Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
A virtual class based on
Magical Parent - Magical Child
by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce
Lesson 6 - More About Play Ages & Stages

Every learning unfolds in the three stages that constitute the cycle of competence. First, the child goes through a period of roughing in some new ability or knowledge… Second, a period of filling in the details follows the rough grasp achieved… Third, there is a period of practice and variation, during which the new ability is repeated over and over again.

Everything is only preparatory for something else that is in formation, as day must fade into night and night into day… The progression of matrix shifts is from concreteness towards abstraction, or from purely physical world of the womb, mother, earth, and body to the purely mental world of thought itself. The cycle unfolds according to a genetic time-table that is roughly the same in all cultures.

Magical Child

We continue in lesson six with a brief overview of play ages and stages. Following nature’s agenda we see that the object of play and the activity moves from the concrete to the abstract, opening, developing and expanding perceptual capacities at every step along the way. Each type of play activates a corresponding capacity in the developing brain, a process that continues lifelong.

Rough and Tumble
During preschool and elementary school years, on playgrounds all over the world, children, “when allowed,” particularly boys, engage repetitively and very vigorously in what looks like aggressive mayhem; teasing, hitting, pushing, pouncing, chasing, poking, sneaking up on, piling on, games with changeable rules, and general play fighting are the norm. A closer look reveals not aggressive mayhem, but a particular variety of behavior known as rough and tumble play.

The participants are usually smiling, whooping, and, from their viewpoint are having a great time. They know they are playing. Dominance is not the primary issue, but toughness is. Rough and tumble play is a special play activity that helps to develop strong and flexible affiliations and friendships. When a bully or a controlling adult takes over, the play changes its character, losing its free-ranging nature.

As adolescence approaches rough and tumble play is gradually replaced. The activity becomes more competitive and dominance-power qualities, with winning and losing replacing the spontaneous give and take seen in earlier times. Experiencing this special play activity in the early years seems to be important. Missing it seems to produce unwanted consequences.

In a comparison-control study of 36 adult homicidal males, anecdotal playground and family reports revealed a near absence of give and take playground anarchy. The “normal” and nonviolent comparison control group provided descriptions of give and take, winning and losing in playground games, and often remembered the names and characteristics of buddies with whom they had rough-and-tumbled experiences. None of the violent males remembered a playground buddy. Play histories of 8000 psychiatric outpatients seem to support the conclusion that rough and tumble play prepares those who successfully enjoyed it for a more flexible, socially competent future.

Similar play behavior is seen in the wild. When an adult Silverback gorilla, for example, enters the play-space, it is usually to break up a real fight that began as rough and tumble play. When juvenile primates sense danger or that no adult is “on call” to break up a serious situation the play also ceases. For primates and for human beings, an adult in the wings, but not on scene creates the “safe place” for this high-energy play to unfold.

When our children whoop it up in rough and tumble activates, most adults become uncomfortable. Their discomfort and need to take “responsible control” usually ends the free play for kids. Surveys of young adult female teachers show their general anxiety in the presence of, and lack of accurate “knowledge about,” this important developmental play-behavior. Adult “organized” play activities, including sports, does not replace the freedom and exuberance or provide the developmental rewards gained from open, adult-at-a-distance rough and tumble play. Rough and tumble play is important to children and it is important that adults understand and create the safe place for this free-range, vigorous activity.

Personal Play Interview
Stuart Brown, M.D.
Author, PBS Producer

Journal 6.1
Learning self-regulation is a fundamental and essential aspect of development. Exploring our boundaries and those of others, venturing into the unknown, taking risks, learning what is enough and what is way too much are all part of the intelligence of play. How does the learning and personal development found in free play change when childhood becomes increasingly adult organized and supervised? What would be a responsible response to this question from today’s parents?

Fred Donaldson observes that rough and tumble play is often viewed and understood from within the cultural framework that play is a contest. Contests seem so normal and natural, after all, “boys will be boys.”

Often children are conditioned very early to experience play as contest and never experience this rough and tumble activity as original play. From the very beginning children know this activity is deceitfully serious. There are winners and losers. And the consequences escalate. From cultural view of play, this is how we teach males to be contestants; how to “play the game.”

On the other hand, there is something that I call play that looks like the same thing but is fundamentally different. There are different roles, different patterns of movement, different relationships, and different outcomes. Play and contests may look the same but they have very different intentions. The meaning of the activity, what is learned is completely different. There is no failure possible in original play. Contests have winners and losers. It is not the activity, rather the nature and quality of the relationship to the activity that determine if the rough and tumble is play or not.

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

Journal 6.2
It is not the activity, rather our relationship to the activity that determines if it is play or contest. List five qualities that would render an activity play rather than contest.

Group games enter at around age ten or eleven, if a group is available. Neighborhood “pick-up” games have all but disappeared. In the past these group games were not competitive in a win-lose sense. “Giant-steps, baby-steps” gave way to “Red Rover come over,” hide and seek, capture the flag… the list of group games were endless. These self-organized activities laid the foundation for social skills, give and take, fairness, and consideration for the other, but such noble issues are never in the mind of the playing child, nor can they be taught or talked about. The child finds out about them through group play.

Board games also come with the later years of the middle child, around age ten or eleven. Monopoly can be a fascination, for instance, though this involves winning-losing and is border line, appealing to the border line pre-puberty child. Children will seek out their own level, find ways to fill their own needs.

Group ball games enter with the pre-puberty child, but winning or losing is not part of the picture as yet. Sides are chosen for fairness, so to speak, equal weight and ability. Each side gets its share of strong and weak, husky and skinny. The sheer joy of throwing the ball, connecting with the bat, the dash for first base, snagging a ball out of thin air against all odds, those are the rewards?and they are monumental.

Whose side wins or loses is beside the point. No one keeps score in this middle-year ball game since each plays for his own expression, his or her own delight, and sides change continually as a game goes along. New players arrive, having finished some home chore, and others may be called home, the sides shifting to maintain balance.

Arguments over tipping the ball for a foul, tagging a runner at second in time, catching the ball fair before falling, can become heated and passionate, occupying half the playtime, and are a critical part of the play. The social learning of give and take is immense in this. Democracy is in action.

No Grown-ups Allowed!
Adults with their rules, regulations and decision-making, kill all this. The child loses his or her own world in becoming the object of a spectator. Each plays for his own joy, not someone else’s entertainment. Play disappears in the presence of adults; judgment enters. Face-saving becomes an issue, disgrace a possibility. On their own, the later middle child is self-governing and, above all, fair. Fairness disappears when adults call the shots. Little League has been a major disaster to American childhood. More about this when we look more closely at athletics and the intelligence of play.

With puberty the “herd instinct” of the gene pool enters the scene, and play reflects it. Competition may enter the scene with pre-adolescence, and winning can become critical. Then it becomes more important than ever that these late-childhood participants work out their own salvation in their games. If adults interfere with their judgments and supervision, most of this social learning is lost. The “coach” is, with rare exceptions, a disaster when it comes to developing the social skills this play should build. These young people don’t need coaching, they need to discover self-monitoring and how to achieve group consensus on their own; they need to learn how to take their lumps on occasion and still belong to the play group; to give over some element of personal freedom or judgment on behalf of the larger good. The presence of adults, or worse still, the coaching of adults, alters the meaning of the experience dramatically.

Young people will naturally and spontaneously develop these skills if left alone, but not completely alone. An adult in the wings, but not on scene, creates the “safe place” for this high-energy play to unfold. When the adult enters the play space, as a dominant parent or coach, this self-regulated play-learning disappears. If we want children to be self-sufficient parts of a self-ruling democracy we won’t interfere. Remember Stewart Brown’s description of the Silverback. Wild animals play freely unless a predator or human comes on the scene, at which point play disappears, and alert defensiveness takes its place. Our children are no different.

Journal 6.3
Why does fairness disappear when adults call the shot?

Do It Yourself!
Entertainment is not play and play is learning. Certain limited forms of information might be exchanged through entertainment, but this is not learning in the sense considered here. Watching a ball game is a counterfeit experience that may be peculiarly frustrating; the spectator’s lack of personal involvement may build toward suppressed rage. Some sports arenas and coliseums have become tinderboxes ready to explode. Spending time together is nice but taking your son or daughter to the ball game, an entertainment, a spectator event that may last virtually all day, isn’t half worth five minutes of tossing a ball with that child. Think of what is involved?running, catching, laughing, tumbeling in the grass; the whole body, all the sences are involved. Compare this, in terms of whole body engagement, use and development, to sitting in the stands all day. The more sensory involvement, the greater the growth and development.

Journal 6.4
Play is completely absorbing. Entertainment is not play. What are the major differences between play and entertainment?

Television & Computer Play
For years computer companies and users have been touting the “whole brain” and “complex” thinking abilities developed by compute games, most often to offset the violent and aggressive content of most popular games. Tracy McVeigh, education editor of the British publication, The Observer, reviewed disturbing research on computer use, brain development, and aggression.

Computer games are creating a dumbed-down generation of children far more disposed to violence than their parents, according to a controversial new study. The tendency to lose control is not due to children absorbing the aggression involved in the computer game itself, as previous researchers have suggested, but rather to the damage done by stunting the developing mind.

Using the most sophisticated technology available, the level of brain activity was measured in hundreds of teenagers playing a Nintendo game and compared to the brain scans of other students doing a simple, repetitive arithmetical exercise. To the surprise of brain-mapping expert Professor Ryuta Kawashima and his team at Tohoku University in Japan, it was found that the computer game only stimulated activity in the parts of the brain associated with vision and movement. In contrast, arithmetic stimulated brain activity in both the left and right hemispheres of the frontal lobe - the area of the brain most associated with learning, memory and emotion.

Most worrying of all was that the frontal lobe, which continues to develop in humans until the age of about 20, also has an important role to play in keeping an individual’s behavior in check.

Children often do things they shouldn’t because their frontal lobes are underdeveloped. The more work done to thicken the fibers connecting the neurons in this part of the brain, the better the child’s ability will be to control their behavior. The more this area is stimulated, the more these fibers will thicken. The students who played computer games were halting the process of brain development and affecting their ability to control potentially anti-social elements of their behavior. The implications are very serious for an increasingly violent society.

Kawashima says the message to parents was clear. “Children need to be encouraged to learn basic reading and writing, of course,” he said. “But the other thing is to ask them to play outside with other children and interact and to communicate with others as much as possible.”

The Observer, August 19, 2001

Journal 6.5
In fifty short years television-computers have literally changed the world, forever. Based on the research by Kawashima and on your own experience, describe the most appropriate response to television for parents of children under the age of ten.

Television replaced storytelling in most homes, and it changed the radio from a storyteller to a music box...Television also replaced family conversation in general…With television on the scene, parents rarely played with children. All sat around the box, and even playing among siblings disappeared. Thus no capacity for play and its internal imaging developed. Nintendo does not and cannot replace imaginative play.

Evolution’s End

Marshall McLuhan noted years ago, “The medium is the message.” It is the machine, not the program content that determines what regions of the brain are used while interacting with that technology, be it a drill press, computer, or a television screen. The brain responds to a given technology with essentially the same “neuro-pattern” each time the technology is encountered. Program content has virtually no impact on brain growth and development, especially during the most sensitive periods of development.

In the first encounter, which involves play, the child learns how to interact with a television screen. The play lasts a few minutes, just long enough to develop a “relationship” with an unknown object. This new and unknown relationship demands complete attention, a basic characteristic of play. Once the relationship is developed, with its corresponding brain growth, play stops and is replaced by entertainment.

Entertainment requires very little attention compared to the total entrainment found in play. The relationship to television, and corresponding brain growth created in the first encounter, is then reused with each subsequent encounter with that device. In terms of brain growth and development, each of the 5,000 hours the average child devotes to television viewing by age five might as well have been a rerun of the original program. This is the critical point, in terms of brain growth, up to and including age ten or eleven. As we described earlier, entertainment is not learning.

Television floods the brain with a counterfeit of the response the brain is supposed to learn to make to the stimuli of words or music. As a result, much of the structural coupling between mind and environment is eliminated; few metaphoric images develop; few higher cortical areas of the brain are called into play; few, if any, symbolic structures develop. E=MC2 will be just marks on paper, for there will be no metaphoric ability to transfer those symbols to the neocortex for conceptualization, and subsequently, no development of its main purpose; symbolic conceptual systems.

Evolution’s End

Play can be completely entertaining. Entertainment is not play, however. And don’t forget, computers, televisions, and video technologies are “imaging” systems. They display counterfeits of the internal images naturally produced by the brain. As described earlier, images are the basic operating system of the brain. The brain communicates its life and death information through images. Counterfeit images easily deceive the emotional cognitive and sensory motor regions of the brain. These older and more primary centers can’t distinguish between the natural images produced by the brain and its counterfeit. These brain centers simply respond to a given stimulus, in this case the image, and stimulus is real. The images on the movie screen are real images. The sounds amplified by multimillion-dollar Dolby and THX technologies are real sounds.

The technologies for creating and displaying moving pictures are less than a century old, a nanosecond in biological time. Charlie Chaplin is a mere blink on the counterfeit Richter scale compared to the images now being mass-produced by today’s graphic animation technologies. The more realistic, intense and evocative the counterfeit, the stronger the response of our two primary brain centers. This explains why we scream, cry and are so easily aroused by the images displayed on film, television and computers. The effect of these images is immediate. The seeing is the effect. What we “think” about these images occurs much later, way down the synaptic stream. Millions of emotional and physical connections cascade through the entire body before we are even aware that we have seen the image. The people who create these devices and their images know this.

Deception is their craft. And we love being deceived. But at what price? (More on television and computers later.)

Journal 6.6
The generation gap is more than changing trends and traditions. New environments create new brains, new perceptual systems. Describe how television and computer technologies are changing how we perceive and relate to other human beings and to nature.

The Art of Play
Art is the high point of play from the earliest child period throughout life. From the crude stick-drawings of the four-year-old to the most advanced form of painting or design, from the first singing-stories of Education Through Music (ETM) to playing Beethoven’s Apassionata, from sand castle at the beach to Michelangelo’s David, art is play, and those who can play fully are always the ones most happy in any form of art, and who turn any activity into art, whether it be politics, education, finance, science, or what-have-you. Any form of play is a form of art and vice-versa. When anthropologist Margaret Mead said that only an education founded on art will ever succeed, she meant that all subjects must be presented as an art form. Learning must be an esthetic experience, appreciated and enjoyed.

William Blake’s statement that mechanical excellence is the vehicle of genius, simply means the neural structures must be there, practiced until fully in place, for the highest form of creativity to manifest. And one builds those structures from the beginning through play. As clearly depicted in Waldorf Education, “the art of living and learning” begins very early in life. If we learn of life through play, we will play through life as an artist, regardless of the road taken. Which means also that we would play to the very end of life.

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 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.
Physician, Author, Clown

Adult Play
Adult play can embrace all forms of play leading up to it and opens to a field of play without boundaries. The challenge for adults is that many have been adulterated.

Most can be called play deprived. Cultural models of contest and competition replaced their original play state very early. Only one can win. All the rest are losers. We politely say, it’s how we play the game that counts, but everyone knows the truth. The goal is to win.

It goes back to this issue of being safe enough to play the game freely. If you’re not safe enough to play the game freely, then what you have to depend upon for your evaluation of self-worth, are things like winning, money, trophies; you place yourself in the hierarchy of self-worth based on the stuff you’re getting.

The ones who seem to be impervious to that content orientation are the ones that really, really love to play the game. And they’re going to play the game anyway, and it’s great that they get stuff along the way and they’re probably not going to deny it, but they don’t play the game for the stuff; the money or the name in the paper, they play the game because they love to play the game... I’ve never seen a person playing for rewards play at the level that those who are playing the game for the sake of the game.

Personal Interview
Chuck Hogan
Author, Educator, Performance Specialists

Real play is nonviolent. “Playing to win” for the reward, for recognition is aggressive. Ours is an aggressive culture and this aggressiveness is part of the environment that shapes the synapses of human development. Sensing this aggression, having lost touch with their authentic nature, adulterated adults often become spectators, consumers of commercial entertainment. The lines between play and entertainment get blurred. Professional athletes are entertainers, and most know it. Going to Las Vegas, seeing the shows, playing the slots feel like play. Adults work so much and so hard that anything that doesn’t feel like work, feels like play. Play to most adults is the unimportant things that happen in between the serious business of making a living.

Journal 6.7
List five or more activities or relationships in your life that you consider authentic play.

Our proposal is quite simple. The unique quality of relationship we call play is the optimum relationship for learning, performance and well-being, at any age or activity. It is the state, our relationship to an activity that determines if it is play, not the activity. Confusing the activity with the state is a big mistake. Kicking a ball, writing a paper, singing a song, painting the garage floor, nursing a baby, sexual intimacy, almost any activity can be play or work depending on our relationship to it. For most adults play is work.

Abstract Play
Rudolph Steiner spoke of the intense joy in pure abstract thinking. We know mathematicians who experience something akin to the mystical or flow experience while solving or working out solutions. The right answer gives way to the more critical point of elegance of form, the way in which a solution is achieved. Play and creativity are paired from the beginning. Physicists Bohm and Peat suggest that the very essence of thought is play.

Creative play is an essential element in forming new hypotheses and ideas. Indeed, thought which tries to avoid play is in fact playing false with itself… The falseness that can creep into the play of thought is shown in the etymology of the words illusion, delusion, and collusion, all of which have as their Latin root ludere, “to play.” Illusion implies playing false with perception; delusion, playing false with thought; and collusion, playing false together in order to support each other’s illusion and delusions.

Within the act of creative play, fresh perceptions occur which enable a person to propose a new idea that can be put forward for exploration. As the implications of their idea are unfolded, they are composed or put together with other familiar ideas. Eventually the person supposes that these ideas are correct; in other words, he or she makes an assumption or hypothesis and then acts according to the notion that this is the way things actually are. The movement from propose to compose and suppose enables everyday actions to be carried out with little or no conscious thought…. This is appropriate only as long as the mind remains sensitive to the possibility that, in new contexts, evidence may arise that shows that these ideas are wrong or confused. If this happens, scientists [parents, or educators, caregivers, coaches] have to be ready to drop the ideas in question and go back to the free play of thought, out of which may emerge new ideas.

David Bohm, Ph.D. and F. David Peat, Ph.D.
Science, Order and Creativity

Play is not evasion of a grim survival necessity; it is in the service of survival. The animal’s survival play centers on mock battle, hunting evasion because these are the specific activities it will employ at maturity for its physical survival. The human child’s corresponding activities are imagination, fantasy play and imitation.

Magical Child

Journal 6.8
As Bohm points out, play is the essential activity of thinking and the very heart of the truly scientific mind. What prevents the culture from embracing the deeper meaning of the intelligence of play?

Transcendent Play, Sacred Play
Play is fundamentally transcendent. Through play we open the doors of the known to the unknown. What we know implies boundaries. These boundaries shape our behavior, how we learn, what we learn, and how we perform. Rather than living within the boundaries; play extends them. Through athletics we play with physical boundaries, breaking the four-minute mile is a classic example. Walking on fire is another. We play with emotional boundaries through intimate relationships with other human beings, with animals and all of nature. In each case we are playing with “spirit,” the true nature of our nature. Bohm believed that the essence of thought is play. Mystical teachers claim the universe is a “play of consciousness.” To play is to become again as a little child. And what is it about the child we must become again? Play. Children are closer to their essence, and their essence is play.

The secret of our success in terms of our own development, our personal spiritual journey, is to be in the state of play. To become again as a little child, however, adults must first have fully been a child. For this to take place we must give childhood back to children, which means we must allow them to play. And all they want to do is play, since nature designed their development that way. Play is the way of spirit and truth. All play is sacred.

Punishments and rage break the child’s will, the capacity to overcome obstacles and explore the unknown, which is learning itself. They will leave him with no self-confidence, no faith in himself, and he will fumble or retreat at every little difficulty or challenge… That youngster will grow to be one of us, thinking one thing, feeling another, and acting in a way disconnected from both.

Evolution’ End