Play Systems Thinking

by Paul Bocko

Consider the following: Children at play are building a foundation for systems thinking.  I have been pondering this notion recently while collaborating with two of my students conducting action research.  One is studying the impact of play in two ecosystems in New York City’s Central Park.  The other is investigating how play informs the design of play areas – especially his own school’s playground in St. Louis.

Photo by Rosen Georgiev

So what?  (You may ask.)  I believe that when children engage in un-orchestrated play, they are forced to navigate complexity – the intricate “landscape” of parts, people, and relationships in their immediate environment.  Who has my back on this?  Richard Louv for one.  He believes nature play develops skills in problem-solving and critical thinking.  Louv’s “nature deficit disorder” is a compliment to Diane Levin’s “problem solving deficit disorder” – the condition in which children are no longer active agents of their involvement with the world.  One review of David Sobel’s book, Childhood and Nature, notes that experiences in nature “are more important than learning facts about nature and are actually prerequisites for environmental concern”.   I have found more recent posts that directly link play and systems thinking.  Check out this interview with a professor who is conducting a MacArthur Foundation funded study on the development of systems thinking for middle school students.  Some of this work flies in the face of Louv’s work as it involves students using “new media” to create systems.  Adults too are using play to learn – I found a proposal for an upcoming software development conference workshop entitled Systems Thinking Through Play.  I am confident this only scratches the surface of the resources that explore the linkages between play and systems thinking.

Bottom line: Systems thinking is inherent in the 3E’s – environment, economy, and equity.  How can it not be when you consider the intricacies embedded in each area?  In order to solve pressing problems, children and adults need to develop and maintain problem-solving skills, use all available tools, and mix in just the right amount of play to find the best solutions.  Just maybe we can experience a bit of joy in the process.

Here’s to play at any age!  AND here’s to my students for taking a risk and digging in deep on this topic – I expect to be sharing hyperlinks to their conclusions very soon.

  1. Paul,
    I love how you say, “…when children engage in un-orchestrated play, they are forced to navigate complexity.” You are making me think about how children co-create systems of play whether it be the dramatic play of pre-schoolers, construction play of school age kids, or the social networks of adolescents. I think they create more complex systems themselves than we as teachers/parents are able to do in the designed environments we create for them.

  2. John R. White said:

    Thanks for this stimulating idea, Paul. It is a very important topic for any parent or teacher to be aware of and study. I am wondering if you are aware of Waldorf education, where play and learning are uniquely knitted together? The relationship between play and learning is one of the fundamental principles of Waldorf education – also known as Steiner Education, after its founder Rudolf Steiner – and is found in all components of the school day in a Waldorf school, whether that be the rhyme, song or poem recited or sung at the beginning of the day, or the teaching of mathematics through rhythmic movement of the body and/or an object, or the study of music from kindergarten through the elementary grades. The Waldorf curriculum, originally designed by Dr. Steiner in 1918, also incorporates nature in the child’s everyday experience, from unstructured recesses to learning to care for nature’s creatures (rabbits, chickens, sheep, goats, bees, etc.) to the natural settings and materials of the classrooms. Play not only brings children in touch with systems thinking, but in the use and development of the coordinating of hand and eye through the experience of play we see the building of neural circuits in the brain. If they are not already aware of it, a useful resource is the book titled The Hand: How it shapes the brain, language, and human culture; by Frank R. Wilson.
    Keep up the good work!

    John R. White, MBA, MEd

    • Tom Julius said:

      Thanks for making this connection. It’s so important to recognize how the importance of play crosses philosophies.
      Here at Antioch University New England we have an accredited Waldorf master’s program. Its the only Waldorf Teacher Education program in the USA that offers an elementary/early childhood public school teacher certification option. Faculty member Arthur Auer’s book “Learning about the World through Modeling: Sculptural Ideas for School and Home” is another great resources about handwork.
      Best, TomJ

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