Slow Play

By Teddy McGlynn-Wright

When I was reading about Dr. Dimitri Christakis’s research on how children learn that kicked off this post, my friend (and Tiny Trees co-conspirator) Andrew joked: maybe Charlie can start a slow play movement.  In true riffing fashion, I began to think of possible taglines, the book, the TED talk, the appearances on the morning shows.  Charlie lecturing in front of packed college theaters about the slow play movement.  Offering live demonstrations with nothing but a bunch of glued together milk cartons for props. . .and maybe a really great powerpoint courtesy of Uncle Andrew.  

What would be the principles of this slow play movement?  To borrow steal from Michael Pollen (who I mentioned in June’s post as well) I think the distilled version would be: Play a lot, mostly without screens, interact, and if you can, use blocks. I considered moving that screen part up based on the brain science research I-LABS is doing at UW but I liked the flow better this way than the alternative: “for goodness sake get your kid away from that iPad!”

What I notice about Charlie and what got me hooked on the idea of Tiny Trees in the first place was her sense of wonder, especially about the natural world.  Two days ago, we saw a large snail crawling across our gravel driveway toward a tomato plant.   For her, it was like the whole world slowed down to a snail’s pace as we simply stood and watched it point it’s little feelers out and slime its way toward the tomatoes.  Charlie asked, “does it want a leaf?” “Maybe,” I said.  So she went right out and transformed our mere field observation into a nutrition and object-interaction investigation.  We discussed what snails eat, what those things are on its head, why it carries a shell, why it may not always be a good idea to pick them up, why our neighbor (an avid gardener and horticulturalist) makes sure to keep them away.  And then we moved on to playing with rocks in the driveway.  When I used to lead backpacking trips for middle and high school boys, I would often try and get them to perceive the natural world this way.  One tactic we used was giving them a “sit spot.”  A small area for them to just sit and watch and wonder about all the things that are happening right in front of them: a worm burrowing, chipmunks dropping acorns from the trees, a grasshopper struggling up a rockface, the way the wind plays with sounds and sight.  Whatever strategies we used the basic goal was the same, get them to activate their toddler minds and access their sense of wonder.  

Slow Children at PlayWiser folks than I have written about how much they learn from their children.  Toddler style mindfulness could be misinterpreted as the definitive monkey mind going every which way and chasing thoughts given its seeming frenetic speed and free association. I would argue though, that it is also the heart of being present to the moment.  As an experiential learner and longtime meditator, being with Charlie reminds me that I can observe much more of the world when I am still and present than when I am rushing around trying to see it all.  Yes she can move from place to place quickly, but I never get the sense that she’s rushing, more like she’s following the specific inclinations of her present moment. Who needs a 10-day silent meditation retreat, or even a 3-day one when I can just follow my toddler around for an afternoon. . . OK, let’s be honest, after following Charlie around for an afternoon or two, I could use a silent meditation retreat, but you get my point.  The power of slow play isn’t just in the way it nurtures creativity and healthy brain development. It’s in the practice of experiencing the real world in real time at a time when increasingly we’re asked to move and think and work faster.

But what’s the value of slowing down for Charlie? Here is where Dr. Dimitri Christaki of Children’s Hospital & UW comes in. According to his research slow play helps the brain learn in real time, preventing over stimulation and giving lessons a chance to fully imprint in a child’s mind.

In his studies he has found that a child in America spends a third of their day in front of a screen…

“In research we’ve done, the typical preschool child in the United States watches about four and a half hours of television a day and they’re only awake for about 12 hours a day. So somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of their time is spent in front of a screen, [raising] the question of, What are they not doing that they would otherwise be doing? What activities are being displaced? And much of those activities are traditional means of interacting with the environment and with adults. And blocks are a classic example of that.”

… and that this screen time has a negative impact on brain development (which is why pediatricians recommend no TV for children under 2)…

“Watching such fast-paced programs diminishes what we call ‘executive function’ immediately afterwards. Things like, remembering sequences of numbers which requires you to concentrate. We see that after watching fast-paced shows, children don’t function as well. We don’t see that with things like block play, reading or drawing. All of which happen in real time.”

I get it, TV for kids is a no-no but in a modern world that is all about more screens, shorter camera shots and the mighty myth of multitasking and where TV makes a convenient baby sitter for time- and cash-strapped parents, going screen free can be tough. Commonly I feel like I am living in a world actively conspiring to get me away from my sense of wonder, especially in regarding the the natural world. So here’s what I see as the counter-conspiracy, let me know what you think:

Slow play.

  • Play in real time – no screens, hands on
  • Use basic toys – the simpler the better- look for toys in the recycle bin, use wooden blocks, cardboard boxes, pieces of wood, simple tools.
  • Play with others
  • Play outside
2 Comments
  • Victoria Blue
    Posted at 21:10h, 03 September

    Slow play is as valuable as the “pause” aka “think time” after a question is asked in school. Slow play counters the “hurried” (and harried) child. Modeling “slow” in our lives is the best teacher. Just moments of being in relationship with self, others, and the natural world. Observing in the now. Complete presence – peaceful awareness. If we believe in slow play for children, we must intentionally emulate it as adults – gifting ourselves that “pause” from the many enticing distractors. Perhaps we could all benefit from a 30- day challenge, e.g. tech disconnect. and engaging in slow play once a day. As adults, we are the change we’d like to see for our children.

    • Tiny Trees
      Posted at 09:55h, 04 September

      Thanks for sharing! I agree, the pause is important. It gives time for someone to reflect on what was said or experienced and to digest the lesson or learning being offered. It also just sounds downright more comfortable as an adult, less anxiety, less stress.