Tag Archives: problem solving

Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

throwback 300x201 Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

Andrea and I back in the day wishing BinaryArts (ThinkFun’s original name) good luck at its launch.

Hello World! This is my debut post on the SmartPlay.com blog, so I figured I’d take a moment to introduce myself, share a little bit about what inspires me, and set some intentions about what you can expect from my posts moving forward.

A Little About Me

Some of you may know me as the CEO and Co-Founder of Thinkfun, the world’s leader in addictively fun games that build 21st century thinking skills through play. But I’m guessing that most of you may not know WHY I got into the game industry.
My lovely and inspiring wife, Andrea Barthello, and I founded ThinkFun on a dream. We wanted to change the world by translating the brilliant ideas of the craziest mathematicians, engineers and inventors into simple toys that could be appreciated by children of all ages. This was way back in 1985, and our name back then was BinaryArts (see our throwback photo that accompanies this post for visual aid).

In 2003, we changed our name from Binary Arts to ThinkFun and updated our mission to focus on the learning-through-play perspective. But not that much has changed since then. We still want to change the world, we just want to do it through play.

Lately, what I’m really enjoying is just how organically our newest games support some of the forward-thinking philosophies and curricula of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and STEAM (Science & Technology interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements) communities. If you don’t know much about these organizations yet, take a look at this video from Georgette Yakman, Founder/Teacher of STEAM.

A Little About Robot Turtles

So how does ThinkFun pay off our claim to ignite minds through play? Let’s take Robot Turtles as an example. The game sneakily teaches programming fundamentals to kids ages 3 and up and is the perfect expression of ThinkFun’s mission.

Robot Turtles players learn how to break one big problem into small steps, to think ahead, to work backwards, to look for patterns and to keep trying to fix their “bugs.”
 Playing is a lot like coding because:
• When a child lays down her cards, she is writing code.
• When a child rearranges his cards to fix what didn’t work, he is debugging.
• When a child discusses her strategy, she is commenting her code.
• When a child asks a parent to move the Turtle, he is running a program.
• When a child plays a Function Frog, she is executing a subroutine or a function.

I want to dive deeper into the mechanics here, but I’ll just share this 20 second video on how to play Robot Turtles instead, and wait until next week’s post to unpack the topic further.


A Little About What to Expect as the Blog Evolves

I plan on writing about once a week from now on, focusing on my take on the whacky world of creativity, problem solving and any general out-of-the-box thinking. I REALLY want to hear from you all as time goes on. What do you want to hear more about? What should I shut up about?

I’ll also reach out to some friends and colleagues to guest blog for me on these subjects from time to time, and I’ll do some “Greatest Hits” posts that bundle up a few of the fantastic posts from my SmartPlay blog predecessor, Charlotte Fixler.

Onward!

Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

blogPic 236x300 Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

Thinking Skills: Sigmund Freud Meets Apple Pie

For years I have been ranting about the American education system, how murky and ill prepared it is to consider new ideas. I gave a TEDx talk about this in 2012: one of my slides was a cartoon I had made to describe how profoundly confused the situation is.

Don’t worry if you don’t get this cartoon… you’re not supposed to. The idea is that it’s an enigma… something so ingrained you’re not sure if you are allowed to think that you don’t understand it.

The biggest thing gnawing at me the past few years has been the “HOW” question… this is such an important topic, how could things have gotten to be this way?

And so I was very happy to find the answer lurking inside an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, about Bill Gates and the new Common Core education standards.

Says Gates: “The funding, in general, of what works in education… is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. … As a result, there is a paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.”

So why is it that I’ve had these murky, queasy feelings about education? Because it turns out the American Education system has the lowest R&D funding of any field of human endeavor! This starts to make sense now.

OK then… with this post I’ve dug a little bit into what the problem is. Next look for some solution ideas.

And do read the Washington Post piece. It turns out that Gates is using his millions to rebuild the entire USA education system, makes for a fascinating and revealing read.

William and the Windmill

I have shared several posts on the incredible William Kamkwamba, also known as the Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and I’m thrilled to share the next chapter in his amazing story.

 William and the Windmill

A young innovator from Malawi who taught himself to generate electricity by building a windmill from found materials and scrap parts, William embodies what it means to be a problem solver – resourceful, creative, and pioneering in his vision and drive.

william and the windmill 510x755 William and the Windmill

On Sunday, a new documentary William and the Windmill will have its world premiere at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.  This film from director Ben Nabors details both his original story and his subsequent brush with fame (click here for more) – I can’t wait to see it! You can see the movie’s trailer below:

 

Manipulatives Make Math Meaningful! (say that 3 times fast!)

Several months ago at the TED Conference I received a $100 certificate to Donor’s Choose to help fund a project for a school community in need.

donors choose photo 300x225 Manipulatives Make Math Meaningful! (say that 3 times fast!)

With so many worthy projects to consider, I ultimately settled on one called Problem Solving Produces Productive Citizens.  This 3rd grade teacher in a high poverty community in rural Kansas was looking for manipulatives, puzzles, and games to give her young learners hands-on math experiences.  Her description of the ways in which she sees hands-on learning translate to invaluable life-long thinking critical thinking and problem solving skills resonates so strongly with me and the work I do at ThinkFun!

Ms. Sutton writes, “Kids who can solve problems grow up to be adults who can solve problems and choose their destiny. The resources that I am requesting (manipulatives, puzzles, money, etc.) will provide with hands-on practice during rotating center time to develop this ability, empowering my students to thrive in the real world, confidently looking within themselves for answers rather than to me or other authority figures. Such students can and will shape their own futures.

Problem solving is a hard concept for children to grasp. If children can be presented problem solving activities in an hands-on daily approach, then it will allow them to work through everyday problems and internalize the skills they need to use to do this regularly.”

donors choose photo2 300x225 Manipulatives Make Math Meaningful! (say that 3 times fast!)

Clearly this project struck a chord with several other donors as well, and I’m thrilled to see it was fully funded and then some!  I recently received photos and a Thank You package from Ms. Sutton’s grateful 3rd graders and wanted to share a few of their sweet notes!

donors choose1DOC 300x231 Manipulatives Make Math Meaningful! (say that 3 times fast!)

donors choose2DOC 300x231 Manipulatives Make Math Meaningful! (say that 3 times fast!)

Thanks to Donor’s Choose for helping bring problem solving to life – and to TED for the funds to donate!

Building Game Play into the School Day

The following guest post is by Sherry Olfert, a middle school math and science teacher in Abbotsford, British Columbia.  The other day, I received an email from Sherry, writing to share her excitement in discovering ThinkFun’s free printable resources online!  Sherry was excited to use these resources with her students , and when I asked her to share how she uses games in the classroom, she had this to say:

ts birchviewdunes 284x300 Building Game Play into the School Day

I love to use math games and puzzles in the classroom, whether they be logic, brainteaser, visual, manipulative, strategy, easy, challenging, competitive, cooperative, single, group …  I regard them as an essential component to my math and science curriculum, but also beneficial to their oral language requirements, social responsibility objectives, and work habits development.

I use games and puzzles as warm-ups, closers, energizers, breaks from routine, and rewards. But I also, perhaps more significantly, plan at least one block per week of Math Games class where I lead a game or set of games. Sometimes they play that same game the whole class, other times they mingle freely between a variety games or rotate game stations at a signal.

Games time keeps them in pairs or small groups for structured interactions, and while they feel liberated because they’re playing games, there’s always a clear purpose with clear criteria for reaching that goal. Through games and puzzles they exercise and develop their brain in ways that cannot be simulated (at least at their age) otherwise, safely.

The students learn to problem solve, to work respectfully with others, to follow instructions and rules, to care for materials, and to record their thinking. They also learn how to persevere and keep puzzling even when it’s challenging. And they learn to play a game or puzzle over and over again (often with different partners), to develop better strategy rather than play each game just once.

My students rarely have “free time”. Instead, they have Game Time. It may be spontaneous or planned, noisy or quiet, but it’s definitely highly educational!

How do you use games to encourage deeper thinking and problem solving, whether at home or in the classroom?!

Puzzle Piazza Summer Camp… a game lover’s dream!

Last summer I spent a fabulous day at camp – Puzzle Piazza camp that is!  The MathTree Puzzle Piazza program is a super fun DC-area summer camp that uses ThinkFun puzzles and games like Rush Hour to teach problem solving strategies through play… a game lovers dream!  In the following guest post, MathTree founder Lynn Salvo shares her lifelong love of puzzles and her mission to empower kids with thinking tools learned through the joy of play!

Lynn Salvo 150x150 Puzzle Piazza Summer Camp... a game lovers dream!

moz screenshot Puzzle Piazza Summer Camp... a game lovers dream!

PUZZLE PIAZZA:

A SUMMER CAMP THAT USES PUZZLES TO TEACH PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

I am 7 years old.  My family has just enjoyed a delicious dinner of Chinese food at Jimmy Wu’s in downtown Baltimore.  We are at the cash register waiting to pay.  I am eye level with a showcase lined with red silk, beautifully and mysteriously lit, displaying lovely wooden barrels, spheres, cubes, and other objects.  This particular day, I am entranced with a w ooden Chinese gate that I can see is made of many interlocking pieces.  When it is time to go and I cannot unglue my eyes from it, my dad, an engineer who intuits my intrigue with it, buys it for me.  It is to be the first of a lifelong collection of puzzles.

At home, I fiddle with it and gently twist a knobby piece.  Suddenly, the entire structure crumbles into an incoherent puddle, dissembled as if it had been shaken apart by an earthquake.  Initially aghast, my puzzle-solving passion is born as I try to reconstruct the lovely wooden gate.  As the puzzle is well beyond my abilities at that age, it takes some intervention from my engineer dad to interpret the cryptic solution printed on delicate rice paper.  Once reassembled, the wooden gate came apart and went back together so many times that I could eventually do it effortlessly by heart.  While I didn’t figure out the solution myself, I did have the satisfaction of being able to “get” the mysterious object.

Now, more than half a century later, my intrigue with puzzles is sharper than ever and has taken a new twist.  I’ve turned it into a deliberate experience for children called Puzzle Piazza – A Problem-Solving Picnic for Kids.

 

 

The focus of the camp is to provide children the opportunity, through puzzle play, to develop and capture general problem-solving strategies that work for puzzles and also for life.  The campers work puzzles, mostly 3-D ones like the one that captivated me so long ago, some easy and some extremely challenging.  No matter the complexity of the puzzle, at some point the solver has an Aha moment that reveals the solution.  Instead of rushing on to the next puzzle, we have the campers stop for a few moments and think about what led them to that magical Aha moment and to record a journal entry on their puzzle experience.

The journal entry is short. Prompts help the children record notes, sometimes drawing the puzzle and their solution to it.  Often, campers need to solve the puzzle again to answer the questions, but this helps them capture their process and facilitates their recognition of that important Aha moment.

For younger campers, thinking about thinking can be a difficult activity.  We prompt them with questions like, “If you were going to give me a hint on how to solve this puzzle, what would you tell me?”  This one question seems to open their thought process and helps them start to see the strategies they have used.  Campers learn to solve puzzles with intention and to develop persistence, qualities beneficial for many types of learning and problem-solving.  Over a period of days, a camper can work many puzzles and have many Aha moments that result in discovery and deep learning.   By the end of their experience, they have accumulated a basketful of general problem-solving strategies applicable to puzzles, math, school, and life.  Introducing your child to problem solving early on will help him or her become a better thinker all around (or a puzzle aficionado like me).

In the DC-area and looking for a fun, brain-building summer activity? Learn more about the MathTree Puzzle Piazza summer program!

TED 2011 – Isabel Behncke: Evolution’s gift of play

“Play is the glue that binds us together... Play is our adaptive wild card in order to adapt successfully to a changing world…. will we make the most of our playfulness?  Play is not frivolous, play is essential.”

Bonobos 300x216 TED 2011   Isabel Behncke: Evolutions gift of play

Primatologist and TED Fellow Isabel Behncke Izquierdo shows how a wild bonobo ape society in the Congo learns from constantly playing.   Play appears to be the bonobos’ key to problem-solving, creativity, forming connections, and avoiding conflict.   If it works for our close cousins, why not for us?

The Case for Play

Came across a fantastic article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I just had to share.  This piece details the challenges that educators, researchers, and parents face today as free play is squeezed out of kids’ academic lives, marginalized by test-driven curricula, and pushed aside in favor of over-scheduled “downtime” by well-meaning adults seeking to give their kids a leg up.  The power of play cannot be overstated, and I particularly appreciated one of the comments in response:

BStevens: “This is kind of like discovering that people who eat live longer than people who don’t eat. I have a PhD, but I would say that 90% of the most useful things I know I learned either from my parents at home, my siblings, or from “free play” both as a child and as a grown-up.”

February 20, 2011

The Case for Play: How a handful of researchers are trying to save childhood.

By Tom Bartlett

Lucas Sherman and Aniyah McKenzie are building a house in Central Park. It is small, even by Manhattan standards, and the amenities leave something to be desired. But Lucas, who is 6, and Aniyah, who is 7, seem pleased with their handiwork. The house has a skylight (a hole torn in cardboard) and a flat-screen television (a black square of fabric). Lucas is too busy to answer a stranger’s annoying questions, but Aniyah, who is holding a feather duster, explains that she must clean the walls because they are very dirty.

Lucas’s father, Dan, observes the project from a nearby bench. “It’s amazing what you can do with boxes and junk,” he says.

photo 10230 portrait wide The Case for Play

Pretend play—being a chef "cooking" with Play-Doh, for example—may be essential to children's development, say some researchers.

Lucas Sherman and Aniyah McKenzie are building a house in Central Park. It is small, even by Manhattan standards, and the amenities leave something to be desired. But Lucas, who is 6, and Aniyah, who is 7, seem pleased with their handiwork. The house has a skylight (a hole torn in cardboard) and a flat-screen television (a black square of fabric). Lucas is too busy to answer a stranger’s annoying questions, but Aniyah, who is holding a feather duster, explains that she must clean the walls because they are very dirty.

Lucas’s father, Dan, observes the project from a nearby bench. “It’s amazing what you can do with boxes and junk,” he says.

That could almost be the slogan of the New York Coalition for Play, which provided the boxes and junk. The nonprofit association ran one of the two dozen booths at the Ultimate Block Party, an event last fall that brought together companies like Disney, Crayola, and Lego, along with researchers from Columbia and MIT, and attracted thousands of parents and children. The goal was to “celebrate the science of play” and to push back against the notion that education happens only when students are seated at their desks, staring at chalkboards, and scribbling furiously in their notebooks.

The rally of sorts was the brainchild of two top play researchers, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (Rodale, 2003) and editors, along with Dorothy Singer, of Play=Learning (Oxford University Press, 2006). They want to take what they’ve learned in the lab and proclaim it in the park, or wherever else people will listen. The message is this: The emphasis on standardized testing, on attempting to constantly monitor, measure, and quantify what students learn, has forced teachers to spend more of the school day engaged in so-called direct instruction and has substantially reduced or eliminated opportunities that children have for exploring, interacting, and learning on their own. Recess has, in many districts, vanished from the schedule entirely. After school, parents shuttle their kids from activity to activity, depriving them of unstructured time alone or with friends.

That matters, according to researchers, not just because play reduces stress and makes children more socially competent—which evidence suggests that it does. It matters also because play supposedly improves working memory and self-regulation; in other words, it makes kids sharper and better-behaved. So, ironically, by shortchanging them on play in favor of academics, we may actually be inhibiting their development. Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, considers the move away from play to be a crisis, even comparing it to global warming, in the sense that it may take years for the consequences to be felt. When it comes to the value of play, she declares: “The science is clear.”

But how clear is it? Even researchers who’ve devoted much of their careers to studying play question the more inflated claims of its importance. Within the world of those who take play seriously, there are multiple camps, each with its own dearly held tenets. There are the Free Players, who argue that play is a human right and that adults should more or less leave kids alone. There are the Play Skeptics, who see play as useful for blowing off steam but are dubious about its cognitive upside. And there are Play Moderates, who advocate a mix of free play, adult-guided play, and traditional classroom instruction. No matter whom you’re talking with, though, it seems every discussion about play eventually comes around to a prolific Russian psychologist who died more than 75 years ago.

Before tuberculosis claimed him, at just 37, Lev Vygotsky managed to produce a stack of volumes on topics as diverse as the psychology of art, the relationship between thought and language, the problem of consciousness, the behavior of primitive man, scientific language, and child development. While the amount of work he cranked out is notable in itself, what’s more impressive is how influential that work has become, even though much of it remained unpublished and untranslated for decades following his death.

For play researchers, no one looms larger than Vygotsky, whose name, along with that of his longer-lived and better-known contemporary, Jean Piaget, pops up on seemingly every other page of the literature. Vygotsky viewed play, particularly pretend play, as a critical part of childhood, allowing a child, as he said in one oft-repeated quote, to stand “a head taller than himself.” His biggest theoretical contribution may have been the Zone of Proximal Development: the idea that children are capable of a range of achievement during each stage of their lives. In the right environment, and with the right guidance (which was later dubbed “scaffolding”), children can perform at the top of that range.

For instance, Vygotsky explained, when a child can pretend that a broomstick is a horse, he or she is able to separate the object from the symbol. A broom is not a horse, but it’s possible to call a broom a horse, and even to pretend to ride it. That ability to think abstractly is a huge mental leap forward, and play can make it happen.

Among the many who have been influenced by Vygotsky is Deborah J. Leong, the author, along with Elena Bodrova, of Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education, an attempt to turn his theories into practical classroom techniques. Leong, a professor emerita of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, points out that when young children are pretending, they often use bigger words than they normally would and fully inhabit their roles, like mini Method actors. If they’re playing doctor, for instance, they might say “injection” or “thermometer.” Recently she watched a group of preschoolers pretending to work at a well-known chain hardware store. “Welcome to Home Depot,” a 4-year-old said. “You can do it, we can help.” Meanwhile another group of children, who were pretending to be airport screeners, informed a would-be passenger that a bottle she was carrying was larger than the permitted three ounces.

Pretend play isn’t just about vocabulary. A 2007 study published in Science looked at how 4- and 5-year-olds who were enrolled in a school that used the play-based, Vygotsky-inspired Tools of the Mind curriculum measured up to children in a more typical preschool. The students in the play-based school scored better on cognitive flexibility, self-control, and working memory—attributes of “executive function,” which has been consistently linked to academic achievement. The results were so convincing that the experiment was halted earlier than planned so that children in the typical preschool could be switched to the Tools of the Mind curriculum. The authors conclude: “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential.”

With evidence like that, you might think that the kind of guided pretend play that Vygotsky favored would be universally embraced. In fact, according to Leong, it’s fast disappearing, as the idea of learning becomes synonymous with memorization and standardized tests. Play is steadily losing out to what play proponents refer to as the “drill and kill” method. “We drill more because they can’t pay attention, but they can’t pay attention because they don’t have these underlying play skills, so we drill more,” Leong says. “It’s pathetic.”

Not to mention misguided, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Whether children play enough isn’t an obscure debate among developmental psychologists. If it’s true that children who spend too little time playing struggle with executive function, then we may be raising a generation of kids with less self-control, shorter attention spans, and poorer memory skills. If that really is the case, Hirsh-Pasek’s talk about a crisis isn’t so far-fetched.

She sees the Ultimate Block Party as the first step in a national effort to get people to stop dismissing play and start questioning the way we assume children learn. She wants to speak directly to parents, most of whom aren’t poring over every issue of Child Development for the latest research on play. The goal, in a sound bite, is to take that research “into the streets, subways, and supermarkets.”

It’s not every day that an academic stages a spectacle in Central Park to bring attention to what is, honestly, a fairly small field of research. To pull it off, Hirsh-Pasek hired a public-relations agency and drummed up big-name corporate sponsors. There was a Sesame Street sing-a-long, what was billed as “New York’s Largest Simon Says,” and a Radio Disney Dance Party. A small company called Ridemakerz hawked its build-your-own remote-control cars. Not to mention the guy selling a nifty iPhone app that lets you play a technologically enhanced game of hide-and-seek using the smartphone’s GPS capability.

There were also decidedly less-profit-driven booths, like the one run by the New York Coalition for Play. Rather than whiz-bang gadgets, they offered cardboard boxes and tubes, lots of fabric, ribbon, empty wine crates, and assorted items that would otherwise be found in a recycling bin. One of those overseeing the booth was Edward Miller, a senior researcher at the nonprofit group Alliance for Childhood, part of whose mission is to promote creative play. When asked what he thought of the Ridemakerz booth just a few yards away, he couldn’t help rolling his eyes. “We’re also concerned about the overcommercialization of play,” he said. “The right answer is less programming and more opportunities for kids to make up things on their own.”

Hirsh-Pasek is well aware that play purists look askance at including corporations in the pro-play campaign. Those who take a hard line on free play—that is, giving children basic materials like boxes and fabric and then leaving them alone—have zero use for Nickelodeon kid bands and pricey remote-control cars, which they see as just more ways for adults to get in the way. What she has in mind is a big tent, one that doesn’t exclude fancy toys or snappy musical productions. Nor does she have much patience for advocates who claim that the only valuable play is the kind that doesn’t involve anyone over 18. She wants kids to play on their own, sure, but she also wants them to engage in more guided play, where an adult or older child can take part.

There’s research to back her up. A study she recently submitted for publication gave blocks to children divided into three groups. In one group, the blocks had already been assembled into a heliport. A second group was given blocks, and adults helped the children follow directions to build a heliport. A third group was given blocks and told to do whatever it wanted. The researchers then listened to the language children were using as they played. Those who were building a heliport with an adult used the most imaginative and spatial language (like “below,” “on top,” “next to”); the kids who were playing with the preassembled heliport used the least.

While she’s no purist, Hirsh-Pasek is suspicious of some of the toys that purport to be educational. The title of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (subtitled How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less) is an apparent slap at the Disney-owned Baby Einstein company. She also cites research that shows that electronic books for kids, the kind that talk and make noises, actually distract young readers: Kids who read them remember less of the narrative than kids who read the story on old-fashioned paper. What’s more, Hirsh-Pasek says, she turned down millions of dollars from a corporate sponsor (which she declines to identify) that requested the right to name the Ultimate Block Party.

In many ways, she is placing herself in the middle. She’s not trying to run toy companies out of business, but she is willing to criticize products that do more harm than good. She’s not attempting to tear down traditional classroom education, but she is pushing hard for more play in schools obsessed with testing. To that end, she’s working to make the research on play palatable for teachers and parents.

How good that research is, though, is a matter of debate. Peter K. Smith began studying play in the mid-1970s. At the time, he was a believer in the “play ethos,” which he defines in his recent book, Children and Play, as the “very strong and unquestioned view of the importance of play.” In that book, he quotes numerous researchers waxing enthusiastic about play’s importance, asserting that it is “vital” and “the work of childhood” and “the supreme psychological need.”

Later, Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of London, became a skeptic. “I looked at the textbooks of play” from Piaget forward, he says. “They said play is essential for development, that it enhanced this and this, and that and that, but they don’t cite any evidence.” So he decided to take a closer look. In the late 1980s, he picked a couple of studies that claimed to demonstrate the benefits of play. In one study, researchers had found that playing with small objects helped young children learn how to solve problems. Another showed that play made kids more creative. Smith replicated both using a double-blind procedure to eliminate any potential research bias.

His findings showed no difference in creativity or problem-solving ability between the kids who played and those who didn’t. It was a setback for play advocates and made researchers wonder whether the field was based on science or sentimental hype.

More than two decades after Smith’s debunking, researchers like Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, are still raising some of the same questions. “I think if you look hard at all the studies people cite as showing that play helps development, they are either correlation studies”—in other words, they don’t prove that play actually causes cognitive gains—”or they have problems,” she says.

Not that Lillard, or Smith, for that matter, is antiplay. Lillard is the author of the best-selling book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius and has written about the possible links between pretend play and social cognition. She does, however, believe that the field is in need of newer and better research. “My own view is that I would like for us to have firmer footing to stand on,” she says.

But while scientific support for play can be overstated, sometimes the criticism of play can be unfounded. Last September, Time magazine published an article with the headline “Free Play Won’t Make Your Child Smarter.” The article was prompted by a study that looked at how 2,751 preschoolers fared in programs with a variety of approaches, including free play and traditional group instruction. That study concluded that “more quality instructional time” and “less free play time” would better prepare kids for school.

But the study’s case against play in school isn’t entirely persuasive. It’s true that the kids who spent the largest chunk of their school day (41 percent) engaged in free play were behind their counterparts on skills like naming letters, naming numbers, and writing their names. But those who spent 29 percent of their time in teacher-guided play actually performed at the same level as the kids who played much less (only 13 to 15 percent of the time) when it came to naming numbers, highest number counted, language and literacy, word and letter identification, and writing their names legibly. In short, they played twice as much but learned the same amount. One of the authors of the report, Nina Chien, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego, acknowledges in an e-mail that this was proof “that kids can play a lot but still make good gains.”

More interesting is what the researchers didn’t test. Did the children who played more demonstrate higher levels of self-control and better working memory, as other research suggests they would? If so, did they outperform the kids—preschoolers, remember—who spent 15 percent or less of their time playing? Is being smart a race to see who can memorize the most, or is it about developing capacities to deal with a complex world?

While much of the research on play focuses on young children, the implications go well beyond third grade. In junior high, play is more likely to be called “discovery learning.” When professors try to get college students to look up from their iPhones, it’s probably referred to as “active engagement.” But the principles are the same. Stuart Brown, one of the authors of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, has reviewed thousands of life histories and concluded that play is essential for children and adults. He’s intent on spreading that gospel through his organization, the National Institute for Play, whose mission is to make human play a “credentialed discipline in the scientific community.”

And it’s not just people. That nonhuman primates engage in sophisticated play has been thoroughly established, and anyone who has dangled a string in front of a cat has conducted animal research. In his book The Genesis of Animal Play, Gordon Burghardt, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, reports playful behavior in lizards, turtles, and birds. Even fish have been known to amuse themselves.

For Hirsh-Pasek, the universality of play is part of the evidence of its value. Why would we do it if it didn’t confer an evolutionary advantage? She concedes that some of the play research is more suggestive than slam-dunk, and that cleaner, stronger studies would be welcome. But she also argues that we already know enough to conclude that play matters, and that failing to preserve it in the lives of children could be a disaster.

She’s doing her part to stave that off. Hirsh-Pasek says 40 cities have expressed interest in holding their own Ultimate Block Parties. She and her colleagues will soon unveil a Web site to promote play research, and more books are on the way. Their goal, she says, is to restore play to its rightful, respected place in the lives of children. “Even if we don’t understand it perfectly, it’s silly to take play away from society,” she says. “It’s like taking love away. It’s crazy.”

 

Resource: Here is a great link for parents and professionals interested in studying the psychological effects of children learning in unconventional environments.

Playing Games with Problem Solving!

The following post is by Dawn Morris, whose blog Moms Inspire Learning focuses on resources and strategies to inspire lifelong learning, reading, and leading.  A former CPA, Dawn changed careers and earned an M.A. in Childhood Education and now shares her passion for teaching kids to embrace a lifelong love of learning!

The following is an excerpt from Dawn’s recent post on problem solving games.  Read her complete article here!

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Sometimes, it amazes me how much out-of-the-box thinking can be packaged inside one game box.

Even if you just have a deck of cards, there are probably millions of different games which can be played – not to mention ones you think up on your own. It doesn’t matter which one you play, as long as you do take time out to play it!  Just as my daughter started to cook on her own, children will eventually start to play games on their own as well.

We love to play all kinds of board and card games together.  And we’ve done that ever since they were toddlers, really. There are games out there for all ages. It doesn’t matter what kind of game it is, as long as it’s unplugged. Video games can be educational too, but we have to limit them like any other form of screen time.

As my sister-in-law is a very busy mom of three, I’m always on the lookout for toys, games, and books which will make her life a little easier.  So, wanting similar gifts for my 8 year old twin nephews, I ended up purchasing  Chocolate Fix Playing Games with Problem Solving! and Rush Hour Playing Games with Problem Solving!. They’re geared to children over the age of 8, but people of all ages will love the challenge of them, as there are 4 levels of play.

Before I tell you just a little bit about each of these games, let me just tell you I love most about them: they can be played independently, or with a partner, AND they’re portable and can be played anywhere – even in the car! What a great, unplugged way to keep children (and even teens) entertained and busy while you do something else.

 Playing Games with Problem Solving! Chocolate Fix comes with 9 “chocolates,” a little notebook of different patterns to solve (kind of like Sudoku, but with colors and shapes), a game tray, and a bag to store it all in. As long as there aren’t any toddlers around, who might actually try to eat the chocolates, it’s a great game to leave out on the coffee table or in your car. Whenever a family member has a spare ten minutes, like when a child is waiting for you to finish something, what a great way to sneak a little fun and problem solving in there!

The same goes for the award winning Rush Hour, only there are individual cards instead of a notebook, and there are 16 cars and trucks, instead of chocolates. This game is a little different, though, in that you arrange the trucks on the game board according to the cards (from beginner to expert). Then, you have to find a way to get the red car out of traffic. It’s literally stuck between the other cars, and you have to move them around (forward and backward only) to clear a path. What a great way to keep children busy while you’re stuck in traffic!  ThinkFun Rush Hour Jr. Playing Games with Problem Solving! is available for even younger children.

 Playing Games with Problem Solving!Recently, ThinkFun was kind enough to send me their newest game, ThinkFun Solitaire Chess Playing Games with Problem Solving!, for review. If you’re thinking about teaching your child to how to play chess, this is the game for you!  It’s also a one player game, and you have to know how each piece moves. If you don’t already know how, it’s great practice.

Like Rush Hour and Chocolate Fix, Solitaire Chess is all about the problem solving. As a matter of fact, when we first opened up the box, it was a challenge just to figure out how to get the mats out of the game tray! They were in there snugly.

The game tray is set up like a mini Chess board, and each mat has a different combination of pieces for you to set up. The object is to capture pieces until you’re left with just one. Which one you choose to move first makes all the difference. Whether you use the “guess and check” method and just start moving pieces, or you move the pieces around in your mind before you actually move one, it’s a great exercise in spatial perception, critical thinking, and logic.

I really enjoyed playing all three of these games, as did other members of our family. They’re perfect for busy families, and can challenge people of every age. Whether you leave one out on your coffee table, or in the car, you can set it up and play within seconds.

So, the next time your child says, “Are we there yet?” or “There’s nothing to do” and you need a few more minutes of alone time, one of these games might just solve your problem.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Jump Start Creative Thinking with Brainteasers!

In many classrooms, the day begins with “Morning Work,” an assigned activity to kick start the day.  I don’t know about you, but “Morning Work” doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting way to dive into the day.  Think about tweaking your terminology and see the response you get when “work” time is transformed into a Thinker’s Paradise!

Looking for ways to ignite your students’ minds in the morning?  Get their brains in gear with a fun brainteaser challenge!  Here’s a great example that would work well for a 4th Grade classroom:

Stacking the Dice Puzzle

StackingTheDicePuzzle 300x226 Jump Start Creative Thinking with Brainteasers!

Suppose seven dice are stacked as shown, and you can see all the exposed faces, including the Back view shown in the upper right corner.  Find the sum of the pips (black dots) on the hidden faces of the dice.

Bonus fun fact: The dots on a die are officially called “pips”

Want more?  Here is a fantastic collection of brainteasers sorted by grade that work well as solo or collaborative warm-up exercises in the classroom!  Once your students have completed several, have them create their own modified versions and challenge one another!

How do YOUR students begin their day in the classroom?  What do you call this time?  Please share your ideas by commenting here!