1,000 words on the difference between 'playspace' and 'playspaces' that raises the importance of 'walls and doors'.
"We tend not to sit down for a meal in the laundry room, or take a bath in the garage. Yet, have you ever really considered why we don’t do that? It’s a useful question to answer when it comes to designing a playspace but the answer might not be the obvious one."
A biographical short on the importance of silliness.
"We should probably gloss over the night we nearly set the boat on fire because we had gone to the pub forgetting that we had left the oven on, or the trouble we got into by accidentally entering the tidal waters of Great Yarmouth."
1,000 words about where loose parts should best be left to get the most from them. It's largely about the word serendipity and a dead German biologist. The second of a two-part blog.
a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece
"Whether we acknowledge it or not, when we adults gather specific materials together and place them in a context that we have pre-decided, like the tabletop, then we have both reduced the variety and the possible combinations available."
900 words on what happens when a five year old spots an aging playworker while trying to balance along a low wall, with a bit of a more than 100-year-old theory thrown in to boot.
"It is at this point that she noticed me walking towards the pair with shopping bag in hand and we briefly made eye contact – and something happened. Question is, what?"
900 words about Simon Nicholson's 'Theory of Loose Parts' that asks if we are missing something in our interpretation of his ideas.
"Pretty collections of beads and shells, plastic shapes and buttons, stored neatly in nice wicker baskets or storage tubs, etc. do indeed constitute loose parts, there is a slight problem here. Becoming fixated with seeing ‘loose parts’ as just these small aesthetically pleasing things at the expense of others that might be less attractive to the adult eye really misses the major idea behind Nicholson’s original theory."
"We often throw around the term ‘risky play’ as though it was a category of play like social play or gross-motor play. But it is not. Taking risks is simply one of the things children do when they are playing and, because a significant amount of playing is about pushing boundaries and extending ourselves, it turns out that most play is risky in one way or another."
This is a longer than usual piece as it was originally something published in the Barnados Ireland journal. It questions our approach to guarding against the risks and hazards that children face in institutional settings and suggests four particularly risky experiences that all children should have access to.
"I realised how tempted I was to point out to these two adults why their boys could not contain themselves and note that they themselves were creating an impossible situation for themselves and their sons - but it would have been ugly. So I didn’t."
Parents and other adults can be oblivious to the effect their actions can have on the children around them and can sometimes sap the wonder from children's experiences. This story describes two such examples - one conscious the other not.
"Throughout most of the 1980s I lived in a house down a cul-de-sac. It was a quite short street with not too many parked cars on and, completely by chance, had three or four playworkers living down it – two of us in the same house."
Children clearly create their own special places for playing but sometimes they need help from local adults to make this work. It can be as simple as asking the right questions and knocking on the right doors and it need not cost the earth.
"He momentarily lost his balance but once he’d recovered he put the stick back on the fence and carried on plinking and plonking."
Adults can help and adults can hinder. It's as simply a matter of attitude.
It is a habit of mine to ask for a reference or citation when matters of fact are quoted with no source simply because a research based approach to working with children and young people should be the norm in developing good practice – emotive anecdotal comments should be the exception. This is especially true in the field of play and playing as it can sometimes become an emotive topic and a good research paper, even when it produces a counterintuitive conclusion, can slice through the bias of an emotional response better than a hot knife through an organically produced, seed-oil based butter substitute.
Unfortunately, this recent paper ‘Individual and environmental correlates of school-based recess engagement’ published in the journal, Preventative Medicine Reports just isn’t (vol 11 Sept. 2018 p247-253).
The paper begins well enough by acknowledging that recess periods in the school day have been in decline in school districts throughout the USA and concludes that this is not a good thing. It goes on to say that this is not a good thing because, “The school day … is a prime opportunity to promote PA [physical activity].”
And that’s where we hit the first problem.
This paper is a classic of the physiological type of research that is concerned exclusively with the health benefits of children being physical activity to the exclusion of all else. The introduction sets its overall aim out very clearly when it says, “Physical activity is important to help curb high obesity rates amongst today’s children.”
Methodologically it’s a very tight paper and no doubt well intentioned. The research involved more than 8,000 children in seven schools in which one part of the study held observations of ‘recess activity engagement’ while in another data from the wearing of a Fitbit activity monitor were taken and the two sets of data then combined and analysed. The tabulated results are clearly laid out and easy to read.
It is the conclusions that the paper reaches that are worrisome, though: It concludes that girls tend to be less physically active during recess periods than boys – and that’s no surprise as most similar research has drawn the same conclusion. Yet it is how this is stated that starts the alarm bells ringing as its says that more than a quarter of children (particularly girls) were observed in “sedentary activities (e.g. talking with friends).” The bias here is beginning to peek out.
The paper also quotes previous research on the topic stating that it found, “… adding more playground equipment and providing a structured recess yielded the largest effect on [physical activity].” This paper seems to agree with that. In fact, the reference to ‘sedentary activities’ above shows very clearly that the researchers are seeing the potential benefits of playing purely in the context of increased physical activity – sitting play bad, running around play good – and the major conclusion it reaches is that the involvement of adult-initiated and structured activity is essential to getting the desired increase in physical activity:
“… in the current study, adult engagement and supervision was identified as the most salient recess level predictor of engagement for boys and girls. Thus, in considering how to take advantage of limited [recess] time for PA … adults can be more than passive observers assigned to monitor recess, but can also be active participants, and even beneficial role models, for children on and around the playground.”
It’s almost as if the research has been funded by an organisation with a vested interest in adult-led playground intervention projects, isn’t it?
Yet at one point, the paper makes an almost throw away comment that might lead to an alternative conclusion. It notes that recess in the study schools accounted for approximately 5.6% of the school day and then, shock horror, finds that, “Interestingly, recess length was a significant predictor of both MVPA [moderate-to-vigorous physical activity], and steps per minute taken during recess. This finding suggests that extra recess time not only increases opportunities for physical activity, but that children are more active with the time they have when this is increased.”
So, to increase physical activity simply increase the length of recess time, right?
One of the real problems behind this paper is that it has a clear bias in its approach paradigm that seriously narrows any possible conclusion. At one point the authors claim, “To date, no study has concurrently examined the contextual features of the environment and what students chose to do during recess in a systematic way.”
Oh, really? I could lead them to a decent sized metaphorical warehouse full of research relating to school recess periods that has done just that; but they have done so from alternative paradigm to that of the authors who appear to have no previous knowledge of other approaches – all except one of the extensive references cited are from a physiological perspective.
Much of this non-physiological research quotes the benefits of recess that goes beyond the purely physical (see just about anything by Peter Blatchford and Anthony Pellegrini, for example) and not the least amongst those benefits is the value of unstructured time away from adult imposed activity rather than arguing for more.
So, when is a good play research paper not a good play research paper? When it may, even with the best intentions in mind, make the reality of play for children harder to achieve rather than easier. That’s when.