Rough and Tumble, Tough and Rumble

This article appears in the August/September 2015 issue of “The Wedge” newspaper. The newest article of my new regular column for that paper.

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Rough and Tumble, Tough and Rumble

by Drew Beeman

“An M.D. and a Ph.D. walked into a bar….” Anthony DeBenedet, M.D. and Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. may not have met up in a bar but they did get together to write an important book for parents and educators. This book I have seen referenced so many times in my reading, that I had to read it. It is entitled “The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It“. In it they espouse the need of children to enjoy rough and tumble play. They discuss the research, and psychology, and share many examples of roughhousing activities. They make a “Bold Claim”, “Play – especially active physical play, like roughhousing – makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful.”

Adults often have very little tolerance for this type of play and immediately demand that it end. That is a shame. The authors point out “When a child and parent roughhouse, they activate various areas in each of their brains, including pathways for motor coordination, creativity, and emotional attachment. This coordinated activation builds brain-cell connections, which is another way to say that it builds intelligence….When we say that roughhousing makes kids smart, were talking about building foundations for academic success.”

The authors discuss the work of neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp’s research also comes up a lot in the books I read about child development and education. Heather Shumaker in her book “It’s OK Not To Share… and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids” writes “Studies by Dr. Jaak Panksepp show that rough-and-tumble play helps to develop the brain’s frontal lobe, including the prefrontal cortex. This is the key brain region for executive function, the most complex human abilities. These include self-control, resisting temptation, reasoning, focused attention, working memory, problem solving and cognitive flexibility….having strong executive function is the top predictor of kid’s success.” Also discussing Panksepp’s research, Psychology Today editor Hara Estroff Marano in her book “A Nation of Wimps: the High Cost of Invasive Parenting” writes “Not only does the nervous system need play to fully mature; it appears to need a sufficient amount at a specific time. The evidence so far points to liberal amounts of rough-and-tumble play from ages three to six.”

One important point from Panksepp’s research is the idea that children deprived of play, including rough-and-tumble play, will spend more time in a state of adolescence, and have a more difficult time taking on adult roles and responsibilities. This may explain the correlation between the raise in “extended adolescence” (i.e. “failure to launch”, extended time living with parents, etc…) and the focus on academics at an earlier and earlier age.

Another is the fact that play and especially rough-and-tumble play, generates the production of BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrphic factor in the frontal cortex, hard wiring our Executive Functioning. It is the building block of attention, focus, emotional regulation, and resisting temptation, among others, the major factors for success in school and in life. Panksepp is so convinced by his research that he even defies conventional medical wisdom to suggest that ADHD could be treated more effectively by giving children more unstructured playtime, then by the use of psychostimulants like ritalin. He even suggests that the drugs prescribed for ADHD actually hinder the drive to play, thus creating a vicious cycle and continued dependence on the drugs. Our educational system deprives our children of the one thing they really need to survive and thrive in that very system, play!

Through rough-and-tumble play children become motivated and wired for further academic learning, and gain the executive functioning skills needed for success. They gain valuable social skills as they navigate the give and take inherent in roughhousing. They learn to read the body language and emotions of others, and learn to take on other peoples perspectives. They experience negotiation, cooperation, and compromise as they wrestle one another or an adult. In rough-and-tumble play children practice problem solving skills, inhibiting their impulses, and communication skills. This has all been linked to less “real” aggression in children. Many people think that if we allow our children to “play-fight” or roughhouse they will grow more aggressive. This is simply not true. The reverse is true!

The most important thing that rough-and-tumble play provides for children and adults is Joy!!!

So get down and get dirty, and wrestle with your kids. You may find that you and your children will experience more learning, success, and more happiness.

Drew Beeman is founder and director of Progressive Early Learning. For more information about learning through play and about Progressive Early Learning, visit www.ProgressiveEarlyLearning.com.

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The hidden genius in every child

When I was a pre-teen and teen I loved skateboarding. The rebellion, the attitude, the tricks, all of it! Now as an adult, I appreciate it even more, even though my board is in storage. Rodney Mullen is considered the “Godfather” of modern street style skateboarding. He invented upwards of 32 tricks, including the “ollie” that is the foundation for all other street style tricks (which he also mostly invented). With out getting to much into his bio, I will say his father was reluctant to allow him to skate and made him quit a few times,  he went to college and studied biochemical engineering, won 34 out of 35  “freestyle” skateboarding competitions by the age of 24, went on to basically invent “street style” skateboarding, became an innovator and inventor creating new skateboard, and accessory designs, became a successful business man and a multimillionaire, and now gives TED talks and has other speaking engagements. He overcame much to get there, but first this awesome video…

He has amazing skill, and physical mastery, dexterity and balance!!!! Oh by the way when he was young he wore special boots to bed to help correct a serious pigeon toe condition. The other thing is that if you ever hear him speak you will notice something different about him. There is a lot of speculation on the internet that he may have autism or at the very least aspergers. I am not a big fan of labels, and he has never said anything public about it, but many people that have had experience with others or they themselves are “on the spectrum”, seem to agree he seems to have many of the “symptoms”. I believe that if he were a generation younger he may have had the diagnosis early on in his life. But then again so would Albert Einstein.

A large part of me has an aversion to these types of labels. For one our society and it’s schooling system, want’s to cram all of us uniquely shaped “pegs into round holes”. Second, those labels usually come with a bunch of grant money so there is a lot of incentive to label people. Another part of me understands the labels because then we have more awareness and hopefully compassion for others, and may be able to help people more effectively.

One thing I do know for sure…all children have a hidden genius inside of them. I am coming to believe more and more that so called “disorders” like autism are really just labels to help us understand the way someone other than ourselves, or the perceived majority, thinks and functions socially. I am sure there are many success stories like Mullen’s out there and I truly believe there could be many more.

Howard Gardiner of Harvard University most famously stated his ideas about “Multiple Intelligence”. Many educators are familiar with his theory, but I believe that if we really implemented it in our practice we would see every child be successful. Like Rodney Mullen, if we allow our children to play, experiment, and explore, find their passion, and encourage them to pursue their own interests we would also see our children succeed.

Let your children play. Let them follow their own passions, interests, and dreams. Find their specific intelligence and gifts. Encourage their pursuits. You will see them find success and fulfillment. You will have released their “Hidden Genius”!

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Let’s Go Out and Play!

This article appears in the June/July2015 issue of “The Wedge” newspaper. The third article of my new regular column for that paper.

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Let’s Go Out and Play!

By Drew Beeman

Maybe we would all be happier and healthier if we went outside to play. I know many adults are very happy at the beach, or hiking, biking, or gardening. Children need to be outside too! Unfortunately, children are spending less and less time outside and and a growing body of evidence shows the detrimental effects this is having on our children.

Richard Louv, the recipient of the 2008 Audobon Medal, wrote a bestselling book entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv writes, “…a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies.”…“ Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature.”

He writes of schools allowing less and less recess time outdoors, societal shifts towards electronic media, a mental shift toward fear of criminals and fear of nature itself, as some of the things adding to the problem. He also discusses a lot of research about ADD, ADHD, anxiety and depression among children and how it correlates directly with reduced amounts of time children spend playing outdoors.

A 2012 report from the National Wildlife Federation entitled “The Dirt On Dirt” discusses the benefits of playing outside and especially the health benefits of playing in dirt. In it they too discuss the research and the correlation to health and happiness and quote several studies. They report: “According to a four-year study that examined approximately two million children under the age of 18, antidepressant use is on the rise in kids, with the fastest growing segment found to be preschool children aged 0-5 years.” The good news is “Kids are different when they’re outdoors; free of school pressures and harried schedules, they relax and simply become kids. In fact, according to one study, children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces, making outside play a simple, no-cost, and time efficient antidote for an over-stressed child…Making direct contact with soil, whether through gardening, digging for worms, or making mud pies has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and facilitate learning….Mycobacterium vaccae, a “friendly” bacteria found in soil, was shown to activate a group of neurons that produce the brain chemical serotonin, enhancing feelings of well-being, much in the same manner as antidepressant drugs and exercise…Beyond raising mood, time kids spend in the dirt may be the best preparation for the classroom…in addition to its antidepressant effect, M. vaccae may also have an effect on schoolwork…Since serotonin plays a role in learning.”

Playing outside in the dirt aids in learning and fights anxiety and depression in our children.

I know of one more wonderful thing outside that has the same effect on children, the sun! The sun, once known as the “giver of life” is now one of the things adults fear allowing our children exposure too. We slather the sunscreen on and reapply repeatedly in an effort to prevent sun burns and skin cancer. That is a valid concern as there is a lot of research on this, however over-application of sunscreen combined with the social trends keeping our children inside, may be harming children as well. The sun is a primary source of vitamin D. Vitamin D has been linked to feelings of happiness and combats depression. American Academy of Pediatrics report 9% of children are vitamin D deficient and 61% of children are Vitamin D insufficient. That is 70% of our children! This has resulted in bone growth and density problems in children, and an increase of injuries as a result. It has also resulted in problems with long term cardiovascular health. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University reported that individuals with low levels of vitamin D may have an increased risk of death from all causes. Dr. Melamed, the leader of that study suggests for parents: “It would be good for them to turn off the TV and send their kids outside. Just 15 to 20 minutes a day should be enough. And unless they burn easily, don’t put sunscreen on them until they’ve been out in the sun for 10 minutes, so they get the good stuff but not sun damage.”

It sounds to me that our children can’t afford to stay inside anymore. With summer upon us we should take every opportunity to get outside with our children. Wait ten or fifteen minutes before applying sunscreen and play in the dirt. We all might be happier and healthier as a result!

Drew Beeman is founder and director of Progressive Early Learning. For more information about learning through play and about Progressive Early Learning, visit www.ProgressiveEarlyLearning.com.

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Play and Self-Control

This article appears in the April/May 2015 issue of “The Wedge” newspaper. The second article of my new regular column for that paper.

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Play and Self-Control

By Drew Beeman

One of the most important skills for children to learn for success in school and life is self-control. We all could use some more of this. Remarkably nature has hardwired humans with one thing we need to really learn self-control–play.

Ellen Galinsky, author of the book Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs identifies seven important executive functioning skills and provides many playful ideas as to how we can help children develop their skills. In one example, she describes her six-year-old daughter’s lemonade stand. She writes:

            “It involved counting the number of customers from their last day of sales and then using that number to figure out the amount of lemonade to make; going to the store and buying the ingredients with their profits; reading and following the recipe; keeping track of money; making change for customers; and making signs as well as practicing marketing and sales techniques. In addition, there was the focus and self-control needed just to be at the stand for long stretches of time!…I can still feel their passion for what they were doing. Lemonade stands have become my metaphor for something that children care a lot about. Every child needs lemonade stands throughout childhood. Caring strongly about interests beyond oneself engenders true focus.”

Allowing children to direct their own play, may reveal a passion and interest of theirs that then could lead to serious learning and focus and self-control. When I was growing up, my “lemonade stand” was dinosaurs.  I would try to build a swamp outside to play with my toy dinosaurs. I discovered that when I dug a hole to fill with water for my swamp, the water soaked in, and my swamp would drain. I was determined, and through trial and error, found success. It was only because of my intense interest that I had the persistence to focus my mind and will power. While visiting my grandmother I would make my own books about dinosaurs. She would then buy the books from me. I wanted to take the books home with me, and she kindly let me know that she bought them from me, so she is now the proud owner, and that I couldn’t take them. Any self-control I may have had was tested and strengthened. She said that she bought the books so that she could always enjoy the work of her grandson and when I came to visit I could enjoy them too. She taught me a very wonderful lesson!

Pretend play, often referred to as “Dramatic Play” is one of the best known vehicles for children to learn many skills, especially self-control. Think “Dungeons and Dragons” with props and costumes, role-playing.  The idea that children will exhibit seemingly remarkable amounts of self-control in order to “stay in character” has been explored by researchers. In the book Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors discuss an educational program called “Tools of the Mind” that emphasizes role-playing with children and the incredible success students have had in schools that implement the curriculum. There are many examples, such as a “Tools of the Mind” classroom zooming ahead of the other more traditional classrooms in vocabulary and IQ testing, and reports of significant reductions in the students’ disruptive and aggressive behaviors. In one example, a failing school received grant money to improve their school, implemented “Tools of the Mind”, and within one year saw such huge success that the school district no longer qualified for the grant money.

Researchers have found that even young children show a remarkable ability to stay within the boundaries of their role. I have seen it a lot as an early childhood educator. The child who is pretending to be “mommy,” not breaking character because “Mommy would never do that” or the lion who prowls around the room and will roar and not speak because lions can’t talk. It is amazing to see this level of focus and self-control.

So many of the most important life skills can be learned and strengthened through child lead and child directed play. Provide children with a chance to play and pursue their own interests, you may be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

Drew Beeman is founder and director of Progressive Early Learning. For more information about learning through play and about Progressive Early Learning, visit www.ProgressiveEarlyLearning.com.

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Children Need to Play!

This article appears in the Feb./March 2015 issue of “The Wedge” newspaper. The first article of my new regular column for that paper.

At a festival in Rochester

Children playing at Progressive Early Learning booth Harvest Hootenanny

(Photo by Drew Beeman)

Children Need to Play!

By Drew Beeman from Progressive Early Learning

Children have an inborn need to play. They will do it naturally. They will explore whatever they can get their little hands on. I am not talking about playing soccer, or a musical instrument, though that’s not so bad. I am not talking about hurrying them from one “learning activity” to another, either. What I am talking about is child-lead, child-initiated free play. Studies have shown that children learn best through long periods of uninterrupted “free play.” This is the kind of play you see them engage in when they are left to their own devices–using toys, props, and other materials to explore, experiment and pretend.

Hara Estroff Marano, editor- at- large for Psychology Today, wrote an incredible book entitled “A Nation of Wimps.” In it she articulates the importance of play and explains the detrimental effect on children and society when it is hindered. She writes “…in the animal kingdom, play increases, rather than decreases, with increasing brain complexity. If play is more prominent in advanced species, could it be that play itself plays a major role in advancing the species?” She quotes neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who adds, “We need play to become fully human.”

Children learn so much as they play. Their little brains are forming neural pathways through their experiences, as ideas become solidified through trial and error, experimentation, and exploration. As they repeat processes and build upon what they already know, those neural pathways survive the “pruning process” that naturally occurs in their brains and knowledge is retained, and solidified.

Some of the most important learning takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain; it has been identified to be the area where Executive Functioning skills develop. Executive Functioning skills are considered to be the key indicators of success in school and throughout life. Self-control, delaying gratification and resisting temptation, reasoning, focusing attention, problem solving, and cognitive flexibility are some of these skills.

A recent study by a team of researchers lead by Yuko Munakata at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver suggests that the greater amount of time children spend in self-initiated, self-lead, unstructured free play, the greater their Executive Functioning skills. The reverse is also true, more time spent in structured, adult initiated and adult lead play, the less children exhibit Executive Functioning skills.

As long as adults do not interfere or intrude in children’s play, children will explore and experiment at their own direction and pace. Of course we need to be present to allow our children to feel safe and secure and to help facilitate their social interactions, but we can do that without intruding on their learning process. The adult’s role in children’s play should be that of an observer and occasional facilitator. We can provide stimulating materials and activities, and a stimulating learning environment, then step back and watch the magic happen. Dr. William Crain, professor of psychology at the City College of New York, called this idea an adult’s “unobtrusive presence” in his book entitled “Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children In Our Achievement-Oriented Society.”

As our culture has become fast-paced, and over-scheduled, we should remember to stop and smell the roses and let our children do the same. We should make time for our children to simply be and to simply play. We should take a step back and take a breath and enjoy this wonderful time that is childhood.

For more information about learning through play and about Progressive Early Learning, check out www.ProgressiveEarlyLearning.com

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Terrific Toddlers

This article was written by Drew in the spring of 2013 and turned into an interview for Genesee Valley Parent Magazine’s 2013 Baby Guide seen here on page 38.

Terrific Toddlers

by Drew Beeman

In my work with Toddlers I find that the three “R’s” of early care and learning are very important.They are Relationship, Responsibility, and Redirection. I also find that it is very important to understand their needs, desires, and challenges. I love my job and chosen career, and I delight in watching these little ones explore their world, and discover the inherent magic in it. Well not magic really, but to them it may seem like it. We adults must remember and never forget what it was like when everything was brand new to us.

Young children need secure relationships with the adults in their lives. They need to form attachments with their caregivers. It can be difficult to hand your baby over to others, knowing they have that with you, their parent,but they must form an attachment to their caregivers in order to feel secure in the learning environment. The studies have shown that children need this, most of all, in order to learn, and thrive.

Children need to learn to be responsible as well. At RCN we have three rules or guidelines, they are “ Take care of ourselves”, Take care of each other”, and“Take care of our world”. We teach them responsibility and independence as we guide them through self help skills, and teach them that people are not for hurting, and to take care of their things. I like to use the words “responsible choices” and“irresponsible choices” when it comes to discipline. I make no moral judgments with terms like “good” and “bad choices”,knowing that these little ones are not bad when they hit, they are just doing what toddlers do. Remember Bam Bam from the Flintstones?He is the perfect depiction of your typical young toddler. That brings us to our next point.

Redirection is the name of the game when it comes to discipline. Discipline is really teaching. “I cannot let you hit your friends but you may hit the pillows”. “You may not pound with our chalk and crayons because they will break, but you may go pound with the hammer and hammer bench”. “You may not throw blocks it could hurt someone, but you may throw the balls”. Do you see how this redirects them to make responsible choices while passing no moral judgments? I know toddlers need to pound, and hit,and throw, and run, and climb, etc.. that is developmentally appropriate behavior for toddlers. I need to provide a safe environment for them to be toddlers and do what toddlers do.

I love to provide toddlers with developmentally appropriate experiences that are diverse, meaningful,and relevant. But also just plain fun! I love creating environments where they can explore, and experiment, and discover as much as possible what the world has to offer. The three “R’s” set the stage for this exploration, and the freedom to play and explore sets the stage for a lifelong love of learning and success.

The stage is set, lights, camera,action! These rich experiences must become attached to words in order to foster the development of language in toddlers. Every parent will be delighted to know that tantrums become reduced as language is learned and used. As the adults around them narrate their experiences, the children begin to associate words with their contextual meanings. We know that their receptive language, comes before their expressive language. They understand us even if they cannot yet speak. They usually begin to speak, as we encourage them and use language in fun and meaningful ways.

  I have recently had the pleasure of hearing many of the toddlers in my care begin to speak,and sing. It usually starts when we have our gathering time and sing their favorite songs and perform finger plays. We actually do pretty much the same songs and finger plays everyday, repetition is the key.Then it progresses to random expressions during play. Helping them“use their words” usually solves conflicts, helps them self-regulate their emotions, and thus contributes to their social and emotional development. Social and emotional development is the most important focus for school readiness and lifelong success.

Being a male caregiver has it’s challenges as I am sure you can imagine, but I know that I play a necessary role in the lives of these children. Some of the leaders in the field of child development and early care and leaders are men.Jean Piaget laid the foundation for our field, Dr. Brazelton has taught us so much about infants and toddlers, Harvey Karp taught (at least me) how to have the “Happiest Toddler on the Block” and that Bam Bam was the archetype for toddlers, and Dan Hodgins teaches us more appropriate discipline techniques, especially with boys, and“Teacher Tom” Hobson has a great blog about discovery and progressive education. I have plenty of female influences as well,my friend and mentor Lisa Murphy, Galinsky, Skenazy, and Hirsh-Pasek to name a few.

I chose this career because of the wonderful childhood I had, knowing that many others suffer in childhood. I chose this because I love watching children grow and learn. I chose this because it is the only thing I am good at. I chose this career because I want a better future for humanity.

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