A Priceless Introduction: Interaction vs Engagement in Play

Playing in the sandbox

This blog is a reflection from Kodo Founder, Chris Hume

I was recently reflecting on my son’s first year in Kindergarten. Back then, I’d been nervous for my 4-year-old, as he was being placed in a mixed-age class with kindergarteners through second graders all together. He really likes older children, but he was going be one of the youngsters.

The opening night family picnic was a wonderful opportunity for the children to get to know each other and play together before the first day. As I watched the children interact and play on the large brand new playset, the interaction between them was “normal”. That is to say, they were taking turns going down the slide, climbing up the bars, speaking to each other when necessary.

It seemed to me that the children were getting to know each other until my son approached me and said: “can you push me on the swings”? My thought was, “What! But you should be playing with the kids and getting to know some of them!” Yes, swings are great, but they are a solitary activity. It was at that point when I looked around and noticed that “normal” interaction was really quite lonely looking. How can children interact when only one child can fit on a slide or climb a ladder at a time? The play structure set the stage for social interaction, but not social engagement.

For adults, a social party is great. We stand around for hours talking away, happy as clams. But for children, social engagement comes from in-depth play. “Let’s go to the sandbox,” I said to my son. I was quite familiar with the sandbox, having constructed it myself a few weeks prior. Knowing the importance of slope, I had mounded the sand on one side of the sandbox (a very large area about 30ft by 30ft) and placed a large tree trunk on its side to hold the sand, along with several large stumps. That morning I had also brought over sections of our outdoor ramps, which were also placed in the sandbox.

My son began to play. There were children of all ages in the sand, about 25 kids at any one time from 4 years old to 10. When we arrived the ramps were being fully utilized. Covered in sand and arranged in a long twisting line, the children had designed a beautifully constructed pathway for the lone soccer ball to roll along. All the children were intensely working away creating jumps, fixing broken connections, and transferring the ball from the bottom of the path back to the top. Now, I thought, these children are communicating! The difference in interaction between the children at the play set and the children in the sandbox was stunning! The sandbox children were working together, they were debating, problem-solving, predicting, and they were truly interacting. There was no need for turn-taking or sharing when everyone could participate at once. Not a single parent had to command their child to “play nice” or “don’t throw sand”, and there was no way my son was going come over and ask to be pushed on the swings.

And then came the water! Someone found a hose and all of the sudden those cute little party dresses and little dress shirts were covered in dirty wet sand! Some parents cringed, but to my delight, no one stopped the play for worry of mud. Suddenly the sand-covered ball ramp became a flowing river with waterfalls, dams, and boats! A whole new dynamic broke out as the older kids started to rearrange the ramps for optimal water flow. Again, they all worked as a team talking about the different sections. “Fix right there!” “We need more sand along the side!” “Turn off the water, we have to fix this.” “Okay, turn it back on!” The hose runner would swiftly make his way to the spigot and wait for on/off water commands. The eldest, biggest child manned the hose and aimed the flow. The small children worked away at the construction of the ramp flume. I was entranced watching the kids interact with one another. The sandbox provided the opportunity for children to truly get to know each other – it provided a priceless introduction.

On the way home I asked, “so do you think you will like your new school?” With conviction in his voice, he responded like many 4-year-olds with “Yeah! I made lots of new friends!”

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