PUBLISHED: Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jeff A. Johnson and Denita Dinger

Published: 2012

What happens when two family child care professionals write about their passion for play? You get Let Them Play: An Early Learning (Un)Curriculum. Read on to learn more about this author pairing and their new book.

You live in different states but successfully wrote a book together. Where did you do your writing?

Jeff A. Johnson

First, I write in my head while I’m messing around in my yard, or riding my bike, or fixing up my 110-year-old always-a-work-in-progress house. Then, after I’ve avoided sitting down in front of my computer and really writing for as long as I can, I find a comfy coffee shop and start typing. Bars and beaches are good alternatives if a coffee shop is not available. I have a hard time writing at home because I feel like there is always some real work that should be getting my attention—like painting, caulking, or pruning. Luckily, I travel a lot doing presentations, so when I am on the road I make time to find cozy places to peck out a few paragraphs. I’m writing this at a coffee shop in Great Falls, MT, a few hours before a presentation based on my books Finding Your Smile Again and Keeping Your Smile.

Denita Dinger

I am the type of person where one break easily leads to another, so I cannot write at home. I would get up for a drink of water and return back to the computer two hours later. This was a problem! Therefore, my writing place of choice became Scooter’s Coffee Shop. However, many other people had thought of it the same way, so I wasn’t always able to secure “office space” for myself there. My other choices were Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. One time, (horrors of all horrors because it was WAAAAY too quiet) I had to write at the library...sigh. I was longing for the “grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” sound of the bean grinder, the scent of coffee, and the random chitchat that was fun to listen in on occasionally!

The co-author process involved lots of debates. Once, I quoted the movie My Girl and told Jeff to “come back in five to seven days” because I was unusually crabby—I’m usually a vision of periwinkles, daffodils, lollipops, and roses—and by golly, he did! Then, I had a question for him and he responded with, “It has only been three days.” Oh, it drove me nuts!

In the end, I think we wrote a magnificent book that is helpful for all early childhood professionals who are fighting the good battle of defending play. It’s fantastic for those who already believe in the power of play, as well as those who are just dipping their toes into child-led learning through play and want to do it more.

What sparked your interest and passion for being “defenders of play”?

Jeff A. Johnson

As a kid, child-led play just seemed like the right thing to do. As an adult, it seemed like it would be more fun than getting a real job. Back in my community center director days, my job mostly consisted of playing bumper pool and dodge ball. What could be better than that? Now, as a family child care provider, author, speaker, and toymaker, my job mostly consists of playing and thinking about playing. It’s not a bad gig—I have lots of fun, mostly set my own schedule, and don’t have to wear a tie and jacket.

I loved my ice cream bucket full of Hot Wheels® and Matchbox® cars. I was constantly building roads and cities for them to drive around. I remember playing with them inside and outside from sun up to sun down for years. I’m sure I did other things during that time, too, but those cars got lots of my time and attention. Then I grew out of them. I actually hunted down my favorite car on EBay® a few years ago. The dude I bought it from must have loved that car as much as me. It came wrapped in about four inches of bubble wrap and a shell of packing tape.
Jeff Johnson's matchbox car

Denita Dinger

Read the book—my aha moments are in there! You can also check out my blog for lots of stories about the importance of play, including a recent failed attempt at Ramp Day. (In short: the children weren’t interested in my grand plans, and I was reminded that the best plans are to follow children’s interests and let them learn through play.)

What pointers do you have for early childhood professionals to promote play in their setting?

Jeff A. Johnson

Read Let Them Play: An Early Learning (Un)Curriculum.

Denita Dinger

In order to bring play into your program, you need to trust play, and you need to teach parents to trust play. Take the time to observe children during play. Dissect and document what you see with photos and videos, then share with parents. For example:

  • Children arguing over a toy are learning how to handle conflict. Conflict is everywhere in life. The sooner we learn how to handle it appropriately, the better.
  • A child climbing up the slide is preparing her body for writing later on.
  • A child shooting at bubbles with a spray bottle is preparing for following words in a line (aka: reading).
  • A child who is pulling a wagon full of friends is getting to know how his body moves through space and what muscles make what parts move.

As you dissect play, you will be able to trust in it more and more. Educate parents so they, too, can see the value of play and understand that setting a child in front of a worksheet is not an appropriate, nor effective, way to teach them the life skills that are the most important. Telling a child what they are going to learn will not create a child who is confident in their own ideas.

Letting children lead the way through play gives them the opportunities to solve problems, share, handle conflict, make mistakes, cooperate, explore new ideas, own discoveries, build their self confidence, and imagine the seemingly impossible. Bring these possibilities into your program by letting them play.

Six Random Things About Jeff

Jeff Johnson and his granddaughter
  1. I became a grandpa on May 6, 2012. Rowan Lenore is the most wonderful baby girl ever born. My wife, Tasha, and I listened with our ears pressed against the delivery room door as she was born. Hearing her first gasp for air and cry was a magical moment. Learning to be a grandpa will be a fun new adventure.

  2. I’m a horrible speller. An evil third grade teacher once told me I could not be a writer because my spelling was so bad. Apparently she had never heard of editors and did not anticipate word processors and spell check back in the early 70s.

  3. My writing career with Redleaf Press began with a self-dare. I was poking around on their Website when I found a page explaining the book idea submission process. I dared myself to submit an idea. I never turn down a self-dare so I quickly pulled together an idea, writing sample, and cover letter and sent them off. Then I promptly forgot about it. About eight weeks later I got a phone call offering me the chance to write the book. My first thought was, “Crap, now I have to actually do it.”

  4. I can’t swim, I never plan to learn, and I think my life will turn out fine anyway. I guess I am just not buoyant—maybe due to all the rocks I shoved up my nose as a kid.

  5. I like alliteration better then rhyme.

  6. I’ve been busy converting a room in our big old house into a photo/video/audio studio that I will use for broadcasting live online training events and creating digital content for upcoming projects.

I hand-dug this 14,800-gallon pond and built the deck while writing Babies In The Rain and Everyday Early Learning. Since I can’t swim, my wife, Tasha, makes me wear water wings every time I get near the water. Jeff Johnson staying safe by the water

Six Random Things About Denita

Denita Dinger and her family
  1. I have been married for 15.75 years and am the mother of two children, ages 12 and almost 14.

  2. I have been polishing my “Brain Developer” skills in my family child care program since 1998. I provide care for children ages 2–5 (or 6). Babies are just not my thing. I believe you need to know what your “thing” is and do a good job at it!

  3. My favorite food is cheese. Specifically, cheese curds. My mouth is watering just typing that!

  4. I do not drink coffee; I just take up space in coffee houses around town while writing. I actually sneak in my Diet Dew and slip sips when the employees aren’t looking. (Yes, I am one of “them” who dares.)

  5. I am not a fan of rules (see #4 for one small example). I put my imagination to work in order to maneuver AROUND the rules.

  6. My stress relief is teaching group fitness classes. I can frequently be heard saying, “If you are sweating you are still alive,” “You grew it, you move it,” and “You give everyone else your best all week. Now is the time to give your best to you.”

  7. I always got in trouble for talking in school. Always. I would tell my parents, “Just wait. Someday, people are going to pay me to talk.” One of my favorite moments in life was that phone call to my parents telling them, “It finally happened!” A pause, and then the joy in telling them I was going to be paid to talk! I love being a keynote speaker at early childhood conferences. It is the most wonderful feeling for someone like me, who is in such an isolated profession, to make a difference to so many others.

  8. I tend to babble on…and on…and on. (Thus a list of Eight “Six Random Things.”)

I am a Disney fanatic. I have always been a Mickey Mouse fan because he represents working hard to achieve dreams. We have spent many wonderful family vacations with the Mouse!
Denita Dinger at Disney

Learn more and see a full list of titles by Jeff A. Johnson and Denita Dinger.