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Because of its emphasis on fun and experimentation, play promotes a “growth mind-
set.” Carol Dweck (2006) makes a strong case for the value of the growth mind-set over
the fixed mind-set. The growth mind-set views one’s personal abilities as something that
can always be improved. The fixed mind-set sees personal abilities as limited. Dweck ar-
gues that only with the growth mind-set can a person actually do more than he or she, or
others (peers and teachers), thought possible. Her extensive research finds that determin-
ing one’s mind-set, as either “growth” or “fixed,” is a strong predictor of future success.
When play becomes an avenue for low-risk experimentation, children’s abilities inevitably
grow. Play allows children to accomplish things outside a high-stakes pass/fail situation.
Furthermore, play presents children with a bias toward action, and action teaches just how
much each can do.
The Properties of Play
We think giving one all-encompassing definition to play is limiting. Play is complicated
and hard to define because so many different kinds of human behavior could be charac-
terized as play. We want to encourage early childhood educators to become observers and
investigators of the phenomenon of play. When observing play, we encourage adults to ask
themselves: what is this experience doing to children’s thinking, feeling, and behavior?
In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates
the Soul, Stuart Brown (2009) does not provide a clear definition of play. Instead, he de-
scribes seven properties that make play unique from other types of human activities or
experiences: • Play is apparently purposeless (done for its own sake, not for survival or practical
value). • Play is voluntary (not required).
• It has inherent attraction (it’s fun; play makes you feel good).
• It provides freedom from time (when fully engaged, we lose sense of the passage
of time). • We experience diminished consciousness of self (we stop thinking about whether
we look good or stupid; we are fully in the moment).
• It has improvisational potential (we aren’t locked into rigid ways of doing things;
we see things in a different way).
• It provides a continuation desire (the pleasure of the experience makes us find ways
to keep it going; we want to do it again). (Brown 2009, 17–18)
The Value of Child-Directed, Open-Ended Play Experiences
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Here is an example of a play experience that shows many of these properties in action:
Two five-year-old girls decided to play school. They turned over storage
containers and called them desks. They brought chairs, papers, and books over
to their desks. Each got her backpack from her cubby and pulled out various
school supplies. Once they had all of their materials set, they sat quietly, opening
their books and turning the pages. They used their pencils to scribble across
papers. At one point, one of the girls looked at the other and said, “Time for
recess!” They left their desks and went running around the house area together,
giggling and laughing. Then they returned to their desks. The other girl said,
“Time for lunch!” They pretended to take out their lunchboxes and eat their food
together. This pretend play went on for twenty minutes.
Which of the properties of play do you see illustrated in this play scenario?
Defining Play as Child Directed and Open Ended
We are defining play as child directed and open ended. Such play can include all seven
properties identified earlier. It is the high-level play in which learning is deeper and more
sophisticated. • The child-directed quality is apparently purposeless, fun, self-perpetuating, and,
most obviously, voluntary.
• The open-ended quality encourages improvisation and creativity, and frees the
player to lose himself and not be conscious of time.
We see this as authentic play. Child-directedness reminds teachers that play arises from
what the child wants to do and not just from what the teacher wants the child to do. If the
teacher is involved, it is as inviter, cheerleader, and supporter. Open-endedness encour-
ages teachers to choose materials and play opportunities so that children have many pos-
sibilities. Children with a variety of skills and differing understandings can be successful
in a variety of ways as they engage in open-ended play experiences. While chaotic and
simplistic play can also be child directed and open ended, chances are its abilities to really
capture a child’s interest for the long term are minimal.
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