Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
A virtual class based on
Magical Parent - Magical Child
by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce
Lesson 5 - Learning & Conditioning

Bonding and feeling safe are more or less synonymous. Feeling safe allows bonding and bonding implies feeling safe. Earlier we suggested that the bonding creates a dynamic channel of communication. The experience of feeling safe implies the freedom to connect with and explore one’s relationship with the world, large or small. Not belonging, not feeling safe implies withdrawing, protecting. Learning stops and protection begins the moment we don’t feel safe. So we have these two possibilities, feeling safe with its expansive exploration and learning, or protection with its defensiveness. One’s state - or in a larger context one’s world-view - profoundly impacts learning. In lesson five we are going to look at true adaptive learning, the natural response of the bonded state, which expresses as play, and conditioning, which is most often done for approval, that is, to achieve the bonded state. In one state, there is complete freedom from psychological fear. Failure is literally impossible. In the other state, potential failure lurks at every turn.

Primary Learning & Conditioning
In the 1970s the Carnegie Foundation did a study on learning and retention. They found that as much as 95 percent of all learning is primary. By primary we mean the learning that occurs spontaneously through encountering, embracing, and playing with our environment. In terms of brain growth and development, more is learned in the first year of life than all the years that follow. Learning to walk and talk, perhaps two of the most challenging tasks we will ever undertake, unfolds spontaneously in our first eighteen months, with little or no coaching. Primary learning occurs naturally.

As toddlers, for example, we observed mom open and close a cupboard door. Without coaching or rewards, we scoot over and pull on the handle. We pull again and again, harder and harder. Suddenly the door flies open and down we go. Up we crawl to do it again, and again, with this door and all the other doors we can find. Soon we discover that trash cans have lids that open and close, open and close. The same is true of toilet seats and jewelry boxes. Lids here, lids there, hundreds of lids, thousands of lids, millions and billions and trillions of lids. And all because we saw mama open a cupboard door. Mom modeled a possibility. She represented the model imperative, and our life was transformed.

The vast majority of learning is primary. We are completely in the experience. There is no me standing aside, witnessing, judging, praising, or criticizing. All of our available energy and attention is given to this new expanding relationship with hinges and lids. There is no time, no conflict. The relationship is play. Play is learning. We are in the Zone!

Suddenly there is a tremor in the force. The phone rings and mama’s dinner guests will arrive in thirty minutes. Her relationship to her world has changed and so has ours. The free, open, yet incomplete exploration of hinges and doors is no longer safe. Why? Because mama just told us to stop! At that moment our complete attention split between learning and avoiding conflict with mama. The safe place she represented suddenly became a threat.

We continue our playful banging on the cupboard door, but now with one eye on mama. She places three red paper cups on the floor, to distract us, and smiles. We’re not convinced. (Bruno Bettleheim claimed that adults cannot lie to a child. Regardless what adults say, children are participating in the adult field, reading it, learning from it.) We sense her attempt to divert our attention.

The pot mama is stirring boils over and so does she. Tension builds. Our attention now splits again between mama, the stupid paper cups, and those enchanting hinges. We bang the door again, and then again. Mama stomps her foot and yells. As our split attention and conflict increase we experience a corresponding decrease in learning, performance, and well-being. Learning is relationship and relationships are state specific.

Journal 5.1
In the example above, what could mom have done, other than trying to distract the child with paper cups, to avoid conflict? Is it possible for mom to attend to her dinner preparations and stay connected with her child? Where are the limits here?

Primary learning is free from conflict. We call it play. With primary learning, or play, the activity itself is so rewarding that we disappear into it. Thought, feeling, and action are completely focused on this new learning relationship, right now. It is only when danger or conflict arises that part of our attention is diverted for defense. Only then is there a separate self-image, or “me,” witnessing, watching, and protecting itself. The greater the need for protection, the less attention there is to meet the challenge and learn.

When I play the identity I know as Fred disappears. Only to the extent that the social categories disappear can play happen. Real play begins with the disappearance of that social/cultural image we have about ourselves.

Personal Interview
O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.
Author, Playing by Heart

Journal 5.2
Real play, which means real learning, begins with the disappearance of that social/cultural image we have about ourselves. What does this have to do with learning and basic trust?

Play, Practice & Work
The bell rings. School is out. A great weight has been lifted. We are free, finally free. To what? To mess around, sleep in, dream, tear apart grandpa’s radio, catch tadpoles and watch-em grow legs, build forts, dig tunnels to China, dress up like a princess, sneak a peak at dad’s Playboy magazine, make pudding, jump on a pogo-stick 10,001 times. Now that the important stuff we call work is done, we can play. Mom asks, “What are we doing?” We answer, “Nothing, just messing around, just playing.” By implication, work and school are important, fun and play are not. To most, the word play means not serious, unimportant, and frivolous. Or play means an activity, such as “playing ball” or “playing a violin,” which most often really means practice. To play with a violin is very different from practicing with a violin.

When a line forms between child play and adult work, the interaction between human and earth collapses. We are then isolated with our own energies, and work we must, indeed. The problem set for us is not to try to turn back to aboriginal man: that is impossible. The problem, if we are to survive, is to erase the line between work and play. Only then is personal power amplified...With a technological human, the resulting power would be awesome and magnificent indeed, were s/he in a balanced bonding with the earth, and that may be the direction toward which the world is tending.

Magical Child

Words have meaning and their meanings shape how we perceive and value our experience. The words “working hard” conjure images of tense muscles, concentration, and strained faces. The words playing hard may involve all these physical qualities, but the image is somehow different—softer, less tense or constrained. Working implies that we are accomplishing some goal, that we are “making something of ourselves.” Playing implies we are wasting valuable time, time that many adults feel should be put to better use by working. The older children get, the less time they can “waste” playing. For most, growing up means transforming playtime into work time. It’s a jungle out there; survival of the fittest, remember? Or is it?

All the people who “get there” get there because they love what they are doing. They’re not driven by a work ethic; they’re driven by a love ethic. Michael Jordan plays very hard, very indulgently. Ben Hogan hit tens of thousands of balls because he loved to hit golf balls. That gets mistaken by the intellect as work.

“If you work hard enough, son, and if you keep your nose to the grindstone, son, then you will be able to perform like these people.” This is absolutely not the case, not true. The great performers perform as they do, and do so with such ease, because they love what they are doing. It’s not work. It’s play.

Personal Interview
Chuck Hogan
Author, Educator, Performance Specialist

Journal 5.3
Describe the difference between play, practice and work and the impact these differences have on learning and performance.

We get the message very early: play will be tolerated as long as we have done a good job “working hard.” How often do we praise ourselves or our children for doing a great job playing? Have you ever heard, at a school or during a corporate awards ceremony, “We’d like to recognize Mary Jones. Mary, please step up here. You’ve been awarded the blue ribbon, a certificate of excellence, our grand prize for messing around”?

Ashley Montagu’s definition of health in growing young is the ability to work, the ability to love, the ability to play, and the ability to think soundly. And I think what we are good at doing is one of those. I think we know how to work. We know how to work in first world culture, but I think we’ve lost the ability to play, the ability to love, and the ability to think soundly because you can’t think soundly if you lose your sense of play; your creative prowess is zapped, it’s gone.

Personal Interview
Bowen White, M.D.
Author, Clown

Remember that play really means to adults something that is not serious. It’s the time left over. The problem is that very early on, those activities that we loved to do just because it was so much fun, also become encompassed by the cultural idea of competition. Then, for adults and increasingly for children, play becomes as serious as going to law school, doing mathematics, and competing for a job.

Personal Interview
O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.
Author, Playing by Heart

Play Ages & Stages
What we play “with” changes at different ages and stages of development. The state of original play remains the same. Newborns play with nipples. The early child plays with trucks and sand. Teens play with clothes. Michael Jordan plays with basketballs. Physicists play with ideas. If optimum learning, performance, and wellness are our goals, we will maintain this playful relationship as new capacities unfold.

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean spoke of three lifelong, indispensable requirements we have. He called this the family triad of needs, needs that are primary and interdependent; each gives rise to and supports the other. They are audiovisual communication, nurturing, and play.

Play, like audiovisual communication and nurturing, changes as the infant-child grows; a process marked by distinct stages. Almost as clearly defined as the rings of a tree, a child’s growth unfolds in the natural, evolutionary order nature followed in the long history of our species’ development. A sensory-motor brain unfolds first, then our emotional-cognitive system, then the several sections of the neocortex, or new brain. Each brings a new and expanded form of play as it unfolds, and a full unfolding depends on that play.

Play marks the development and use of each of these neural systems, and so grows more complex, rich, diversified, and rewarding as it expands in response to each new neural unfolding. The more expansive and rich the neural structure, the more expansive and rich the intelligence and play that both result from and bring about such growth.

The brain is “experience-dependent,” as Allan Schore calls it, which means the actual growth of individual brain cells and their linkage-expansion into “structures of knowledge” depend on corresponding interactions with and responses from the environment. The earliest environment, and the most permanently influential, is the mother.

Journal 5.4
Implied in the above is that the physical development of the brain is significantly influenced by the nature of play. This is certainty true in early childhood. The latest brain studies indicate that play or its absence impacts brain development life long. Would you consider your brain play deprived? How would this impact your ability to experience optimum states of learning and performance?

A newborn infant will smile when we speak to it close up, say six to twelve inches away. This is audiovisual communication and a first play with the infant. Peek-a-boo soon follows: when face appears, infant’s smile breaks out; face disappears, smile fades; reappears, smiles. Two or three repetitions and infant catches on that play is taking place, expects the face to disappear and reappear and soon laughs delightedly at each. The words “peek-a-boo” are an integral part of the action, adding that auditory aspect; all of this is learning, and learning is play.

Soon the infant initiates peek-a-boo, as while nursing; the infant finds that it can bring about the play, disappearing behind the breast, appearing, finding those eyes talking back, disappearing again, over and over. Delighted. Playing with the nipple, a game of loss-recovery, is a form of peek-a-boo. Associative learning unfolds in this way. New neural links form in all these varieties of play.

Nearly any repeated audiovisual action signals play, invites imitation. The newborn will stick out its tongue when we stick out ours. The mirroring between model and child begins at the beginning. Interaction is a two-way street. Infant finds that one can initiate and elicit response from out-there, as well as receive from and respond to that-out-there. Play gives dominion over one’s world.

Journal 5.5
Describe how play gives dominion over one’s life, as a child and as an adult.

Baubles hung over a crib catch infant’s eye, but this is not audiovisual communication. It is a form of entertainment, better than a blank wall perhaps, but a poor excuse for that face and all that goes with it. Far better than crib and bangle-dangling is the snugli for “baby wearing.” And not the outward-facing child carrier, which offers no face for communication and gives the infant a feeling of constant falling forward. The snugli with that magical face and heart six to twelve inches away, works best by far. Communication involves eyes and voice, a voice to which infant has responded since the fifth month in utero.

High Chair Play
All children in all cultures will turn every event into play when allowed; thus, every event can be an occasion for learning, if allowed. At the high-chair stage, feeding is prime-time play. A bite rejected and spit out, offered again, is rejected again. Twice is repetition; any repetitive action is an invitation to play. Infant knocks or throws its spoon on the floor, caretaker picks it up. Infant does it again, caretaker retrieves. Soon infant is in near hysterics with laughter, throwing the spoon with greater and greater abandon and excitement. A ball rolled across table toward infant invites the attempt to return and is a source of endless delight. New visual and motor skills expand with each playful encounter of this sort.

The infant is delighted when learning, since that is what the brain is designed to do. But the action offered must fit the age and stage. Just as we wouldn’t feed steak and champagne to the newborn, nor Pabulum to the adolescent, we don’t feed later forms of play to the early child. I see no advantage to flash cards and alphabet-number learning in the crib or even early years. There are too many stage-appropriate needs crying to be met. Why not meet them instead of spending this age trying to prepare for what you think might be the needs for the next stage? Take your cues from your child and your child will take its cues from you. If little else is offered, infant-children may respond to flash cards, even with the pleased expression at your approval, but not with that ecstatic enthusiasm of play.

In the toddler period the possibilities of play expand exponentially. Up on those hind legs charging about to explore every nook and cranny, building new neural structures of knowledge through taste, touch, smell, seeing, and hearing. All is pure play and playful learning.

“No!” and “Don’t!” suppress learning, play, and joy, while bringing a release of cortisol, a depressant in that toddler’s body and brain. There is no learning in a state of depression, though there is a kind of animal conditioning. Play is a high-cortical, or new-brain, response, and the negative state generated by “No” and “Don’t” brings an ancient, sensory-motor “hindbrain” reaction of defense. A child grows by encouragement and support, not by negative restraint. “No” and “Don’t” are toxic.

Journal 5.6
The idea that “No and Don’t” are toxic is pretty radical in our “hands off, don’t touch” culture. Is such a view, if it is true, practical? Under what circumstances would such be not only safe, but lead naturally to optimum learning relationships?

Sitting on the floor rolling the ball back and forth with a caretaker is endless delight to the toddler. The activity builds spatial intelligence, motor coordination, and an open, trusting responsiveness to the environment and caretaker. Singing-movement games, as used by Education Through Music, (ETM) are perfect for toddlers.

The three or four-year-old child can spend endless hours alone, looking into a mud puddle or pool, watching the most minute creatures and forms of life. Children need great open spaces of time in which to do nothing apparent to an onlooker. The world is brand new throughout childhood.

Storytelling is a joy to a child, and storytelling and play are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Young children go catatonic during storytelling; jaws drop down, eyes stare at the storyteller, bodies are motionless. They are not seeing the storytellers but watching the unfolding inner world storytelling brings about. The brain automatically creates inner worlds of imagery in response to those magical words of a story, a construction job employing every aspect of brain and body.

Building inner worlds of imagery expands the neural fields, links structures of knowledge, and builds new structures.

Children want to hear the same story over and over, just as they want peek-a-boo or “catch” repeated endlessly. Repetition stabilizes the new neural links brought about in such activities. (This is called myelination.) At a certain point the child will act those inner story pictures out in imaginative play, projecting their inner image on some outer object. Having heard the tale of The Three Bears over and over, toddler finds a collection of empty bottles and selects a big, middle-sized, and small one that become Papa, Mamma, and Baby Bear. The Three Bears is enacted through these three symbolic figures, over and over. When one object stands for another object in this fashion, metaphoric and/or symbolic action takes place. Metaphor and symbol are the foundations of all great intellectual ventures later in life. All alphabets, numerals, and written signs are metaphoric or symbolic.

Monkey See - Monkey Do
Imitative play fills the early years. The three-year-old sees mother making cookies and follows suit. A jar top becomes the mixing bowl, a stick the spoon, some dirt or mud the dough. Seeing the great bowl in the jar top, spoon in the stick, is metaphoric thinking, transferring information from one category of being to another. Michelangelo sees the figure in the stone before he picks up his chisel.

Our four-year-old sees a mighty road roller rumbling down the street and wants to take part in such tremendous action. He finds a spool in mother’s cabinet and it becomes the mighty road roller. His inner image of that great machine to which he has no access, over which he has no control, is projected on this tiny object over which he does have access and control, and for hours he plays in a “modulated world” of his own making, a perfect example of metaphoric-symbolic action. To “see” or interpret one form or meaning from another is a high-level, abstract form of thinking.

This leads, years later, to being able to look at a mathematical, algebraic or chemical equation and “see” what it implies?the possibilities it holds?and forms the basis of a love for playing with such adult toys. The foundation of the latter complexity is based squarely on the former simplicity. The child who never plays will not be able to play, neither with music nor mathematics and its theorems, nor architectural designs nor the great philosophies of life.

Journal 5.7
Adults are often so results oriented that they fail to appreciate that the foundation of the latter complexity is based squarely on former simplicity. Little Suzie may not be at the top of her class in pre-school. Einstein failed his basic algebra class. Describe how this well-meaning adult perspective imposes artificial limitations on development.

Child of the Dream
The four- to seven-year-old is “a child of the dream” as Piaget put it, living in a dream world of her own creation, occasionally playing her dreams out on the stage of the world-out-there shared with parent and others. The daydreaming child is laying the foundation for great thoughts later on. Years ago Harvard’s Burton White found that the one shared characteristic of all brilliant and happy children was that they spent long hours in open-eyed, blank staring.

Group play, unless under the guidance of an adult and handled with great understanding, empathy, insight, and care, as in Education Through Music (ETM), has little meaning to the early child. Play is either solitary or with the parent, by and large. At around age five or so a contemporary may be sought out to engage in imaginative play, where each child pretends they are some imagined character. The majority of time however five-year-olds play in their private worlds, projecting in them the presence of the other. Seldom do they actually join in what adults think of as organized games unless strongly encouraged to do so by adults.

Virtually all play in the early years involves verbal play. The child talks his play, plays out his world through speech. Alexandria Luria traced the profound relationships between sensory-motor development, language, and learning in general, all coordinating in play. As children talk out their world experience of play, they furnish their own magical Word, which is given through storytelling. They act out their own inner stories through outer speech and actions. This pattern of hearing Word and making a muscular response to it begins in utero.

Social needs may enter around age seven, at the earliest, and that need is most comfortably met by one other child, maybe two at most. (Even among three children two will probably pair off. The human wasn’t made for large numbers, not even in the late period of childhood. Six or seven is a crowd. “All the boys are going out,” the seven or eight-year-old announces. All half-dozen or so.) Group play is not competitive during this middle child period. Competition kills this play. Winning or losing have no place at this stage. No learning takes place from winning or losing. The musical games of Education Through Music (ETM) are perfect for both the early and middle child and offer all the social interaction needed.

Three’s a Crowd
Two or three children of the middle period will gather and play “let’s pretend” for hours. This consists of one scenario after another being presented orally by each child. No one carries through on any single item of pretense, each but spins off from the other on another “lets pretend” of her own making. This oral play can go on for hours, particularly among girls. Little boys tend more toward acting out their spoken play.

Middle children (approximately ages seven to puberty) live out and become their own metaphors. Leaping through the branches, the boys will act out Tarzan and the apes, or cowboys and Indians, following their own verbal cues. “Play like we’re Luke Skywalker” or whoever the current hero figure might be. The spindly little tike becomes the mighty space-hero in his own mind’s eye. No longer are all projections made onto outer objects; one’s own body becomes the target of the inner image, granting might and dominion over the child world.

Children “come down into their body” at age seven, as Rudolph Steiner expressed it. The left hemisphere takes over from the dreaming right, and control and mastery of this newly discovered body becomes sheer joy. The boy wants to climb every tree, leap every obstacle, run like the wind. The little girl will jump rope endlessly, past all count. Play and development are intertwined at every stage. Coming into full awareness of body is a major event and calls for near-constant movement. School desks are a disaster at this point.

Journal 5.8
We stated earlier that the state of play remains basically the same throughout life. What changes with ages and stages is what is played with, and the complexity of the activity, in perfect correspondence with unfolding capacity. I let my four-year-old play with sharp knives with no restrictions. At eight, he and I took a scuba diving class complete with a beach and boat dive to 50 feet. How is a parent, coach or educator to know what is an appropriate play activity for a given child?

With an infinitely open neural capacity, seven- to eleven-year-old children have no limitations and consider all possibilities equally valid. The only qualification is nature’s imperative that they be given appropriate cultural models and environment. Ernest Hilgard points out that this middle child becomes acutely sensitive to suggestions concerning personal possibility. This susceptibility to suggestion peaks around age eleven and closes by about age fourteen in most of us. The subtle suggestions, implications, even hazy ideas held by parents, peers, or superiors concerning who we are and what our possibilities are or aren’t profoundly impact children. They pick up our inherent beliefs and social notions whether expressed or not, and automatically reflect them. Their limitless possibilities for new patterns of conception and perception will be limited by the nature of their models, with no one the wiser.

Evolution’s End