A child will pick up a spool of thread, and that will become an automobile, or a match box will become a bed, or a chest of drawers: where one object can stand for another. That’s the basis of metaphoric thinking for the rest of our lives. Joseph Chilton Pearce. Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education
Natural Born Learners Reader.
A great neuro-scientist, Paul Maclean, who was head of brain development research here at the National Institute of Health, came up with three needs. He calls them a trio or trinity of needs. From the moment of birth on, they are: audio-visual communication, nurturing, and play. They are all equally important, and they are all interdependent.
It’s interesting that play is included as the most important thing that a child could have, not only for the development of their body, but their whole neural system. Play begins almost immediately at birth. The child catches on quickly when the adult is willing to play.
Play can take place only in what Michael Mendizza and I (2003) call “the safe place” (p. 69). A child must feel secure to play. That’s what audio-visual communication and nurturing is, a safe space. Given that safe space, the spontaneous reaction is to play, and to turn every activity into play.
Children, I don’t think, have much connection with work. They will turn work into play, or they will play at their work; which is exactly what they should do.
In Montessori schools, they use the term “work,” but if you look closely, you’ll see that there is the same spontaneous freedom of movement, speech, and play. A critical part of all learning is the ability to approach it playfully. Literally, this has to do with the structure of the brain itself.
When people are in a totally safe space, feel completely secure, safe, and nurtured, the center of neurologic action shifts to the forebrain, which is the latest evolutionary development in brain structure, the structure for creating imagination, the one that will lead us to metaphoric, symbolic thinking, which underlies all of our great subjects like science, mathematics, religion, and philosophy. All those depend on metaphoric, symbolic capacities, which are developed in play, and play is the only way that this metaphoric, symbolic capacity can develop.
Play can only take place in a safe space. If the child feels at all insecure, a good part of their energy of their brain and body centers around the defensive areas, which are the sensory-motor, what we call the hind brain. Activity moves back into the more ancient animal structure, the reptilian brain, the oldest part of the brain systems. You can clearly see, with the new scanning devices, when the child is shifting from the forebrain, the highly-civilized mind, into the more ancient animal brain structures, when they are concerned about their safety.
Play, in the first seven years, develops this creative forebrain, which sets us beyond all the animals. The most important form of play arises from storytelling, after about the first year of life. Up until then, it’s any repeated interaction between the infant and the parent. For example, hiding, peek-a-boo, little surprise movements, repeated over and over. The child immediately interprets this as play and goes into a state of hilarious delight. They do this from very early on. After about a year, when they have their language pretty much under control, storytelling is a primary impetus to play, because, having been told a story, they create internal imagery in keeping with the story, that activity brings about neural development. They want to play that inner image out in the world. That’s when you get metaphoric and symbolic play. Want more? Buy the reader here. Thanks!