Book Review: “Play” by Stuart Brown

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Yay! It’s my first book review! Confession: I have no idea what I’m doing. This will be fun!

In case you don’t want to read my whole review, here is the bottom line takeaway:

“Play” is different for everyone, but it basically boils down to doing what feels authentic to you. It’s doing what you love. “When an activity speaks to one’s deepest truth, it is a catalyst, enlivening everything else.” The act of play “is a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal specials to promote survival. It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.”  “Ultimately, this book is about understanding the role of play and using it to find and express our own core truths.”

In other words, it’s a book about authenticity. Like, actual scientific proof that we are our best selves when we are being authentic. That the act of being authentic is actually good for our brains. Which is cool, since that’s kind of my jam.

Okay. On to the nitty gritty details.

Why did I choose this book?

School is starting up again, and I’ve been reading research on the importance of recess in developing well-rounded children because it offers opportunity for unstructured play time. This gives kids a chance to explore and to learn to self-regulate their behavior. For the past several years, education has been in a trend of cutting recess in favor of more time on content. We are now starting to figure out that this isn’t a good trade, for many reasons. I picked this book to help add to my collection of literature supporting the benefits of play in whole child development.

And this book does have some awesome info on the benefit of play in kids. It even talks about the benefits of different kinds of play. But it doesn’t stop with kids. It talks a lot about how adults can benefit (or suffer) from play (or lack thereof).

What was my biggest “aha” moment from this book?

I think the biggest surprise for me was in learning the science that shows how play (or lack of) affects the brain AND learning what that means for us as humans. For example, I had no idea how important play was for our social-emotional development as humans. I knew it helped with creativity and problem-solving. But play actually allows us to develop the skills necessary to connect with others, read social signals, and collaborate.

What was the best part of this book?

I would say it was probably expanding my definition of play and realizing how easy and beneficial it could be for me to work on developing a play attitude in my own life.

How was the reading experience?

Honestly, I’m not sure if pregnancy exhaustion played a role, but this book was a little tedious at times for me to get through. However, I had highlights and notes in every chapter so it’s not like it was dull. Bonus: it’s not too long of a book so even if it wasn’t the fastest read for me it was still manageable.

Would I recommend this book?

Yes. I think any book that offers this kind of insight into how our brains work AND encourages authentic living is a great thing for people to read.

Favorite Quotes

(Why Play)

“Play is how we are made, how we develop and adjust to change. It can foster innovation and lead to multibillion-dollar fortunes. But in the end the most significant aspect of play is that it allows us to express our joy and connect most deeply with the best in ourselves, and in others…. Play is the purest expression of love.”

(Why Play is Important for Kids)

“Once kids enter school, the importance of free play doesn’t end. All of the patterns that induce states of play are present and remain important for growth, flexibility, and learning. Unfortunately, we often forget this or choose not to focus on play’s necessity under intense pressure to succeed. No Child Left Behind is a perfect example. While it is an admirable (and even necessary) goal to make sure that all children attain a certain minimal level of education, the result has often been a system in which students are provided a rote, skills-and-drills approach to education and “nonessential” subjects like art and music are cut. In many school districts, even recess and education have been severely reduced or even eliminated.

The neuroscience of play has shown this is the wrong approach, especially considering that students today will face work that requires much more initiative and creativity than the rote work this educational approach was designed to prepare them for. In a sense, they are being prepared for twentieth-century work, assembly-line work, in which workers don’t have to be creative or smart–they just have to be able to put their assigned bold in the assigned hole.

In fact, Jaak Panksepp suggests that depriving young animals of play might delay or disrupt brain maturation. In particular, his research shows that play reduces the impulsivity normally seen in rats with damage to their brains’ frontal lobes–a type of damage thought to model attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because it affects executive functions such as self-control…. Without play, Panksepp suggests, optimal learning, normal social functioning, self-control, and other executive functions may not mature properly.”

(Play and Learning)

“Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it.”

(Play and Authenticity)

“…the self that emerges through play is the core, authentic self.”

(Play in Life)

“I think it is important for kids to keep a sense of perspective. It is important to recognize that taking care of responsibilities, getting good grades in school, and all the other teen duties are important, but they are not the be-all and end-all of life. These things are all, paradoxically, important but not important…. A playful attitude about life–not really taking everything like popularity or competitive academics or adult criticism so deeply seriously–is key, while at the same time tending to the necessities of growing up, staying within the boundaries of the law, taking no inordinate risks, avoiding addictions, and so on.”

(Play and Mastery)

“People always say that you can reach the top by ‘keeping your nose to the grindstone’, but as sports performance specialist Chuck Hogan observes, this is not true. People reach the highest level of a discipline because they are driven by love, by fun, by play. ‘The greatest performers performs as they do, and do so with such grace, because they love what they are doing,’ Hogan observes. ‘It is not work. It’s play.'”

(A Life of Play Doesn’t Mean No Discomfort)

“Making all of life an act of play occurs when we recognize and accept that there may be some discomfort in play, and that every experience has both pleasure and pain. That is not to say that bliss is suffering. My take is that following your bliss may be difficult, demanding, uncomfortable, tedious at times, but not really suffering. In the end, the good feelings we are left with are far greater than any difficulty we encounter as we played.”


The Struggle to Succeed

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Two days ago I wrote a post about The True Measure of Success, in which I reminded myself to keep my parenting battles in perspective by using my daughter’s happiness as a measure of how well something is working or isn’t working.

That post got me thinking.

What if it isn’t that simple?

I still believe that happiness and joy and love of learning should be the true measure of success. But sometimes it isn’t as simple as happiness in the moment. Without the opportunity to struggle, to learn perseverance, to test their own limits and build their own confidence, children won’t have all the tools they need to pursue true happiness throughout their lives.

If that is the case, me stepping in when I see my daughter struggling isn’t necessarily what’s best for her.

(When I say it out loud like that, I think “DUH”. Of course I can’t step in every time she is struggling with something. She would never learn.)

But even as obvious as that seems, it’s easier said than done, you know? As a parent, we want our kids to be happy. One of the hardest parts of our job is letting our kids struggle and even fail. We have to let them fall down, let them get frustrated, let them make mistakes. It’s how they learn that they can succeed.

What I wasn’t prepared for is the fact that as they grow, so do their struggles. I’m just getting to the point where I can let my toddler take a tumble or struggle to figure out a new toy without stepping in every time. But now the oldest is in first grade. She is learning how to struggle with dynamic friendships. With responsibilities like homework. With reading and math. With rules in class that she doesn’t want to follow.

And she’s doing it on her own. I can’t be there to help or advise or comfort. The best I can do is hold her tight when she gets home, weary from her own battles of figuring out how this big world works and what her place in it all is.

And as she does so, I’m figuring out what my place in supporting her is. How much do I let her struggle and how much do I help?

I’m going back to the homework debate as an example, because it’s something so many of us parents are reading about and wondering about and struggling with right now, due in part to all the hype on social media and the beginning of a new school year. In my previous post I came to the conclusion that perhaps questioning the homework policy for me as a parent wasn’t necessary because my child wasn’t struggling with it (yet).

But what am I teaching my daughter if I support her doing homework until it becomes a struggle for her?  I don’t want to teach her that the response to difficult situations is to remove the challenge. If it is something I believe in, shouldn’t I stand up for it no matter what, regardless of how well she is handling it?

Because there will probably come a time when it does become a struggle. Then what?

Really, it all boils down to an impossible question: how do we know when to let them struggle and when do we stand up for them? How much homework-induced discomfort will teach them perseverance and grit and responsibility? How much of it will damage their love of school, their self-esteem, and their love of learning?

How do we know where the line between benefit and harm is when it comes to struggling? 

It truly is an impossible question because I think it is different for every child. And not just that, I think it changes at different times in a child’s life.


What if the most important question here isn’t how much struggle is the right amount? Maybe we would be better off asking which struggles are worth the struggle instead.

Because here is the real secret: NOT ALL STRUGGLES ARE CREATED EQUAL.

If children are going to struggle, it should be for a purpose, not simply for the sake of struggling.

Sure, she could struggle with the boredom of another math worksheet. Or instead she could struggle to learn to ride her bike. She could struggle with the discomfort of having to do her chores or clean her room. She could challenge herself to read a book that she chooses. Or challenge herself in a swimming or gymnastics class. Or setting the table.

Or perhaps she is challenged all day at school and she just needs a break.

Which one of these things would be best for her whole-self development?

Honestly, it’s probably different every night.

Which is why, as her parent, I’m hesitant to say that struggling with homework is a good thing. Or an evil thing. Some nights it may be exactly the kind of challenge she needs. But what do I do on the other nights? Because I don’t need to let her struggle at homework just for the sake of struggling, especially if her time could be better spent elsewhere. 

Maybe it doesn’t matter whether homework is good or bad. Maybe what matters is that it might not always be the best use of our time in the evenings or the best way to teach responsibility or perseverance.

Surely teaching our children when to stick with the struggle is just as important as teaching them how.

Ironically, it appears I am learning the same thing.





The True Measure of Success

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My six year old started 1st grade at a new school this year. In Kindergarten, I knew her teacher. She is one of the most amazing people on the planet, and it made it so much easier to send my first baby off to school because I knew this teacher would fight for what was best for kids. Always. And I knew that we agreed on what that was. I trusted her.

This year we are at a new school with a new teacher. I’ve heard wonderful things about the teacher, the principal and the school. However, I also heard a few things that raised some questions for me as a parent before school even started.

First, the new elementary school only schedules two recesses for 1st graders. Several other elementary schools in the same district have three. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve read a lot of articles lately about the importance of recess, specifically unstructured play in child development. More importantly, I know my own child. I know how much she needs those brief periods of movement and freedom and independence throughout the day. Just like many of the children in the studies I read, her brain functions better when she has that time. So I couldn’t help but wonder why other schools in the same district offered more of that opportunity for children than our new school did.

I asked some questions to try to understand the decision and came to the conclusion that it was best to wait and see how things went.

The second thing I heard was about how much homework would be sent home in 1st grade.

If you’ve been on social media lately you’ve probably seen some hype about homework. As more and more research surfaces proving that there is no academic benefit to homework at the elementary level, more and more parents are speaking up against it.

And I’m right there with them. I’m all for challenging children, but only to the point where it is beneficial. She is six years old and is already in school for the majority of her day. The time at home in the evening is not an extension of school, it is a balance to it. She needs time to recharge her batteries, to play (especially if independent play time is being cut from the school day), to spend time with her family and unwind. That time at home is precious and it’s worth fighting to protect.

But again, I wanted to be reasonable and see how things went before I jumped to conclusions.

School started. On the second day, she brought home math homework.


I know I said I was doing my best to be reasonable. But the truth is that I was already on the defense. I felt like I was just waiting for the evidence I would need to build my case.

I didn’t love that homework was starting so early. However, it was a simple worksheet that she flew through in less than ten minutes. Maybe if that’s all homework was going to be it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe accomplishing something without having to devote a lot of at-home time to it would build her confidence and sense of responsibility and give her a chance to show me how well she was doing. Also, the note that came home about the homework policy talked about one of the goals of homework in 1st grade being to involve parents in the student’s learning. Can I understand that goal? Sure. I appreciate the impulse to include me as a parent in what she is learning.

The homework continued the next week, but each night it was simple. Less than ten minutes. I was still feeling skeptical. Was this really worth sending home? But at the same time, we spend that long talking about school anyway. Is a few minutes of simple homework really hurting anything?

I’m a chronic over-thinker, so I was still feeling conflicted about the homework and recess issues. One evening I was explaining my inner battle to a friend over text message. To be honest, I was probably on the verge of a full-blown rant, when her response stopped me in my tracks.

“Is your daughter unhappy?”

Uh… I don’t think so. She’s not coming home miserable. She hasn’t complained about her homework. In fact, she seems pretty proud once it’s done.

Sigh. There’s nothing like being slapped mid-rant with a really reasonable point.

My first priority as a parent is to help her thrive. In 1st grade, that means making sure that she is enjoying school so that she can develop a lifelong love of learning. Period.

The research isn’t the measure of what’s working and what isn’t. My child is.

If she is happy, what am I fighting for?

I still think recess is more important than we are treating it and that homework should be used consciously and sparingly in elementary school. But ultimately, the goal of any of those battles is to protect her joy. If evidence of unhappiness starts to appear, then perhaps it will be time to pick up my mama warrior armor and defend her right to love learning.

Until then, I’m taking the opportunity to breathe and remind myself not to get so caught up in the battle that I forget what I’m fighting for.

7 Things I Want My Child to Know Before She Starts School

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For seven years I worked with some of the most amazing educators I’ve ever met—teachers, principals, paraeducators, professional development specialists, secretaries, school psychologists, and technology gurus. People who devote their lives to the task of giving young people today the academic tools they need to succeed in the world.

That job experience not only changed my perspective on my own life, it changed my perspective as a parent, especially when it comes to my child’s learning.

With this new perspective, there are some things I want my child to know as she heads off to school each year.

You can learn anything if you believe you can.

Everyone has a learning “mindset”.  A “growth mindset” means you believe that your brain can learn and grow. A “fixed mindset” means you believe that you are born with a certain level of intelligence and you can’t change it. For example, if you are a growth mindset, you believe that, even if you are not good at math, you can get better. If you are a fixed mindset, you believe that you’ll always be bad at math.

Research shows that some of the people who excel at what they do–professional athletes, authors, scientists–do so because they have a growth mindset. That means they might not have been very good at what they did when they started, but they knew if they worked hard they would get better. So they did.

You can do anything if you set your mind to it. Don’t forget that.

The most important thing you will take to school with you is a good attitude.

You get to choose how you “show up” at school each day. No one else can make this choice for you. You may not always get to choose everything about your school day, but you can always choose your attitude. You have the power to make assignments that might be boring be fun. You have the power to make classes that feel hard feel exciting instead. It all comes down to your attitude. Choose wisely.

You can do hard things.

Sometimes learning will feel easy. A lot of the time it might feel really hard. That is perfectly normal. Don’t give up just because something isn’t easy at first. Learning how to do hard things is one of the greatest skills you could ever acquire.

I will be happy as long as you are doing your best.

Please don’t cheat yourself out of learning by not trying. If you are going to do something, do your best. If you do this, you cannot fail. Because if you did your best, then you learned something, and that is never failure. Yep, you heard me right. If you do your best on a test and you fail, I will still be proud of you for giving it your all. And we will have learned what it is that you still need to study. If you don’t try and you fail, then you wasted your own time and energy. Don’t do that. Time is precious. You owe it to yourself to see what you are capable of. So do everything you do with your whole heart. If you do this, I will be happy.

School does not measure your worth.

In school, you will take tests. Tests are a way to measure what you know and what you still need to learn. THAT IS ALL THEY ARE. You should do your best when it comes to tests so that they can be an accurate measure of what you know. But never forget that that is all they are. They do not measure what a good learner you are. They do not measure what a good person you are. Don’t give them more power than they deserve.

The same is true of grades. Grades are a way of measuring progress. They show us what we are doing well at and what we still need to practice. If you have a lower grade in science, it does not mean you are bad at science. Grades are information we can use to learn about how we learn best.

Schools use tests and grades and levels and scores to measure a lot of things. But there are also a lot of things they don’t measure. Tests will not measure your passion or your drive or your determination. Grades do not reflect what a kind and thoughtful person you are. Don’t believe for a second that any letter or number could measure your worth. You are more than the sum of your scores.

Your curiosity is your greatest strength.

Your curiosity is what drives your best learning. It drives you to question things you don’t understand. I hope you always keep your fierce curiosity. It is when we stop being curious and think we “know” things, or when we simply give up and stop asking questions, that we stop learning and growing.

Others may not always appreciate your curiosity, but don’t let that stop you. You may have to learn to hold your curiosity until an appropriate time to seek your answers. You may have to learn a respectful way to express your curiosity. But beware of anyone who tells you your curiosity is bad. It’s not true.

The thing that will make me more proud of you than anything else is your kindness.

School is important. You will learn things that will open doors to more things and more doors and so on. But there is so much more to learn than science and math. If you graduate and you don’t know algebra but you have learned how to feel empathy for another person, I will be immensely proud. If you can’t remember what the scientific name for rain clouds is, but you know how to be kind to others, even when they aren’t kind to you, then I will know you have succeeded.

Learn as much as you can from school, but don’t limit your learning to the information in your textbooks. Because the things that matter in life are so much bigger than that. Let your sweet light shine and do all the good you can for the people around you. As your mother, I love to see your brilliant brain in action. But I am never more proud of you than when you show the world your kind heart.

Can We Talk About Report Cards for a Minute?

Report cards.

When I was a kid, I used to love report card time. I usually did pretty well in school, so it meant a chance to be recognized in my strengths. I knew other kids who dreaded them. It meant hard conversations about things that already felt hard enough as it was.

Now that I’m a parent, I imagine there are still the same broad spectrum of feelings about that little manilla envelope that I have to sign off on three times a year.

This is one of the times that I’m most grateful for the years I spent working in education, and for the brilliant group of friends I have who are still devoting their energy to teaching kids every day. Because those experiences and relationships have given me a different perspective from which to approach things like parent teacher conferences, grades, and–you guessed it–report cards. What I’ve learned has totally changed the way I approach these opportunities. Here’s what I’ve learned:

What report cards are NOT:

  • Report cards are not fuel to get angry at my child.
  • Report cards are not fuel to get angry at my child’s teacher.
  • Report cards do not define who my child is.
  • Report cards do not define who I am as a parent.

What report cards ARE:

  • Report cards are an opportunity for a conversation with my child.
  • Report cards are an opportunity for a conversation with my child’s teacher.
  • Report cards are a way for me to practice being curious rather than jumping to conclusions.
  • Report cards offer clues from a different perspective into my child’s possible strengths and challenges.
  • Report cards are made by humans. Humans who love my child and want her to do well. Humans who see a side of my child that I don’t see. Humans who may not see the side of my child that I see.

Bottom line: Report cards are an opportunity for me to impact the way my child feels about school and learning for the rest of her life, for better or worse. How I respond to those little numbers on that piece of paper can either fuel her excitement or dampen her spirit, can build her confidence or chip away at it.

And I know which path I want to choose. Because at the end of the day, it isn’t the grades that matter. It’s the person. The sweet little human who can’t wait to show me what she wrote in school, the one who brings home 6th grade chapter books on library day because she is so impatient to learn to read, the one who draws little curly q’s on all of her letters on all of her worksheets.

If I do anything at all with four report cards a year, it will be to use them as fuel in her brilliant fire.

What You Bring

I have worked in education for 6 years. One of my primary goals during that time in working with students and teachers was to shift the mindset of what real learning is. In the age of “high stakes testing”, teachers are taking more and more responsibility for children’s learning. This may sound like a good thing but, in fact, it’s a very dangerous cycle.

If the teacher believes he or she must control the learning, they get swept into a cycle of control. They ask questions for which there is only one right answer. In some cases, this is necessary, for example when memorizing facts. However, we’ve started taking it too far, trying to sculpt ever answer that comes out of a child’s mouth to match exactly what the teacher deems “right”. Some of the most painful moments I’ve witnessed in education are when a teacher stands in front of a group of students, hinting and prodding them to parrot exactly what her or she considers to be the “correct” answer, dismissing the creative variety of answers from the students as “wrong”.

It was this cycle of control that I wanted to break using the idea of open-ended questions as a foundational tool. In an age where a student’s cell phone knows more than the teacher ever will, the playing field evens out. It’s no longer about how much information you can “contain”, it’s about how much information you can access. So as the circumstances shift, so does the process. I challenged teachers on a daily basis to ask questions that even they didn’t know the answer to and see what would come up. The goal was to let them get comfortable with not controlling the answer.

Because truth is, we can’t control what students learn. We can encourage, present, empower, and offer. But if they don’t want to learn, they won’t.  We can only control ourselves and what we bring. To focus on controlling what we get sends us into an exhausting cycle of drama.

The good news? How you ask the question determines the answer you get. Even if we can’t (and don’t need to) control what we get back, we can still control what we bring to it. And what we bring will change what we get.

How would your teaching or parenting change if you focused on what you bring to it rather than what you get from it?