It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how

"What is the link between neural growth and play? Why do play activities seem to go hand in hand with brain development? What difference does play make? the truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create himself.

Why do I say this? Consider the fact that there is no exact blueprint for creating the brain. The information in our DNA is far too sparse to define exactly how all the neurons should connect up with each other. Instead, the brain wires itself up. It does this by creating far too many neurons, which in turn make far too many connections with other neurons throughout the brain. Following rules of interaction laid down in the DNA, the neurons send signals through the circuits, strengthening those that work and weakening those that don't. ...

Play, which is more prevalent during the periods of most rapid brain development after birth (childhood), seems to continue the process of neural evolution [after REM sleep which is a critical part of organizing higher brain function], taking it one step farther. Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn't exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. ... These are neural connections that don't seem to have an immediate function but when fired up by play are, in fact, essential to continued brain organization."  -from Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown. (pp. 40-41)

I'm currently on a jag of reading about the science behind play, and this is my current favorite book. It was this part, where the author outlines how play structures and builds the brain in positive ways that really struck me. While this is important for children who have always had stability in their lives because it will put them on good footing for later learning, this is vitally important for our children who have experienced trauma. By now I hope you all know that experiencing trauma, no matter if it was in utero, as an infant, or as an older child, reshapes the brain in negative ways. If you combine this with the fact that the vast majority of our adopted children came from places where free, imaginative play wasn't allowed or even possible, then you begin to realize how much our children are starting with a deck stacked against them. We cannot undo the trauma, but we can allow them the space and time to experience play.

If only it were as simple as setting aside a few hours a day, providing the appropriate props, and letting them go at it. Anyone who has brought home an older child will know instantly what would happen in this scenario. Nothing. It is not enough to provide the time and space, because most of our children, having never had the chance to play, have no knowledge of how to go about it.

When H. first came home, we spent a lot of time teaching her to play. Thankfully, I had G., L., and K., master players all three, who were my 24/7 living, breathing example of what play looks like. We read storied to give her a beginning for making her own. We acted these stories out. We pretended. We had to demonstrate nearly every single toy in our house. It was time consuming and took several years to see any results. What was most disturbing and most interesting about this was her seeming inability to create anything unique out of her own head. I had lived with children who developed alternate universes and unique ideas at an astonishing rate, that a child who could not do this was a little unfathomable. I had a sense that the inability to play was somehow responsible for the lack of unique ideas.

"Play is nature's greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties. The abilities to make new patterns, find the unusual among the common, and spark curiosity and alert observation are all fostered by being in a state of play. When we play, dilemmas and challenges will naturally filter through the unconscious mind and work themselves out." Play (pp. 128-129)

It becomes rather a chicken and egg question. If play helps to develop creative thoughts, but you need to creative thoughts in order to play, where does one begin? We decided to begin as we would with an infant. Play is all initiated by the parent and joined in by the child. This is what we did with H. Slowly over time, she joined in more and more. Now she can play with the best of them, and is beginning to start to generate her own stories. I don't think it is a coincidence that at this point, where we are seeing more imaginative and light-hearted play from her, that we are also seeing an incredible burst of intellectual abilities.

This is all heartening to know and remember with R. home. R. has her own challenges, but in some ways is similar enough to H. that I feel a little more ahead of the game this time around. Reminding myself to take the long view is a constant challenge, though. I do know that we are starting in on the play training much sooner with R. Here's a little example from yesterday that illustrates why this is so necessary.

We have a preschool box that I made which has blocks that one person makes into a pattern and other people then try to copy.

I tried using this box with R. last spring and it took us quite some time for me to coach her to recreating the design I had made. We put the box away after that and focused on other things.

Yesterday I decided to try it again. I am thrilled to report that there definitely has been some growth. R. was able to copy my designs with very little help. It was heartening. I decided to be the fun mom and let her make a design for me to copy. She made the first design I had when we started. No matter the level of coaching, she could not make a design different from the ones I had already made. It was time for me to move on to working with another child, and I usually have R. continue to play with the activity we had been doing together during this time. I knew that she would just sit there staring at the little blocks without anyone helping her, so I called K. over. I asked him to just sit there and play with the blocks so that R. could watch him. He played exactly as I had hoped he would, moving them around, trying different things, just seeing what they would do. After I told him to go back to what he had been doing, I asked R. to keep playing. She did do a little more. At this point she was a least willing to try moving the blocks around, even if tentatively. She has a long way to go, but it was a start.

"Play can become a doorway to a new self, one much more in tune with the world. Because play is all about trying on new behaviors and thoughts, it frees us from established patterns." Play (p. 92)
I have a new article published: Making the Grade: Why We Homeschool


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