How Play Environments Assist Mother–Infant Interactive Behavior

Expression swing image: Gametime
Expression swing
image: Gametime

The process by which a child enters the world is a truly fathomless miracle. On three occasions I have personally witnessed this amazing process as a child gasps for its first breath, declares its first cry of dissatisfaction, and opens its eyes for the first time to gaze into its mother’s eyes. Of all the crazy things that happen during the whirlwind of childbirth, the moments just mentioned create the most vivid and resonant memories. I stood by as an apparent bystander and watched as mother and child formed unique bonds through mutual gazing that perhaps none of us can truly understand or comprehend. As I watch my three children continue to grow and develop, I often notice this same mesmerizing gaze occur with their mother during moments of quiet calm, active play, and even when miserable, cuddled close trying to fight off a cold. This interactive relationship, referred to as “affect attunement,” developed between a mother and child, is real and seemingly palpable. This article will discuss the science behind this mother-child connection and offer examples of how the play environment can be altered to facilitate important mother-child interaction.

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2015 Annual Meeting Highlights

Educational presentations at the Children's Outdoor Environments PPN meeting. image: Chad Kennedy
Educational presentations at the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN meeting.
image: Chad Kennedy

If you missed the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN meeting at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Chicago, you missed a fantastic meeting that rivaled many of the education sessions in value and content. As has been the trend in recent years, meeting attendance exceeded that of past years and presentations have never been better. This year’s meeting began with a surprise mini-birthday celebration for Nilda Cosco, PhD, Affiliate ASLA. She and Robin Moore, Hon. ASLA, were kind enough to make the trip to join us over her birthday weekend, so we took that opportunity to show our appreciation by singing happy birthday and presenting her with a cupcake and birthday crown.

Short Presentations: 

After this brief introduction, the meeting began with presentations by four fantastic speakers on a variety of children’s open space topics ranging from public engagement of youth, to research projects, and even to controversial topics like risk in the play environment. Below is a list of the speakers and the specific topics each of them addressed. The presentations used by each of the speakers can be found on our PPN Resources page for those interested in learning more about what was shared.

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The Role of Interoception in Play and Recreation

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

This year, my kindergarten age son is learning about the five senses. His excitement for learning is nothing short of contagious as he analyzes daily interactions with the world based on which senses he is using. He correctly notices that an interaction with a tablet requires sight and touch and that his morning cereal feast results in taste and touch sensations.

At times, however, he is confused about which sensory system to attribute certain sensations. After an epic living room floor tickle battle he can correctly note that our laughter is attributed to the auditory sense but cannot quite describe the tickling sensation or his need for water. This may be attributed, in part, to a lack of recognition by society and elementary age educational programs that there are additional sensory systems beyond the typical five.

Sensory systems which help us understand our bodies and the environment include the vestibular (balance & pressure), proprioceptive (spatial understanding) and interoceptive (internal organ) sensory systems. These systems are just as real and important as the traditional five, but receive much less attention. As past articles I have written focused on the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, this article will focus specifically on interoception and how it relates to play and recreational environments.

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Combating Obesity Through Play

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

As I observe young toddlers playing in the park, at their homes, or at school, I often contemplate their seemingly innate need to run from one activity to the next. Despite the fact that they trip, fall, break and bang into things, running is the preferred method of transition, regardless of the activity or endeavor. How many knees are scraped, glasses of milk spilt, and cranial contusions occur each day because of this reckless behavior? It is almost physically draining to watch as an observer!

An attentive onlooker, however, might learn a thing or two from this unlearned drive to engage in physical vigor. If toddlers only continued to engage in similar forms of vigorous movement as they grew into adolescence and adulthood, the issues of obesity and lack of physical health that face our society today would certainly not exist. The reality is however, that most of us slow down as we age, finding it more of a burden than an advantage to exert a toddler-like level of energy, often leading to less than healthy weight and activity levels. This leads to several questions. How big of an issue is obesity in the United States? Are there ways to combat the obesity trend by keeping children interested in active behaviors as they grow older? What can parents do to help?

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Cozy Spaces & Restful Play

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood forms of play by society is the rest period between active play periods. Parents and teachers often misunderstand restful play and observation time as completion of the play period and force children back into cars, homes, and classrooms. As a father of three young children, I can relate to this and sometimes struggle with making a mental effort to pause and wait for just a moment to make sure that play has indeed reached an end. What adults perceive as an end to play is often a retreat from the sensory stimulation accumulated during the prior activity and a form of respite while a child self-regulates their emotions, body heat, and sensory intake. It is also often a time to take a step back and understand the environment from a cognitive and social perspective.

This past weekend, I observed a four-year-old child at his birthday party. After jumping and bouncing non-stop in a large bounce house with a large group of children, sweaty and red-faced, he quickly distanced himself from the group. Several adults watched as he sought out and found a spot away from the bouncing and flailing of other children. The spot he chose was small, enclosed and intimate. It provided a spot where he could rest from the active and social events nearby, but still allowed him the option to observe safely while resting. He was obviously still actively engaged as he observed, moving his eyes and head back and forth as other children ran around in circles. Then without warning he was up and running around as if he had never stopped. Unbeknownst to him, he had just found his own “cozy spot” where he was able to self-regulate his physical, cognitive, sensory, and social inputs.

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Sensory Diets in Outdoor Play Environments

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

During a recent trip to the sunny beaches of San Diego, California, I watched my three children closely as they interacted with the salty ocean water and the silky smooth sand. I am constantly amazed at the differences between each of them, and their distinct individual actions at the beach were no surprise. The oldest methodically traveled the beach, fascinated with the textures and colors of the many seashells and with the spongy qualities of the sand as evidenced in the depth of her footprints. The middle child was timid and tiptoed across the sand trying, futile as it was, to avoid as much skin-to-sand contact as possible. The youngest ran across the sand to the water’s edge, jumping, tripping, rolling and splashing without reservation and continued with messy, wet play for hours.

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The Scoop on Sand and Play

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Day trips to the beach, a play date at the local playground, or an afternoon in the volleyball pit always seem to result in perpetual cleanup efforts. Despite efforts to avoid or contain them, sand grains spontaneously appear anywhere and everywhere. It often seems impossible to clean all the sand out of shoes, clothes, towels, hair, toes, and ears. Even the gritty texture of rogue sand grains in the mouth is proof that sand has a special way of impacting life’s routines. Despite the sometimes necessary, and often aggravating, cleanup efforts, research has shown play in sand to be very valuable for the development of young children. Sand can also benefit play areas by way of safety and user comfort. As is usually the case, however, sand is not a perfect media for all play conditions. The use of it comes with a few simple cautions. Each of these topics warrant further discussion and are addressed below.

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Nature Explore | The Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute

Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Instituteimage: Chad Kennedy
Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute
image: Jeff Lindstrom, Associate ASLA, Nature Explore Classroom Designer

Earn PDHs / CEUs while learning design principles for creating effective nature play spaces.

Arbor Day Farm, Nebraska City, NE, July 21-24, 2013.

With the heightened awareness of nature deficit disorder and biophobia, it is important for landscape architects and designers to connect children with nature through the design and construction of effective outdoor play spaces. Study our research-based principles for designing environments that encourage whole-child development and positive relationships to nature.

Please join us for this four-day institute, held at Lied Lodge’s world-class facility, surrounded by the natural beauty of Arbor Day Farm. The Institute will be led by experienced designers and educators from Nature Explore and The Outdoor Classroom Project.

Earn 13 Professional Development Hours for the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System. Visit the Nature Explore website to learn more and register.

by Chad Kennedy, Officer for the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN

The Importance of Creative and Messy Play

image:  Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Muddy faces, dusty jeans, water soaked shoes and paint stained t-shirts were common occurrences during my childhood. As a father now myself, I better understand the innate internal struggle my mother must have felt as she lovingly allowed my siblings and I to engage in unstructured (messy) play, knowing full well that there would be unpleasant clean-up to follow! The roles are now reversed and it is now I that must make the effort not to interfere as I watch my young children investigate and explore the “messy” world around them. The importance of this unstructured play is very well researched and is considered crucial to children’s creativity and over-all development.

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