me. I point this out because it is not one thing that we do with our children, it is a million little things that we do knowingly and unknowingly that build the foundations of who our children are going to grow up to be.
It is said that peer group influence is greatest between the ages of 8 and 25 years old. Think about this—we have fewer than eight years before the values we have taught our children are challenged by groups we often know very little about! Even our best attempts to get to know our children’s friends and their moms, teachers and other influencers will fall short in the end. Thus we must utilize every moment to help build the foundations for which our children’s independent decisions will ultimately be made. Dr. Dobson writes in his book, “Bringing Up Girls,” of the estrogen driven need for girls to love, be social and to bond. This virtue becomes a weakness when waged against a society where girls are encouraged to be women before their time. In the absence of guidance even girls of well balanced families can get lost in today’s society of lust and power.
Helping children find their center, or sense of self will be the greatest tool you can provide. A strong sense of self becomes the shield from which conflicting values will be fended off. If a girl believes herself to be compassionate, she will act with compassion. If a girl believes her value is only found in the beauty of her flesh, she will become sexual. It is this simple. Parents can build their girl’s sense of self by rehearsing the values that will define who she will become.
Dolls. Why do I love dolls? When I look into the eyes of a beautiful doll my hear melts. In this moment I’m not thinking of my MBA studies, building a business, paying bills…my mind has teleported me to a world of simplicity, caring, creativity and warmth. Amazing, the power of memories! In one moment that simple toy does what medical science cannot prescribe. The funny thing is any doll will do. My childhood dolls were long ago donated to needy girls by my father—little did he know he was committing a cardinal sin! My point is the doll is a key to unlock emotion and memories from the past. In order for this to be true the memories must become a permanent biological record developed through many days and experiences with my doll-friends.
When I was a child we did not have computer games so my sisters and I spent hours creating different things to do with our dolls. Today’s world is a technological wonder where our children are experiencing computerized toys from birth–even hand-wound swings for infants are now computerized chairs that gyrate slowly in multiple directions. Yes, computerization is here to stay and is crowding out traditional value shaping toys of the past. Toy industry statistics tell us that the time girls spend with dolls is shrinking—five short years was the last estimate. I’m not saying that computerized toys cannot enhance learning, but I am claiming that the time girls spend simply loving, caring, creatively developing their own stories are a set of experiences that are fundamental to the development of life skills.
Learning is defined as the establishment of new neural networks composed of synaptic connection and their associated chemotaxic patterns according to Pierce Howard, Ph.D. in his book titled, “The Owner’s Manual for the Brain.” What this means is there is a biological process that takes place in the brain when we learn a new task or create a new memory. Memory has three stages: Immediate memory holds data for two seconds or less. Short-term also known as working memory will diminish over time if it is not reinforced. Long-term memory involves a cellular change that becomes permanent. Once it is created it cannot be erased.
Research has determined that it takes five to six hours rehearsing a new motor skill for the brain to create permanent storage of the new skill. The process of creating non-motor memories still requires much more research before it can be quantified. However, the repetitive nature of building a motor skill memory underscores the impact of rehearsing in regards to building neuro networks. These networks later form the foundations of how we analyze and make decisions.
A good example of this concept is Mind Mapping—words, ideas, tasks or other items such as sensory data of all four senses are linked and arranged around a central key idea. In other words, our children are constantly building associations through their everyday interaction with their world. Our parenting efforts can help children build the library from which they will draw their conclusions—from which they will judge right or wrong.
The toys that children play with are tools just like a piano is a tool to create music. They learn “notes” of behavior and then compile these notes into play scenarios. Each time they rehearse these scenarios the behavior is strengthened until it becomes a habit or mental recording. You and the world as observed around them become the inspiration or “building” material for their memories and subsequent behavior patterns. Thus the reason why parent should guide play time and provide toys (tools) that nurture and grow.
Why Via E
Via E has developed a support structure for parents and girls such that they are exposed to wholesome values. We create rewards systems to encourage reading, writing, creativity, social awareness and academic excellence. Learning is best when learning is fun, so we integrate Dollfriends® such that they become more than just a form to dress every now and then but a tool to rehearse values of compassion, love, caring and social interaction. Each time a girl picks up a Dollfriend® she is rehearsing wholesome values. As girls grow, learning grows and she becomes more interested in creating and building–learning how to sew and designing clothing, write and publish books, develop musical talents, photography, etc.—only her imagination and ingenuity will stop her.
Via E is not a company; it is an effort. It is an active effort to utilize all its resources to make today as fun as it can be while always holding to the principals of learning and building healthy, capable young minds.
Resources for this article:
One of the books I read when researching this topic, “Mind in the Making—The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs” written by Ellen Galinsky and published by HaperCollins discusses the building blocks of early learning and gives parents wonderful ideas of how to create a rich environment to facilitate a well-balanced mind.
Also recommended is “Bringing up Girls” by Dr. James Dobson and published by Tyndale House.
For those of you with a mind for science, I recommend, “The Owner’s Manual for the Brain” by Pierce Howard, Ph.D. and published by Bard Press.
More information on Mental Maps can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map
A similar approach using a Radial Tree can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radial_tree