Play Is Not a Four Letter Word: Book Study Expert Commentary for Chapter 13 (Week 5)

Published on: September 28, 2015

Filled Under: Beyond The Pages, Books, Guest Speakers

Views: 19148

What If Book Study Marketing PicThis week we are discussing Chapter 13: Play Is Not a Four Letter Word. Dr. Walter F. Drew is our guest content expert this week to provide insight and lead our discussion. Visit Dr. Drew’s website to learn more about his work. You can find him on Facebook at Dr. Drew’s Blocks. Just joining us? Get all the book study details HERE.



“The goal of education is to create possibilities for children to invent and discover.”   Jean Piaget

In Chapter 13, Rae Pica makes the point that “True play is open-ended and intrinsically motivated. True play is not directed by adults.”  To be insensitive to the significance of this teaching – or worse yet to ignore the implications – would be to miss the opportunity to strengthen the essential developing capacities of young children.

What Can We Do to Cultivate Play and Creativity in Child Development?

As a way of elaborating on Rae Pica’s comments, I invite you to view a short unedited YouTube video of 5 and 6 year old children as they engage in a compelling example of a true play experience that is open-ended and intrinsically motivated. And not directed by adults.

One area of child development that has received little attention, but which is a positive instructional strategy and strong indicator of creative potential, is solitary self active play. In the video, you will see children standing side-by-side around one very long table covered with a variety of open-ended materials; little purple foam cylinders, red and yellow plastic caps, and an array of Dr. Drew’s Discovery Blocks. The children are asked to play quietly by themselves for one minute. The results are stunning! Parents sit nearby observing and making notes of what they see.

“Cultivating Creativity in Young Children” is a video that will challenge your understanding of play and reveal surprising possibilities that may influence your professional practice and child development.

“Cultivating Creativity in Young Children”

What Do You Observe as You View the Video?

Is there joy, creativity, imagination, and inventiveness reflected in the children? Are the children focused, engaged, intentional, and self-regulated? Is there a sense of wonder and curiosity?

Rae Pica calls attention to the importance of creativity. Creativity is increasingly recognized as vital part of child development. It is an essential life skill required for success in our rapidly changing world, and therefore an important component of child development. Creativity is something we all have, and it enables children as well as adults to discover new possibilities and define new relationships, make connections, and overcome challenging barriers using innate creative problem solving abilities. Just as the children vividly demonstrate as they play. Play is a source of creative energy, a positive force, and safe context for children to generate optimism and construct meaningful self-knowledge.

In the silence of the children’s play, they are developing and demonstrating mastery of materials and of themselves. The children are in control and fully self active. According to Friedrich Froebel, the father of the kindergarten and early childhood education, “self active” means that the child must do all him or herself, that he or she will benefit only by what he or she actually does, and that at all times the child’s whole being, the whole self must be active...hands, heart, and mind.

How is Play an Expressive System for Child Development?

In the video, we see the children initiate and guide their own wondering, actively exploring, discovering, and learning. No one tells them what to do or how to do it. They are functioning independently and “paying attention” to what interests them. Being fully present, focused and engaged in self active play with open-ended materials, helps children develop a sense of power and competence as they construct and render visual expressions through aesthetically pleasing three-dimensional forms. I remain totally amazed at the precious comments, stories, and meaning the children share as part of their play. One little girl spontaneously exclaims: “I made one of those like homeless places and people can sit around here if they don’t have any food and this is food for them to eat….”

I am touched by her sensitivity, her social awareness, and caring concern for others.

Another little girl offers, “I made a rehab. It’s the rehab my grand daddy used to go to,…..”  Without play experiences that allow for openness and spontaneity, young children are less likely to express original thinking and personal concerns. Brian Sutton Smith reminds us of the importance of play and art making in healthy human development. “These expressive systems generate optimism about our life in this world; and they get this by displaying original ways of putting aside our pessimisms and depressions and boredoms and innovating a virtual life that is primarily a lot of fun. There plays for them are real originality and this is what both improves their feelings about ordinary present day life and sometimes promises a future, where their innovations will be central.”

Play becomes the medium for original thinking and expressive language development as children share their creativity, emerging feelings and ideas, and the positive meaning they assign directly from their own flow of consciousness and sensory exploration. It is in the touching, the full sensory integration while sorting, organizing and constructing with open-ended materials that children make the inner connection and begin to understand themselves while also developing essential life skills and concepts in science and art, math, and literacy…..with hands, heart, and mind working together as one.

Children display insight, enthusiasm, and joyfulness in what they create. In the doing and the making of something physical and meaningful to the children that is uniquely theirs, they create a powerful positive influence on self-efficacy, a strong predicator of resilience, creativity, and academic success. This is one way children and adults both come to believe in themselves and gain the respect of friends and colleagues within the community of learners. As I observe children engaging in this form of creative artistic activity, I am awestruck by their intense focus, engagement, imagination and creativity, radiant faces revealing wonderment, eloquent explanations, and visible self-delight. The children’s hands, hearts, and minds are unified in joyful self active play.

How Does Play Develop Early STEM and Art Making Skills?

One little boy comments,“I made a Star Wars ship….”  Once again, much of what happens in these happy moments of self active play, remains impossible to fully describe. Only a small portion of the joy and learning richness can be expressed with words. The physical “Star Wars ship” the child creates supports his inquiry and reveals to him and to us his capacity to envision, elaborate, and make real his idea with aesthetic beauty.

In Tom Henricks’ most recent book “Play and the Human Condition,” he highlights how play helps children begin to understand and experience what is involved in the process of creating form and meaning, of inventing, and ascribing with language the perceived meaning generated during their play. When the whole child is absorbed, fully present and self active exploring unusual open-ended materials, play becomes a joyful way of learning and creating form and meaning beyond the event. The intensity and expansiveness of the play experience makes a deep emotional impression on the child and raises the possibility of it continuing to exert a positive emotional influence on the child’s development and therefore on future success in school and life. Play is an alternate universe with unlimited possibilities for children to explore, imagine, and discover their creative potential in a safe and developmentally appropriate way!

In the video we see early STEM skills artfully practiced as the children play, design, and build “one of a kind” structures. They are learning how to organize and use materials, balance, count, measure, invent, and connect their ideas and inner visions through action and personal expressed meaning. Science, mathematics, and engineering principles are revealed as they construct these impressive complex three-dimensional models.

What happens first, influences what happens next….

Asking the question, “How am I to deepen my own understanding of play and its importance in human development?” motivates me to explore new ways of engaging children and adults in nurturing play experiences. I see more clearly what happens when children and adults are given the freedom to explore and create with a variety of unusual open-ended materials in solitary self active play. There is less distraction and more self-regulation. I value cooperative play and the many benefits it offers children, especially in developing social competence. Learning to share and work together in cooperative play is of epic importance for young children. However, I am also drawn to the value of silent solitary self active play as a natural way of enhancing initiative, concentration, promoting creativity, and strengthening self-expression. It is a form of creative contemplation, a meditation on form and structure and the expressive creative power within the child. That is perhaps why Piaget suggested that we must help young children to be self active, ”Experience is always necessary for intellectual development,….the subject must be active, must transform things, and find the structure of his own actions on the objects.”

Rae Pica reminds us that young children’s play and creativity are processes that require the choice and use of real materials to produce authentic learning aligned with their inner vision. The process of play, of making things with open-ended materials, stimulates imagination and creative thinking. Questions of interest emerge and motivate children to practice perseverance in solving problems that lead to invention and self-discovery.

Do you notice any early STEM or STEAM skills being practiced in the video as the children play? What evidence is there of children using the scientific method in their play?  (observation, experimentation, measurement,  hypothesizing, formulating ideas and questions, testing, model making)

Do you see any new implications for your professional practice and enhancing child development?

The importance of play and the children’s own intrinsic curiosity, imagination and creativity cannot be overestimated because it is such a powerful influence on their original thinking and actions and provides us with evidence of what is interesting to the children. To the extent that we are insensitive to their preference or ignore these observations, or seek to prematurely direct their play in ways we think are more important, we run the risk of weakening the power of play and of their own unique innate curiosity and creativity to influence healthy child development. Valuing and respecting the personal preferences of children is key to helping them develop the same thoughtful life long practice with others.

What’s A Teacher to Do?

At the end of the chapter, Rae Pica comments: “If you’re an early childhood educator being pressured by parents to have more of an academics-oriented curriculum, educate them. Help them to understand the value of play.”

One of the best ways to help parents understand and value play is to offer hands-on play workshops that immerses parents in actual play experiences consistent with developmentally appropriate practices for young children, both solitary and cooperative. (For more on the adult self active play process see NAEYC publication: From Play to Practice: Connecting Teachers Play to Children’s Learning  by Nell & Drew) The process of using play with open-ended materials provides a framework that helps parents think about their own children and ways they can support play efforts within the classroom and the family.

If you enjoyed viewing the first video, you may appreciate seeing the the second YouTube that shows what happens when 4 and 5 year old children engage in a similar process of silent solitary self active play with a slightly different set of materials.

“Teaching Young Children”

Perhaps you will see in the actions of the children that silent solitary play is another way to help them express their creative energies and thereby realize and appreciate that they have the power within themselves to influence, if not to create, harmony and order in their lives.

As parents, as early childhood educators, we are called upon to be aware of the importance of play in the lives of children, as Rae Pica has suggested. As American philosopher, poet, and naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson has proclaimed, “It is a happy talent to know how to play.”


  • Duckworth, E. (1970) Piaget Rediscovered.  The ESS Reader Education Development Center, Newton MA Froebel, F. (1887) The Education of Man, Appelton and Company, New York
  • Henricks, T. (2015). Play and the human condition.  Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Nell, M. & W. Drew,  (2014).  From Play to Practice: Connecting Teachers Play with Children’s Learning, NAEYC, Washington D.C.
  • Sutton-Smith, B. (2007)  Play as the survival of optimism and origination (The double 0). Paper presented at Florida AEYC Annual Conference Professional Development Day, Orlando, Florida


Please share/retweet this post! Let us know that you’re participating in this study. We’d love to hear from you about your thoughts regarding Chapter 13 and about the commentary that Dr. Drew has provided. Your voice matters – participate in the dialogue and share your ideas here! (Comment below) If you’ve chosen to blog about what you’ve read on your own site, link back and share your post with us here. Perhaps you have a burning question about something that you read in one of these chapters… we have a feature for that – Ask The Author! That’s right, Rae Pica will be available throughout this live study to answer your questions. #AskAuthor

What to read next: Chapters 8- But Competition is Human Nature, 9- Terriost Tots, and 29- You’re Outta Here! (10/5/15).

*If you’re a MN participant seeking training hours, please visit this link to access to requirements.

69 Responses to Play Is Not a Four Letter Word: Book Study Expert Commentary for Chapter 13 (Week 5)

  1. Anna Patnode says:

    Week 5 – 7/24/18
    Reading – chapter 13

    Reading chapter 13 and the blog commentary I was so challenged and encouraged! As a preschool teacher I struggle with meeting the demands of parents demanding academics and those demanding more play. I try to keep my program balanced but also try and encourage parents to see value in all our activities. Play is such a beneficial place for children to learn. I have always talked to parents about the value of play socially but after reading this chapter I’m challenged to also help parents to see the many other values of play. I can’t wait to use some of these ideas to help parents come along and to strengthen my classroom believes of play based learning activists.

  2. Nallely says:

    I loved the way this chapter teaches us how to play is not a simple word, every game that children do, they bring creativity and imagination, curiosity and whenever children use this they have weapons necessary for their development, sometimes children they follow stereotypes about how to draw for example if we tell them how to make a rose, we are not letting them use their imaging, they develop their ability to use their creativity, but we are forcing them to make a pattern. With the video it was shown that silence also helps children to perform different activities and have the mastery of playing with the materials they have on hand, allows them to express themselves in a didactic way, they explore when creating what their imagination allows them. There are many ways we can learn, but there are also parents who think that in order to teach the children we should follow a guide, and it is not, we should help them to interact with them through the game, we invite parents to go to the classroom to play with their children to share their activities with them, as well as at home, to understand that also through the game is how children learn.

  3. Liz says:

    After reading the chapter and commentary I felt inspired to continue to provide children with opportunities to use everyday materials to play. I will always remember my grandmother saying why bother buying fancy toys when you have a Tupperware cupboard. It us amazing when you watch little children engage in play. We sometimes forget that there are many skills being learned and practiced during those times of play.

  4. DeAnna Stowe says:

    Many people respond to play as being a time for fun and not learning but in reality, children learn through play. Many children learn in different environments and through different activities. Play is just another way for a child to learn due to it being a more involved and hands on method. The book states that, “Adults are so eager for their children to “act” like adults, especially since adults can’t exactly be called happy or content these days.” My question is, why would we want our children to experience being unhappy at such a young age when this is the early years for them to be joyful, happy, and playful? This is the time for them to grow and learn things other then “school” related curriculum’s.

  5. Laura Borchardt says:

    This was a very encouraging chapter for me to read being a preschool teacher. We have a large chunk of the day where the children plan out their time for play. The teachers play with them as much as possible and observe. I see the children developing before my eyes but when they parents come to pick up and their child doesn’t have any “work” to show for what they have accomplished the parents don’t know exactly what “play” means. I get a lot of smiles from parents whenever we do product art because it is cute and it is a tangible thing they can hold. I try to balance that out though so that the preschoolers have plenty of time to accomplish their goals they have set up for themselves. It helps at conference time when I can sit down with the parents for more than five minutes and walk them through the different kinds of accomplishments their child is making. I think it becomes hard for parents who are more focused on milestones and getting to the next stage of their child’s development. We as teachers have the advantage of working with the same age group for years on end and really getting a good understanding of that specific age.

  6. Judy Neldon says:

    I appreciate and wholeheartedly agree with the value of play. I currently teach in a room of Pre-Kindergarten children. Although there are planned activities throughout the day I have noticed the most intense learning takes place as they play independently with other children. Item are placed throughout the room that are meant to relate to the theme. It is most common for the children to see a totally different usd for these items. Their imaginations are amazing and should not be directed. I look forward to adding more opportunities for children to play.

  7. Brittany says:

    Yes. I think at if you ask people is play important to young children they would tell you yes. So, then was is there is disconnect between teachers and parents about how much “school” the children need to do vs how much play they can have in a day. Play is what most of my day is in my daycare. That does not mean that we do not have some group reading time or circle time. What it means is that I have purchased and arranged the room differently time to time for the children to play with the materials differently. I do not purchase many toys that have batteries or do not let the child led or change how the material is used. I think the largest place where play or letting the child freely play or create is in art projects. We have all seen the preschools and daycare centers that have these cute crafts on their doors or walls that they created right? Parents can tell how much their child really did of the project and what the teacher did for them. At my daycare, I like to show them what the project could turn out like, but I let the child led and do the creating. Yes, that does mean that each craft does not look like the other but when the child hands the craft to their parent at the end of the day. You see the child smiling and proud that they created it. That is what open ended play and child led play is all about. Letting them use their brains to learn and explore the world around them.

  8. Sherie Melchert says:

    Play is so important. It is where children learn and explore. I feel social and emotional growth are more important than pushing of academics. You children learn sharing and taking turns through role playing. We should definitely keep play in the classroom.

  9. Jill N. Walker says:

    This chapter brings my belief of exploring nature to life. I also believe that children need items that they can hold in their hands to explore, “If it has not been in their hands, it can not be in their brains.” I also found the statement about adult personality is built on the child’s play. I also wish that the public schools understood the value of recess. Recess is often withheld as a punishment in my son’s fifth grade classroom. I believe that recess equals social and free play.

  10. k says:

    Play is important for kids. It helps reduce stress, brings joy and laughter. I myself love being on a swing, it is relaxing.

  11. Morgan Hinzmann says:

    This chapter just reminded me that play is so important for children. I work in a toddler program and I loved watching our kids play on their own. I get to see and hear how they are thinking and feeling by how they interact with the toys and each other.
    It is hard for toddlers to share because the world revolves around themselves. Having time in our daily schedule for free play give the toddlers time to not only express themselves but learn different social skills, like sharing and problem solving.
    I don’t understand why we want our children to grow up so fast but then turn to our friends and family and wish for our own childhoods back.

  12. Shannon Alexander says:

    My goal as a childcare provider is to help parents understand the goal and value of play. To educate them with resources like this book and the other resources Rae Pica added at the end of each chapter. I want parents to understand that there is so much more to play. I also want to find the research studies that show “neither short-term nor long-term advantages of early academic versus play.” Also, the link that early academics causes children to have more anxiety and are less creative than their peers. I think if I have evidence to show parents these statistics it will help them understand the impact of early academics on young children. I am excited to compile research to give to parents/guardians. I was so amazed that the engagement of the students in Walter Drew’s video. Every child was fully engaged with what they were creating. It was so fun to watch! I hope I can incorporate more of that play into my childcare program.

  13. T. Enter says:

    Chapter 13, links I think very well with the first chapters we read talking about parents thinking they need structured academic filled days for theirs children. They don’t understand that by just simply playing and creating their own active is beneficial for the child. As a daycare provider, I try hard to reinforce that to parents during the interview and I don’t send home paper worksheets daily. There maybe weeks that we play vets/doctors and that is what the children are ingulfed in for hours. I will add objects or things daily to help maybe with math or a reading concept but I am not going to force them to sit at a table and do a worksheet when we are learning something as we play.

  14. Theresa says:

    I did notice right away that they kept looking at the camera and teacher to make certain that they were “doing it right”. They seem to want some indicators that they weren’t going to be told that they were doing it “wrong”. But after awhile, they did seem to relax a bit and feel free to do what they felt like doing. This brings to mind that I remember times when observing kids at play, they watch the teacher watching them out fear of reprimand for doing it “wrong”. Makes me think that may be perhaps we need to stress when observing and we are correcting behavior when they say inappropriate things to one another, we need to stress that how they are playing is fine, but what they are saying to one another or treating one another is not. But then again, I wonder if that is too much.

  15. S. Hanson says:

    I wish the value of play and free exploration was more valued. We do a fair amount of educating at our center about the value of play and what children really are learning when they are building blocks, playing dress up etc. So many people are focused on school readiness. A 3 year old doesn’t need to be ready for school! We don’t need to be drilling them on letters and number yet. We’ve also had kindergarten teachers come speak to parents about what their child really should know before school and they focused on the social emotional skills needed to be successful- listening to directions, keeping bodies to themselves, cooperation with peers as being so much more important than knowing how to write their name.

    I read an interesting blog post that has stuck with me over the years relating to this about adults interrupting the meaningful learning that was happening during play.

    “A child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum.

    An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, “How many marbles do I have?”

    The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn’t know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.”

  16. G Anderson says:

    I think I try to make a point to share with student teachers, parents, grandparents just what is happening when children are playing and all the learning that is going on….Play is a complex combination of skills that children do naturally..When we as the teachers/parents provide a variety of materials, children will take it from there-it might not be what we planned-it might be better!! Being able to touch-smell-hear-see and yes taste……provides children with real experiences to build on!

  17. Faye says:

    Chapter 13
    Kids need recess they need to be kids and play. By playing kids learn how to take turns, socialize, and problem solve. Kids need to play and have fun and not always be so overwhelmed with structure and schedules.

  18. Cheryl Thomas says:

    At our daycare we encourage recreational activities. children learn through play which helps with there social skills.

  19. Lynda Smith says:

    Too often TV and electronics are the choice of “play” for children.

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