Thomas Heffner, MAPP 2012, is an electrical engineer, human centered designer, and an expert in innovation at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He is also one of the founding members of the Design Thinking Corps, with the goal of leading design thinking and innovation across the laboratory. He is passionate about applying design thinking to wicked problems to create revolutionary products, services, and processes that create a better future. Twitter: @tom_heffner Full bio. Articles by Thomas are here.
“Tom, can you recommend a good preschool for my 4-year-old daughter? She’s already taught herself to read and write, so it needs to be a place that will challenge her.”
These were the first words my new colleague spoke to me after our formal introductions. She was new to the area and looking for advice. Perhaps some people – or maybe even more than a few – might admire this woman’s obvious devotion to her child’s learning. However, as I listened to her animatedly discuss their nightly math and reading practice sessions, I kept thinking how little time her daughter must have to play. And that saddened me immensely because childhood play is critically important to our children’s development.
Play helps spark and sustain curiosity in our children. Play also helps our children discover and cultivate their signature strengths. In short, play is what helps our children become successful in life.
Play Helped Me Become an Engineer
As I reflect on my childhood, I see how playing helped me become successful as an engineer. As a child, one of my favorite play activities was building things. It didn’t matter what the project entailed—building elaborate forts made of pillows and blankets, model airplanes, sand castles, or soapbox derby cars—I loved building anything and everything!Fortunately, my parents encouraged my passion for building and creating, and over time I developed a curiosity for how and why things work in the world. For example, while building my soapbox derby car, I would ask my dad questions like “What happens if I make the wheels larger?” or “Will I go downhill faster if I make the car bigger?” Slowly, over time and throughout my childhood, I began developing and honing my problem-solving skills. This development was very important because I now work as an engineer, and problem solving is an occupational requirement. It is the one skill I use each and every day.
Play and Curiosity
According to Todd Kashdan, a leading researcher in the relationship between curiosity and well-being, my development of curiosity and problem-solving over time through childhood play makes perfect sense. In his book Curious, Kashdan says that play is a pleasurable experience, and “a training ground for young children … to develop essential social and problem-solving skills that last a lifetime.” If we think about curiosity, this should make sense to us as well. Curiosity is the drive to understand, learn, or experience something new. When we play, we engage our curiosity in a fun way, driving us to learn and sharpen new skills, talents or ideas along the way.Even more important for us as parents, when we encourage our children to play and consequently develop their curiosity, we put them on a path to greater success in school and, ultimately, in life. In his book, Kashdan offers several key findings from landmark studies involving curiosity that confirm this notion. For example, kids who are highly curious raised their IQ scores significantly more than less curious kids over an 8-year period. Not surprisingly, further studies demonstrated that curiosity predicts higher grades and test scores in school.
But life is not just about performing well on tests or bringing home straight A’s. We need to apply what we learn. Here too, says Kashdan, curiosity rises above everything else, as a superior predictor of students’ willingness to transfer knowledge gained into long-term interests and careers.
Play Builds Strengths and Positive Emotions
Perhaps just as important as sparking our curiosity, play has the power to cultivate our children’s natural strengths and talents. I need only look to my son playing his favorite game – soccer – to illustrate this result. Place him on a field with a soccer ball and he can play for hours by himself or with other kids. He has so much fun that when he is not playing, he is constantly asking about his next game or practice. Over time, soccer has helped him develop and nurture his natural talents. For instance, although he is not exceptionally fast, he does have great stamina. Running all the time while playing soccer has increased his stamina to the point where he could outrun both my wife and me, even if we were a relay team!In addition, soccer has helped him to further understand and cultivate teamwork. As much as he wants to, he has learned he can’t score every goal. After much play and experience, he now understands he has to pass the ball to his teammates at times so they can score a goal to help the team win.
At the heart of my son’s talent and strength cultivation are positive emotions. When he plays he experiences positive emotions like joy, excitement, and zest, to name just a few. According to Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher on emotions, these positive emotions are crucially important to him at this age because they encourage him to be open, to continue playing, and to explore new and varied thoughts and actions. In effect, they help him broaden and build his skills and resources over time. For my son, that means exploring what happens when you involve your teammates. Sometimes, passing the ball means you will score. At other times, passing the ball means not scoring, or missing your teammate altogether.All this is part of the broaden-and-build process. The end result is that my son developed new strengths he can draw on as he meets tougher challenges in school and life. Furthermore, as he continues playing soccer and other games, he will continue to develop new strengths and talents, as well as improve his strength of teamwork. While utilizing his strengths certainly helps my son now and during his school age years, it will become even more important as a working adult. Engagement studies strongly suggest that my son will be more likely to achieve his goals at work, as well as find greater meaning and passion at work, if he uses his strengths while working – the very strengths he is now developing and sharpening as he plays.
“Go outside and play.”
I hope these ideas can convince you, or even make you stop and think for a little while. Let’s stop the over-parenting. Your children do not have to know algebra or read Dickens by the time they enter kindergarten. Let them be kids while they are kids. Let them play. Encourage play activities that maximize curiosity, positive emotions, and the cultivation of strengths and talents. For further ideas on how to nurture play for kids, you can read Peter Emmenegger’s article on play. Here is a summary of his guidelines.
- Go outside and play whenever possible. Children need free time to develop their own games and ways of playing by themselves or with friends. Nothing kills a child’s imagination or creativity like fancy computer games or the latest electronic gadget. They simply adhere to the rules of the game, content to be passive and reactive. Outside, they are forced to generate their own rules for games within a multisensory environment.
- Encourage Natural Play. Limit or curtail TV and computer time. Watching cartoons or TV shows is a passive activity. Instead, encourage your children to develop their own stories, characters, and worlds. If they are used to watching TV or playing on the computer, be prepared for boredom at first. Make suggestions for make-believe play to help jump-start their creativity. Ask open-ended questions about their characters. “How did King Richard find his way to the moon?”
- Encourage outdoor adventures by reserving time to explore the outdoors. For example, make time to dig holes in the dirt, catch tadpoles in the stream, collect rocks from the park, or catch bugs. Jump-start a child’s curiosity by catching tadpoles and explaining their transformation to frogs!
- Always remember the golden toy rule: toys should be 90% child and 10% toy. We want the child’s imagination to be the engine that drives play. Simple toys require active participation and imagination. Simple toys can be knocked over or wiped away, forcing children to create new games and fun from scratch.
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118.
Emmenegger, P. (n.d.) Nurturing the playful mind. Natural Child Magazine.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.
Photo Credits (All from Compfight with a creative commons license )
Preschool courtesy of barnabywasson
Soapbox derby car courtesy of Mollenborg
Building Sandcastles courtesy of Dhammika Heenpella
Playing soccer alone courtesy of Macarena Viza
Playing soccer with others courtesy of cassimano
Climbing a tree courtesy of Mitchio