The hierarchy of learning: elements of play
Reprinted from a 2012 blogpost
What creates a great free play environment?
A friend with a ton of soccer experience (played in a World Cup!!) cornered me at a conference, "I hate to break it to you but what you are doing can be done by anyone...I could go to the local park and have free play."
And I told him he certainly could and we would love that because we want to see it spread. But he wasn't doing it right now, why? He was simply threatening to do it, like I threaten to clean the garage...I know it's a good thing and needs to be done, but I have so many other important things to do.
But it did get me thinking. Really, what are the elements that have made JOTP work? Why was it so uniformly ignored?
One of the reasons that I think free play is acknowledged but ignored lies in it's very very basic elements. It takes forever in free play for one kid to learn one thing. Why do it when in 20 minutes I can give 16 kids the basics of shooting? Or dribbling? How can we plan if we don't know where we are going? Teams have competitions, kids need to work together, get to know each other...etc.
My point here is that we are skipping steps of development. Where there is no model in sports per se that show proper steps, there is in the world of psychology. By studying these examples and also looking at examples of free play success stories perhaps we can unlock some learning cues that make certain places work so well and allow other coaches (like my friend) replicate it.
Maslow's Hiearchy of Needs
Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation."Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans' innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, all of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. Maslow use the terms Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, and Self-Actualization needs to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.
Maslow studied what he called exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy."Maslow studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.
The model is usually shown in the form of a Pyramid:
So Maslow's theory postulates that one foundation is fulfilled before moving up to the next. Get your needs met, take a step up.
How do you replicate a great free play environment? This is how we qualify a great free play environment:
• a) Soccer
• b) Everyday
• c) Everyone is welcome
The games in the favelas of Rio, the sun baked futsal courts of Sao Paulo, the school yards of Brooklyn (basketball) the frozen ponds of the Phalen area of St. Paul...what is it about those special environments that attracts and then produces players?
Using Maslow we can identify five key elements of a great free play environment:
Basics. Kids need to know where their next meal is coming from. So if the place is not walking distance from home simple plans to reboot kids will go a long way.
The environment needs to be safe, not just for the parents peace of mind, but also for the kids who need to risk take within security. A physical shelter is key as well.
Cooperation comes first. Kids don't just want friendship, they need it. Free play environments create a breeding ground to test and build friendships for life.
It is here in stage 4 where most clubs begin (and end), insinuating that all the other needs have been taken care of they steam ahead toward achievement. Because of this clubs and coaches have a lot of back filling to do. Ask a club coach how much time he spends on managing kids issues, focus, motivation, attitude. If done right, however, competition is key to the next step in motivation.
But the culture of what achievement is (and what it is not) tends to derail things. it is a mistake to associate achievement with external rather than internal motivation. Achievement is not the childhood conquering of adult objective, it is not the "mentally tough" winner takes all--but more like a muscle that is gently worked and rested to become stronger.
Most leagues and tournaments for kids are way over the capabilities of kids--and this is where the self organization of the past (Street soccer--unstructured free play) allowed kids to play with friends and mess around with winning and losing as a painter would mess around with shapes and colors. Kids in free play win and lose many times per day. Striving to achieve becomes a skill practiced and built over time. Free play kids become better competitors.
Once competition/achievement is understood the nest step is something special.
Have you ever been at that place where the world slows down? This is where your highest abilities meet the highest challenges. (Find the semi final of Euro 2000, France v Spain and watch Zidane, afterwards he famously said: "I am at the summit of my art"). It is not about success, but it is about the moment of success or failure. It is autonomous, it is not thinking, it is being. When you are here you know it and so do others. And you want to get back. This is beyond competition, this is creativity, imagination, joy. And getting their takes practice.
Put all these 5 elements together IN ORDER, and no matter what the spot you have a powerful cocktail of creating self actualizers. This is what we "reach" for. And once there we want to go back. But we don't jump, or skip steps, we step up and reach. And like anything we practice, we get good at it.
Joy of the People