Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Magnificence Of Play

I can't imagine anyone thinks more or more deeply about sensory tables than Tom Bedard over at Sand and Water Tables. I especially love the right hand column of his blog where he lists his eight "Axioms of Sensorimotor Play." Not only do these axioms have the virtue of making me chuckle because they verify my own experience, but taken in aggregate they stipulate that if allowed to play freely and given enough time, children will explore every possible nook, cranny, up, down, laugh, and tear. This is the magnificence of play: no stone is ever left unturned.

Recently, Tom posted about creating levels within his sand table using peg board, and since among the many things I'm curating in the storage room is a large sheet of peg board left over from another project, I thought we should give it a go. For better or worse, our peg board had become a bit warped from being leaned against a wall for a couple years, so I wasn't able to exactly re-create Tom's set up, so I just winged it, duct taping one larger sheet to one side of our magnificent sensory table, then creating lots of smaller mobile platforms from scraps and wooden chopsticks.

We have a massive amount of sand, but it was all the way outside in our sand pit and I had a couple large bins of flax seed within arm's reach, so I went with that. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a storage room full of oddball loose parts coupled with a bit of laziness is certainly its father.

As the children across all three of our classes, aged 2-6 played with this set up over the week, I saw each of Tom's axioms in action as the children fully explored every level, both over and under, including the floor. They filled and emptied every scoop and container, repeatedly. They discovered that the chopstick supported platforms could be moved around. They discovered they could be taken apart. They discovered they could be put back together. They discovered that the peg board scraps themselves could be used to move the flax seed around.

I've been having a number of incredible discussions about play while here in Athens for my talk on Friday. In one of them we discussed a study in which researchers had invented a toy that had a number of features, both obvious and hidden. With one group of children, the adults demonstrated a handful of the features (e.g., push this button, turn this dial), then handed it over to the children. The children quickly explored each of those features, then were finished. The key element of this toy, however, was that there another dozen features to be discovered that had not been demonstrated. The second group of children were simply given the toy with no demonstration. This group of children played with the toy until they had discovered all of the features. (UPDATE: Thanks to readers, I've learned that the toy I'm writing about here only had 4 functions and one was demonstrated, but the results were as I've described -- the children who received no demonstration of the toy were far more likely to discover the other three functions, and played longer, than those who received a demonstration. Here's a link. Another link is provided by Alec of Child's Play Music in the comments.)

As I watched the children play with the flax seed and pegboard levels, I was in awe of their inventiveness, curiosity and motivation. Some of them spent hours there during the week, asking and answering their own questions, working at their own pace, figuring out this small corner of the world, which is really just a model of the larger world in which we all live.

This is the magnificence of play.

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Alec of Child's Play Music said...

Tom, the research paper you are looking for is "The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery" by Bonawitz et al.

The full text is available at

Αννα said...

Dear Colleague Tom

I am a teacher from Greece and I am glad to meet you up close tomorrow in Athens
I really enjoy your blog and many times I get ideas from you even though I have older children.
I hope you enjoy happy in my country

PS My English is not so good

Tom Bedard said...

Thanks Tom for the shout-out. I am amazed at how much better the axioms sound when you write about them.

Trisha said...

I'm sensing a new school motto.

"Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a storage room full of oddball loose parts coupled with a bit of laziness is certainly its father."

Love it!

Unknown said...

Your dedication to the kids it's so inspiring that i now help my sons school on Fridays to provide things such as your sand table ideas. You are awesome.

I made something very similar to your sand take idea but instead on using tape i used plastic ties going through the tubes to provide steadily to the board you spoke of. Wish i could send a pic so i could get your thought on it.

The teachers wanted something that could be removable easily but reused quickly.