How to Foster More Collaboration and Increase Academic Achievement with Dr. Jacqueline Harding




00:00:00    Alyssa

You're listening to Voices of Your Village and I got to hang out and chat about play. Ya'll, play is wildly important and underrated and we get to dive into why it's so important, what it does and also frankly, how it can make your life so much easier as a parent, as a teacher, as a caregiver. It's your classic win -win. I got to hang out with Dr. Jacqueline Harding. She is an international child development and education expert. She's recognized for her work advising government, practitioners, and parents. Dr. Harding is an honorary visiting research fellow at Middlesex University. Her qualifications include a PhD in child development, master's in education, and advanced studies in neurophysiology. She also represented the UK in developing essential digital criteria and establishing best practice for broadcasters, parents, and teachers across Europe. Dr. Harding was privileged to pioneer and managed the platform for the UK government, which was a groundbreaking film -based resource for parents and practitioners. She continues to work for children's TV shows such as Peter Rabbit, Teletubbies, and Clangers and Bing. She's a frequent speaker in the media and author of best -selling books for parents, practitioners, and children. Her latest book is called The Brain that Loves to Play. She's a former BBC education editor, government consultant and head teacher and it was so fun to get to hang out with her, to get to play. Alright folks, let's dive in. 


00:01:41    Alyssa

Hey there, I'm Alyssa Blask Campbell. I'm a mom with a master's degree in early childhood education and co -creator of the Collaborative Emotion Processing Method. I'm here to walk alongside you through the messy vulnerable parts of being humans, raising other humans, with deep thoughts and actionable tips. Let's dive in together. 


00:02:03    Alyssa

Hello, hello. 


00:02:06    Dr. Harding

Hello, how lovely to meet you. 


00:02:08    Alyssa

So nice to meet you, Dr. Harding. How are you doing? 


00:02:13    Dr. Harding

I'm doing good, I'm doing good. I think you have better weather there than we do. 


00:02:19    Alyssa

I mean, we do probably have better weather, but not by much. I'm in Vermont and it's still very much chilly here. 


00:02:28    Dr. Harding

Right. Okay. Well, I won't, I won't feel jealous then. 


00:02:32    Alyssa

We just did a trip down to North Carolina for two weeks to visit my brother and his family. And we could like be outside in a light jacket and I didn't have to put my kids in snow gear. And it was such a little gift. 


00:02:49    Dr. Harding

My daughter lives in LA. 


00:02:51    Alyssa

Oh so nice. 


00:02:54    Dr. Harding

I know, so nice, just near the coast and oh it's so good for the children. 


00:03:00    Alyssa

Yeah that's so nice. How old are your grandkids? 


00:03:03    Dr. Harding

Um oh gosh I've got I've got nine of them. 


00:03:07    Alyssa

Oh awesome. 


00:03:09    Dr. Harding

Yeah so nine grandchildren ranging from just over a year up to 17. So


00:03:16    Alyssa

Incredible. That's similar to my family I'm one of five kids And my parents have, yeah, I think eight grandkids. Yeah, yeah. Ranging from, I have a three month old and the oldest is 15. So quite similar, yeah. 


00:03:38    Dr. Harding

Fantastic. It's great for my research. 


00:03:41    Alyssa

Sure. Oh, good. Well, I just want to hang out and have a real conversation. This is such an important topic. So, and feel free, I want to kind of hear a little bit about what brought you into like this? Why were you like, you know, we got to chat more about play? What was it that came up for you? What were you noticing? 


00:04:05    Dr. Harding

Okay, well, I have to say that so many people, researchers, parents, practitioners, were saying to me, Jacqueline, help us join the dots between what's happening in neuroscience, neurophysiology, child development, and let's make sense of it. So, okay, let's do it because people are so interested. And I don't think it's beyond the understanding of the majority of people to understand it. We don't have to make it dreadfully complicated. 


00:04:36    Alyssa



00:04:38    Dr. Harding

Totally. And so I use the latest in neuroscience and my own research and then just sort of dig deep into really what's going on in that amazingly complex organ, the brain, which has this recursive ability, which means it can think about itself thinking. And when I said that, I can guarantee you were thinking about yourself thinking. 


00:05:07    Alyssa

It is so cool. 


00:05:08    Dr. Harding

So cool, isn't it? And so when I'm talking about this, I'm not just talking about babies and children, I'm talking about our own brains. And by the end of this podcast, I'm really hoping and know, actually, not just hoping, I know that our brains will change as we discuss this and as we dig deep and using the most trusted and evidence -based research. And that can all do us a pile of good. 


00:05:41    Alyssa

Yeah, I love it. And I think it's something, you know, in the early childhood world, we've heard a lot that like, play is the work of the child, et cetera. But really believing that or embodying it or understanding why, I think is huge because I know for myself as a parent and then also in the early ed world, we can be pulled out of play so easily. We can be into the routines of the day, or I need this to happen and then that to happen, and we get into kind of like structure in a way that, and not that structure is bad, but I think it can pull us out of allowing play to happen and seeing it as valuable. And so what I'm jazzed about to get to do with you today is to kickstart in like chatting about what the latest in brain science is showing in terms of what the impact of play has on the brain. 


00:06:38    Dr. Harding

Yeah, totally. And what if I said to you that over 90 % of three, four, and five -year -olds that you come across in your everyday life are actually creative geniuses? 


00:06:52    Alyssa

I'd believe it. 


00:06:53    Dr. Harding

Yes, good, I knew you would. And actually, it's not just my research that's showing this, but it's actually NASA. Back in the 1950s, they thought, you know what, we need the best brains for engineers. So they devised this test, which worked brilliantly, and they thought, hmm, let's try it with children because we could cultivate the same sort of intelligence. And so they did. And they found that over 98 % of children were geniuses. However, as time went on, it started to diminish. So by 10, it went down to about 30%. And off we go until adults only 2%. So what's going on? And we have to question ourselves. And we have to be a bit smart. Because if we want children to be creative, to be playful, to be problem solvers, we have to do things differently, because if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. So what happened to that research, he got buried. And I'm telling you, my research is not going to be buried. I'm going to shout from the mountaintops that play is inextricably linked to cognition. And if you try and pull it apart, then that's when the challenges begin. So it's serious and it's delicious and it's wonderful and it's challenging. But I think it's time that we all, you know, sat up straight and thought, okay, what is it that we can do for children to help them be as fulfilled as they can? Because when children are being playful and creative and problem solving and all of that, they feel good. Is that true of adults too? Oh, yes, it is. So it's important that we look at adults as well as children. 


00:08:57    Alyssa

I love this. So I think that there are a lot of things that I think we have an age bias around where we'll look at like, oh, this is a thing that you do when you're younger. This is, you know, we see it with crying, for example, of like, oh yeah, it makes sense for a baby to cry or a toddler to cry. And then they get a little older and an age bias can come up where we're like, they shouldn't be crying about this anymore, right? And then we get to adulthood and there can be shame or embarrassment around crying. And we know that it's a healthy form of expression. The science is so clear. And I think this comes up with play as well, where we can see an age bias. We're like, yeah, it makes sense for a really young child to need to play. But now they're five, they're six, they're seven, they're eight, they're getting, and I mean, then we get to adulthood and I think play has completely disappeared for a lot of humans. So what I think is key is first us acknowledging like, oh yeah, maybe that does come up for me, where I do think there's an age where play should diminish and just noticing that bias. What is it that's happening in the brain? I know for myself as a learner, I learned so much better through play when I'm like engaged and I'm doing it and I'm interested and I'm trying to figure something out versus if I'm sitting and I'm listening to something, right? Or I'm watching something. And so I'm wondering if you can speak to the science behind what's happening in our brain and in our body when we are engaging in play and then that connection to cognition. 


00:10:33    Dr. Harding

Okay, well, let's start with the big moment. This morning when you woke up, in fact, when I just woke up, we were given 700 new neurons. And that gives us the capacity for neuroplasticity, which means we have the ability to be as creative as little children, if we use our brains in the right way, which is not about rote learning, which is not about stuffing our brains full of facts. It's about maintaining a playful, curious attitude. So those 700 new neurons, I say to people, what are you going to do with your 700 new neurons today? And when you talk about an age bias, you are so right. In fact, I heard of a child coming out of school. I think he was about six or seven. And Dad said to him, well, what did you learn in school today? And he said, well, apparently not enough because I've got to go back there again tomorrow. The perception that really, this is something to be feared. And if that's not bad enough, I do remember, hands up, I remember my own child, one of my sons said to me, he was seven, he got a spelling test the next day. And he said, Mum, do not test me. I haven't forgotten it yet. 


00:12:00    Alyssa



00:12:03    Dr. Harding

The perception is that learning is about forgetting and it's about failure. Oh, and that was the moment I thought, oh dear, oh dear, dear, dear. You know, we really do need to change this about. You know, that was part of my journey into neuroscience and understanding why the brain loves to play. And you asked me, why does it? And metaphorically speaking, it lights up the whole neocortex. In other words, it actually helps join the dots between different domains of knowledge. And it helps it perform in the way that it actually wants to. Now the brain is a predicting organ, very expensive. It spends about 20 % of its calories on just thinking and it's busy thinking, oh, I wonder what my body needs? How much can I put into this? How much do I need for that? And what we don't want to do for children is to waste that metabolic action. What we want them to do is to engage in a way that's easy for them and play is the way biologically they're wired to do it. And the tragic thing is any sustained deviation from this masterful plan comes at a price. I had a friend who was, well, he was an absolute genius. He worked on the first fMRI scan. My, I mean, he was off the scale, clever, but you know what? Working with him was quite a problem because every now and then he'd disappear out the office. He'd say, I'm just off to fly my kite or play with an airplane. And do you know what happened? When he was a child, he was made to sit down and learn. And he never got over that. Yes, he was bright, but is that everything? I don't think so. And is rote learning everything? I don't think so. Being able to be creative is the piece of genius that unlocks our whole lives. It's astounding, isn't it? 


00:14:19    Alyssa

Yes, so a couple of things are coming up for me. My team jokes here at Seed that I can't take any time off because I come back with 7 ,000 new ideas. I'm like, we should be doing this. We could do this. Here's how we can tweak this system. And if I go on vacation and I unplug from work, like even I, for a weekend, like I come back on Monday and I'm like, okay, I have ideas. And so I'm coming out of maternity leave now and everyone is like bracing themselves because I've had time to play, to be, to exist without trying to achieve or accomplish something necessarily, just to be and to play. And I see this, what you were just saying with like he steps out to go fly a kite or to play. I wonder if for him, he's recognized, oh, this is actually how I best problem solve. This is how I'm able to be successful. That if I sit there and I'm in meeting after meeting, after meeting, after meeting, I hit a point where I am not able to see this problem as clearly, or I can't think of new ideas. And I think that this challenges for us in the US, our school system quite a bit of, in some schools like recess is earned and it's the only time kids are playing. And we look at things like, there's even a phrase for it, play -based learning. And it drives me a little bonkers because I'm like, couldn't we make all learning play -based? What would we see for rates of success for kids for literacy or for understanding content if we did it in a play -based manner as often as possible? 


00:16:00    Dr. Harding

Would you believe it, I was privileged to go and conduct that very experience. 


00:16:06    Alyssa

Oh my gosh, Dr. Harding, thank you. 


00:16:08    Dr. Harding

Oh, I couldn't believe it. I was really excited about it. So I took a medical doctor. And so, I mean, my background, my doctorate is in child development and education. So I went in with that. And then we went in with cameras. We were commissioned to do it in two very deprived areas, two schools that were failing by our Ofsted system over here. And we took in performance artists and a visual artist, and we did exactly what you're suggesting. We changed the whole curriculum up into a play -based curriculum for six and seven -year -olds. And we conducted this experiment for one year and six months, so 18 months. We had the whole school with us. Everyone knew about it. The parents were engaged with it as well. And I'm talking, this school was seriously deprived. Some of the children didn't even know where to go to the toilets. So they went to the toilet in the playground. But I am talking about severe deprivation. But there is something more powerful than deprivation or poverty. And that is creativity. What happened at the end of those 18 months? Absenteeism just disappeared. And that was for the teachers as well. They actually wanted to come to school. The children wanted to come to school. The parents were engaged. And then we had, at that time, we had what we called SATs and exams for rising seven -year -olds. Guess what happened? The results went up. So we've actually conducted that very experiment. And I know from a medical point of view, a scientific point of view, from a neurophysiological point of view, that play works. Play and cognition are like that. So yeah, why don't we do it? We do it in the UK as well. Don't worry, you'll not alone in that. 


00:18:06    Alyssa

Yeah. Well, and I'm for myself as a teacher, I'm like, it makes our job easier. And as a parent, frankly, just the other day, I was with my infant, and my husband was trying to help my three -year -old move through a transition. And as I like can hear it unfolding and they're starting to get into a power struggle, husband wants him to put on his pants and his socks and my child's playing and so I just peeped up and I said I wonder if you can do it through play and my husband has consumed all of this so much he was like okay. Once upon a time that wouldn't have gone over as well, but at this point he was open to that and then I heard him like engaging Sage in this play and was like can you drive this foot truck right into this like garage or whatever and it was the sock and they played and he got all of his clothes on through play and we were chatting about it later and my husband was just like I just wish sometimes he could just do the thing without the play and I was like totally, like I get that, I think because we as adults have come so far from play that it can feel like a burden to play it can feel uncomfortable for us as adults to enter into and to engage in the play and I think when we can notice that and really allow ourselves to even, even if you don't engage in it yet, just be present to it and allow it without scrolling on your phone or stepping away. For me, I'm like, oh, there's 7 million things I could do around the house. I can go do the dishes, I can whatever. And when I really encourage myself to just sit there, to just be near the play, my body starts to calm and all of a sudden, like, yeah, I'm building with magnet tiles or I'm making a black tower.  I'm participating, and then you start to notice in my body, like I feel better. And I then start to connect with my child in a different way. And ultimately it makes my life easier as a parent and as a teacher. 


00:20:08    Dr. Harding

Do you know what, you've hit on the next big point. So there are nuggets. Did you know that some of the research that I conducted for Fisher Price, which was actually not about toys, they wanted to find out what happened, well, what did adults benefit from playing with children? And so I conducted this research, all the literature reviewed, and it boils down to something incredibly simple. It's this, I called it playful triangulation, which is eye -to -eye contact, close proximity, and shared attention. And it forms a triangle, and that can happen with older children, it can happen with another carer, It doesn't have to be mom and dad, but it's this triangle that occurs. And then something profound also happens, which is that there is something called a shared brain network. When you were talking about this physiological difference that you felt in your body, you weren't imagining it. You weren't imagining it. So it's called a biobehavioral feedback. 


00:21:20    Alyssa

Like mirror neurons, yeah? 


00:21:22    Dr. Harding

It is activated by mirror neurons, but it's not just about that. And it's not spooky. It's not some sort of-


00:21:29    Alyssa



00:21:29    Dr. Harding

... stuff. It really is scientifically based. And this is some of the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett. 


00:21:36    Alyssa

Love her. 


00:21:37    Dr. Harding

Yeah, absolutely. So she talks about a shared brain network. So I've been sort of teasing, just pulling a little bit on her work and meshing it with of mine around this playful triangulation and actually discovering this almost, well, it's a beautiful impact that this shared attention that you described so beautifully actually really does occur for us. And it makes us feel better. It makes us feel better because what we don't want is to feel stressed. We don't need that impact, if you like, on our own systems or on that of children either. So we kind of like, we become like electricians for our own children, because we're talking about electrical and chemical occurrences within the brain. So the more playful we become, just the way you described, and sometimes, yes, you can think, oh for goodness sake, just put those socks on. But really, you know, the sock becomes Mr. Sock and there's Ben the sock and they have their tussle and but actually, it's doing your brain good. And it's helping you be more creative. And it takes us out of a kind of a rote, boring zone. Yeah, so psychoneuroimmunology is showing us that play is a buffer against stress. For little children, big children, adults, we all need it all the way through life. And we must use our 700 new neurons every day. We must make best use of them. And our neuroplasticity, it's good for our brains. But when I go for a run, which is not every day, but I wear trainers. And so there's a buffer to my knees. And play is a buffer for all of us. And it does help calm the system down. We have a sympathetic nervous system that can get a little bit overexcited and a parasympathetic nervous system that comes alongside, the word para, meaning to soothe. And play just does the business. We don't really have to do anything else other than play, which is driven by the child. The child agency must have over it. 


00:24:07    Alyssa

Can you break down what that means? Because I think for some folks, that like child led play can feel kind of like, what does that mean? Or can be uncomfortable and hard to be in? 


00:24:18    Dr. Harding

Yeah, well, I suppose basically, we're talking about not, I mean, in fact, you can't make children play, but you can certainly intervene. And I'm not saying you should never intervene and just let it all hang loose, mother goose. I'm not saying that, but whenever possible, follow the child's interest, because there are things called schemas in the brain, and repeatable schemas, and they'll like to put things in containers and take them out. And if that's the stage they're at, then that's what they need to do. And so having agency means observing the child. What is it that fascinates them? Follow the fascination and you can't go wrong. I think that's what - 


00:25:07    Alyssa

Love it. I love it. And this, we in education refer to it as emergent curriculum, where we're noticing like, what are they interested in and doing? And then how do we create curriculum around that? Rather than like, I don't care if a kid knows the life cycle of a butterfly when they go to kindergarten. What is really cool is that they understand the science behind things that they're interested in, or I just recently we were reading Sage was two and a half, maybe we're reading at night, and he pointed to the page number and said 11 and I was like, what?  It was 11 I was like, I'm sorry, how do you know that? And he was like one one. And I was like, how do you know that right? Like, what? And because it's never something that we've never like sat down and talked about our numbers in that way or whatever. And as we started to, I was like, I'm just going to observe his play. So over the next couple of weeks, I just tried to find little pockets where I could just watch what he was doing and playing and watch other people playing with him. And I realized that all through play, we have been like talking about numbers that we'll see in books or along the way, or my husband was cooking with him and he was like, we need one cup. And he pointed to the one on the directions. It was like, we need one cup of flour. And to just little ways like that, where he was taking it in and he didn't have to sit down. He never did a worksheet. He never, it wasn't like drilled into him at numbers time. It was a part of his play and he was absorbing it and really understood it, right? Like then he started to do things like, oh, there's three trucks over there. And like, there were three trucks. And I was like, oh my gosh, it's so cool to see how much is possible when what we're doing with them is something that they are interested in. And when we can lead, or we can follow their lead on that, and just bring them into it, you know, and it's so cool to see how much, I think, more they take in when it's something they're interested in. 


00:27:14    Dr. Harding

Yeah, you're right. And that's dispositions to learn, a disposition. And that's what we want to cultivate. That's the real gold. And when we're following the child's lead, they become more curious. You become curious. And it's like it has this incredible sort of unfolding effect. So they want to learn. 


00:27:39    Alyssa



00:27:40    Dr. Harding

Want to learn. And they're curious. And I suggest that as adults as well, because of this shared brain network, because of what's going on on a sort of a biological point of view, we need to maintain that stance as well. We need to continue to be curious. We need to continue to be playful. Otherwise we're going to have this real division between the way the child acts and the way that we act. And so, I mean, if you want to change the beginning, if you change the beginning, you change the whole story. And changing that story is about noticing what happens three weeks after conception, which is when the neural tube starts to close. And then out of that comes the three main parts of the brain. And then by the time the baby's born, we have 128 billion neurons at our disposal. That's about as many stars as there are in the Milky Way. 


00:28:50    Alyssa



00:28:50    Dr. Harding

And it's connecting it up. And so this playful disposition, which is within the hippocampus, which is the memory and learning for children and for adults, if we're able to give them the opportunity to join the dots. The more creative they are, the more they're likely to learn. Because what happens is that we can, through a habituation, through doing things the way we've always done it, we inhibit creativity. Yeah, and we don't want to do that. We want to be alive, exuberant. In fact, the baby, your little baby, is probably going through what's called the exuberant period. where the brain is going, yippee, bring it on. And we can ourselves remain in that period. We too can be exuberant for life. And there you get that kind of shared beauty that comes from joint learning. 


00:30:00    Alyssa

And I think it's so cool when we can enter into that joint learning. Like there are times where I find myself being like, I don't know, can he understand this? But he's really into vehicles right now. And he was watching something and it had a hydraulic system. And so he was like, what's that? And I was like, those are the hydraulics. And he was like, what are hydraulics? And we got to go down this route where we were together learning. Like, how do hydraulics work? What are they? And he was like almost three years old. And in my head, I was like, he knows the word hydraulics. Like what in the world? Like that feels bonkers. But he really understands how hydraulics work. He can recognize them because I just followed his lead on what he was interested in. And also there was a voice inside me that was like, does a three year old need to know about hydraulics? Is he gonna understand it? And I think for us as adults, sometimes it can feel like, will they get this? And in my experience with kids, when we give them the benefit of the doubt, and we go down, we follow their curiosity, they're so capable of understanding concepts and context. 


00:31:08    Dr. Harding

Yeah, you're so right. And when you look at it from the brain's point of view, from attention focus, so a baby's focus is like a lantern. So it's just like focusing around and it's by design so that they're not having this very sort of tunnel vision. And it's only through time that we develop like a spotlight of attention. And that's actually why they're so creative. I must tell you about a little boy the other day, I heard, had a new trampoline in the garden. And he said to his mum, come on, let's go out, let's get on the trampoline. Oh, but can you just look overhead to make sure there aren't any airplanes, because I might just bang my head. I mean, for him, the capacity, the imagination, the potential for life was without bounds. And that provides the learning focus that you need. This lantern effect actually inhibits habitual thinking. Ah, so that means we too need to be creative. In order, I don't know, to solve some of the world's problems that we've got, we don't need children who are rote learners. You can look it up in Google. I mean, last night I wanted to know something absurd about dogs, dogs and wagging tails. So I looked it up on Google. I didn't have to retain that. What I needed was a disposition, a curiosity, a creativity. And that's what children possess. That's why when they're three, four and five -year -olds, they are creative geniuses. We need to bottle it, don't we? And we need to hold on to it. And the education system must, in my opinion, must be more focused on the way that the brain actually performs and wants to perform. 


00:33:11    Alyssa

Yeah, the evolution of the school system, it will lead to greater success if we can embrace that. My husband and I are so very different in so many ways and I can do rote memorization. It's what I was raised to do. I can take a test like nobody's business and then forget it in a week and I was what the school system really like they I'm what they're looking for, right? like I could memorize this stuff and then move on but I wasn't retaining and my husband on the other hand is not as great of like a memorizer but gosh, his retention is incredible and he is such a playful creative human.  And we'll sit down and like watch Jeopardy and he knows all these facts because he's actually learned them because he does it through play. And he is, he keeps like a little guitar in his office that like periodically throughout the day when he has a little break, he'll play. And just will tap into play way more frequently than I do. And his retention is so much better than mine is. 


00:34:18    Dr. Harding

Yeah, that's such a brilliant example, a brilliant example of how we need to retain it for our own health, for our own well -being, so that the cortisol is always reduced and the adrenaline and all the rest of it, all that we know about dopamine and all those beautiful chemicals, they actually help us feel better and they help us with our health as well. So it's win -win all the way around. So it's almost like this secret that really just needs to pop out and really be embraced in terms of our everyday lives. And children will find solutions. I've got a lot of these little stories. A mother said to me the other day, I think the child was three, three and a half, something like this. And she wanted a cat. And mom said, Oh yeah, we could, we could really do with a cat but unfortunately I can't live in a house with a cat because I've got allergies. And the little girl said, Don't worry, mom, you can sleep outside. 


00:35:29    Alyssa

Solved this! 


00:35:31    Dr. Harding

Solved it! And I mean that may not be the solution in this case, but the fact she had the permission, if you like, she gave herself permission not to be rigid in her thinking. And why do we shut that down? Is there any good reason? I can't think of one. 


00:35:51    Alyssa

I think for control. I think for control or perceived control, right? I think what just came up for me there is like boundaries. When sometimes we'll set a boundary for a child and then they come up with a like, well, actually like here's another way to approach it. And they'll ask like, well, why can't I do this? And we'll say, yeah, because I don't want you to play baseball in the house because I don't want that the picture frame and the light to get broken when you're hitting the ball. And then when they come back and they say, okay, well, how about I, and they can come up with something. And then it, I think for some of us who were raised in a like, because I said so kind of authoritarian place place, that then it can challenge us as the like, are we in control, which spoiler alert we're not, but it can challenge that for us. And so being able to like, allow the creative thinking for kids and say, okay, sure, let's chat about this. Here's something else that might come up and engage in the problem solving. And then sometimes your boundary shifts. And I, we're doing this recently. And I had someone who's from the generation before me who just said, well, that was easy for him to get you to switch on. And I was like, interesting note, right? Like, for this person, it was an observation of I'm not in control and my child just took the reins. And for me, it was, yeah, I answered pretty quickly. He came back with a pretty solid reasoning and I was like, yeah, actually, that makes sense. Let's do it. And, but I think for, for us, it requires the ability to pause and ask, like, what is my role here? And what's my why here? And it's humbling. 


00:37:46    Dr. Harding

It is. Working with children is humbling. But it's also, it's reciprocal. 


00:37:53    Alyssa



00:37:54    Dr. Harding

What this sort of biological system is actually designed to do. Did you know that imagination is more important than knowledge? Well, Einstein said it and he knew a thing or two about knowledge. And the big news about imagination is that it actually turns genes on or off inside the nerve cells that then create proteins that then alter the actual architecture of the brain. And I'm drawing on Doidge's work here in neuroplasticity, because we used to think it was all over, done, forget it, by five, seven. But what we know now is that imagination is that super nutrient that propels us into a very different space and feeds the brain in a metaphorical sense and does what the brain wants to do. When I talked about the brain being a predicting organ, honestly, I am really concerned that we waste children's resources because we know now that the brain and the body are porous and we mustn't waste children's time. What they should be engaging in is that creative, imaginative, playful way where we follow their interests and they want to learn about the number 11. Beautiful example. Or they want to learn about, I don't know, geography or where—


00:39:26    Alyssa



00:39:27    Dr. Harding

Yeah, hydraulics, why not go for the big stuff. And, and, and then if you do that, it is authentic, that authenticity that actually makes it stick. Otherwise, I don't know about you, but it just goes out my brain if I have to-- 


00:39:45    Alyssa

100 % 


00:39:45    Dr. Harding

Yeah, it's gone. And do we want that for our children? No, We don't. We want them to retain that imaginative state and there's been some amazing experiments that that show that just by imagining, we have power over even our sort of physical being. I don't know whether you know about the piano experiment where there was this. Oh, it's just, this is-- 


00:40:14    Alyssa

Yeah, share it with us. 


00:40:16    Dr. Harding

Okay, so, so there was this experiment where they thought, okay, we'll get a pile of people trying to play the piano and just learn it two hours every day, five days, okay, off they went. Another group thought about it, couldn't play it, thought about how they were going to do it. And then the control group didn't do it at all. And then they put on like coils on the brain. Guess what? The ones that were just thinking and imagining were almost as strong and as impactful as actually doing it. 


00:40:55    Alyssa



00:40:56    Dr. Harding

When I say imagination is as important as knowledge, I really mean it. Me and Albert Einstein, we're on a roll here. You know, he and I are like this together. And, you know, if we want our children to be creative geniuses and to solve world problems and to really be at the top of their game, there's got to be a shift in the way that we value creativity and imagination in a way that we have never done it before. And you're right. I mean, all of this research from the 1950s and other research has got buried. Is mine going to get buried? No, we are going to keep talking about the value of creativity and imagination and human connection. That's really important. When I talked about that play triangle, it's not that you just like go and be creative on your own, dear child. Off you go. See you later. You know, it's that involvement in it. And some of the illustrations you've given are, you know, absolutely beautiful and sharing in the delight, sort of plunging in the wallowing in their play does you good and them as good as well. So it's win -win. 


00:42:16    Alyssa

Yeah, your classic win -win. Dr. Harding, I love this. I think it's such an important topic. I'm really excited about your latest book, The Brain that Loves to Play. Can you just give us a snapshot into what you're diving into in the book and share where folks can get it? 


00:42:34    Dr. Harding

Yeah, okay. Well, everything I've been talking about has been stuffed into the chapters in that book. But more importantly, I've used little fly on the wall films, not rehearsed, just on little iPhones all the way through it to provide examples of what I'm talking about. So people can read the theory, which is in as simple language as possible, not because I think people are thick, but we're busy. And so, so it's got those in there as well through little QR codes. And it's for parents, it's for researchers, and it's on Amazon, published by Routledge, The Brain that Loves to Play. And I really do hope there's a chapter at the end about, come on, go out, do something different every day for yourself as well. 


00:43:26    Alyssa

I love it. Thank you so much for your deeply important work. 


00:43:30    Dr. Harding

Thank you for chatting. 


00:43:39    Alyssa

Right, all right, who do we get to hang out and dive into today, Rach? 


00:43:44    Rachel

Okay, Dr. Harding. 


00:43:46    Alyssa

Dr. Harding. 


00:43:48    Rachel

This was a fun episode for me. Also a little bit convicting, because I don't like playing very much. I'm not the playful parent and I love handing that off to my husband. But something that I loved that she brought into this episode was this idea that like play is a stress buffer. And when we can lean into that and allow ourselves to be playful, naturally humans are playful. And I think like I've conditioned myself to not be. So after listening to that episode, I was like, okay, I'm gonna work on like leaning into play and being playful. And so much of my resistance to play, I think is wrapped up in like the mental load of all the other stuff that feels superior to play. 


00:44:41    Alyssa

Boom, that's what it is for me. 


00:44:43    Rachel



00:44:44    Alyssa

I've really thought about this a lot because going into this episode, I had some feelings. Right, like going in, I was like, I'm not the playful parent. I'm already going in with some judgment. I already feel judged by it, right? Like before I even, and I hadn't even met Dr. Harding yet, right? Just like I have my own triggers around this topic. 


00:45:06    Rachel



00:45:07    Alyssa

Yeah, play's so important for kids, totally, for kids. Like play's so important for them. And would it be lovely to be my husband and just get to go enjoy and play? Totally. But someone has to handle the mental load and think about all the other things and whatever. And it was a real good challenge for me. And also, I ended up having a conversation with Zach where I-- Oh, it was Easter egg dyeing, where I had done all the prep. I got the eggs. I boiled them. I got the Easter egg dying kit and was so jazzed to like get to do this with Sagey again. He had a lot of fun last year and it came down to it, and Beaners needed to nurse and go to sleep. And so I was like, all right, I'll nurse her. And I'm like trying to figure, and then she needed to go to sleep. Both of us are capable of putting her to sleep. Zach just like jumped right in to the egg dyeing. And I ended up leaving the kitchen to go put her to sleep. And by the time I came back, the egg dying was done. Not a single picture had been taken. And I started to cry. And like pulled it together for to get through dinner and whatever, but now Zach knows like something's up and we're in this holding pattern. And then after Sagey went down, that it came out and I was like, yeah, I don't want to never be the playful parent and it was after this episode. And I, he was like, I thought that was most helpful for me, was for me to do this. And I was like, right. And in Sage's memory, he got to go and dye these eggs with you. And there is no egg dyeing without me. Like I got the eggs, boiled the eggs, got all the prep done, and you just get to step in and do the fun part. And he gets the memory with you and you get the memory with him. 


00:47:09    Rachel



00:47:10    Alyssa

And I was like, I, that's bullshit. And I was like, for Easter, which is now around the corner, just dyed the eggs, I would love for you to get all the things and fill the eggs and hide them. And then if it comes down to it, where one of us has to be on Beaners and help her in some capacity, I would love for it to be you. And he was like, yeah, sure. And then I did. I played and I had fun and it was great, but I felt like I first had to like offload the mental load stuff. I did find in the moment of the like doing the egg hunt piece that I still was like, okay, got to make sure we get breakfast up and running. Right. Like my head's still going on those things that he wasn't thinking about. He was sitting there with Mila. He wasn't like, let me start breakfast while they're doing this. 


00:48:02    Rachel

Totally. And I think like that's what it is too. After, so after I listened to the episode, I was like, alright, I'm gonna be playful. Like I'm gonna do this. And I did. I mean, I, my kids know that I'm not the playful parent. I will do a craft with you. I will take you hiking. I will - 


00:48:20    Alyssa

I'm here for your big feelings. 


00:48:21    Rachel

I'm here for your big feelings. I am definitely the emotional point person for both of my children. However, if you ask me to sit down with like action figures, I, 20 minutes feels like six hours. 


00:48:32    Alyssa

Oh my God, so long. 


00:48:33    Rachel

Like, I'm looking at the clock like, alright, I must have been doing this for an hour. Nope! Five minutes. So, I was like, okay, I am going to, because I know, especially Abel, that kind of play like fills his cup, and he's at an age where he really wants to boss me around and prove me wrong in life, so like, play is a great time for him to have that opportunity, right? I'm like, alright, we're gonna do this. And I did, but the entire time I was thinking like, okay, I have an hour and a half until I have to pick up Nora, I don't have anything planned for dinner, I should have put something in the Instant Pot before I sat down with him. Now when I get home from pickup, both kids are going to be hungry and cranky and I have no food. And like, it was so difficult for me to release that and just be present to him. 


00:49:14    Alyssa

Yeah. Yes. I, similarly, Sage's cup is the most filled by me just being present and playing. Quality time is his love language. If we are just hanging and playing, that's his jam. We're in the basement at his workbench with all of his tools, his favorite space, and he's got a big old cardboard box and he's pretending he's putting a new roof on. I'm like, yeah, I'm slaying this play. I am in it. I have a timer set for him because I was like, I'm going to probably have to nurse your sister. I knew she's probably going to get up in like 20 minutes from her nap. Set the timer for 10 minutes. I'm like, you get mama time for 10 minutes. Just you and I, blah, blah, blah. We'll set the timer for it. We're two minutes in and I'm like, gotta be almost done. Two minutes, Rach. I look at the timer and we're two minutes in. And he was like, how much time is left? And I looked at it and I was like, wow, we have eight more minutes. I'm like, ooooof, right? Like, I'm not having a good time. 


00:50:17    Rachel



00:50:17    Alyssa

I'm not. And I'm steps away from the washer and the dryer, just right around the corner. And so in my head, I'm like, I can just pop over there, toss in a little laundry. He's really engaged in this thing. He won't even probably notice. And I did. I couldn't even last 10 fricking minutes. I stepped away and I threw in a load of laundry and he was like, Mama, come back. And I was like, aww, shoot. I couldn't even do 10 minutes. It wasn't fun for me. Whereas like Zach, if I send him into the basement with Sage, I'm like, will you guys just go play at the workbench? They will like, the reason that there's a big box down there that he's playing in this, Zach brought this in and engaged in the play and whatever. It's so not, it wasn't me as a teacher either. 


00:51:02    Rachel

Yeah. I mean, Zach is such a playful human. 


00:51:04    Alyssa

He is. 


00:51:05    Rachel

Like in, as an adult. So is Cody. 


00:51:09    Alyssa

Cody's so playful. 


00:51:10    Rachel

Right. So it's so easy for me to be like, you know what? He can meet that need. I'm just going to separate myself from it. But I'm almost like, I'm doing a disservice to myself because when I can get into flow with my children and play with them and not be worried about the 10 million other things that I need to think about, I feel so connected to them. 


00:51:30    Alyssa

Yeah. I guess there's a part of me that's just like, maybe this isn't the age where play's fun for me, right? Like imaginative play, not my jam, but maybe if like, I don't know, down the road, they're like play for them is something where we're like active and running around or playing a game, like relay races or things like that. Like I'm here for that. That--


00:51:52    Rachel

You're an athlete.


00:51:52    Alyssa

 Yeah. Well, once upon a time, I was an athlete. And like, that's fun for me. Like, though, there are certain types of play that I am like, looking forward to or jazzed about. And also Zach and Sage are so the same human. 


00:52:09    Rachel

Yeah they are.


00:52:11    Alyssa

That Zach's like, yeah, would love to go frig around with some tools. And just like, have a big old cardboard box to play with. And I'm like, yeah, I've never loved that. That has never been fun--


00:52:22    Rachel

Even as a kid


00:52:23    Alyssa



00:52:23    Rachel

Even as a kid, that wasn't my jam. 


00:52:25    Alyssa

No, right. 


00:52:26    Rachel

So I think like, it's okay to challenge your ideas of play too, because I think like often we think like, okay, I have to sit down and build these block towers and take these little action figures and have fake conversations. Like it's also play to like go outside and run around with your kids. 


00:52:39    Alyssa

Yeah, or like hide and seek. I can play that for a little while. 


00:52:42    Rachel



00:52:42    Alyssa

And so I think for me, it's finding like, what play am I gonna say yes to? Or like art, like if it's messy play, I'm here for it. I don't care about the mess. It doesn't bother me. Whereas Zach's like, don't touch that. No-- ahh, ah, ahh, ah,  right? And so maybe I should challenge myself more, but also maybe it's okay for me to be like, yeah, that's not my type of play. It's okay for me to just say no to that type of play. 


00:53:11    Rachel

Yeah, I mean, if two minutes feels like a stretch, it's probably like, I don't think that's an actual stress buffer for you. and your relationship with Sage. So like, feel free to just let go of that idea. 


00:53:24    Alyssa

Two minutes. 


00:53:25    Rachel

It's a lot tougher if you hate it, so. 


00:53:27    Alyssa

I shit you not, I was like two. That's when I'm, when he asked how much time and I was like, wow, there's eight minutes left. 


00:53:35    Rachel

There's eight years left. But his love for tools is so good. I just have to let people know here that Sage taught me what a chalk line is. When I was there, I don't know if it was when I was there for work or when I was there for Mila's birth, but I was in the basement with Sage and I was like, Oh, I've never seen that before. What is it? And he was like, it's a chalk line. Okay. He was two at the time. 


00:54:02    Alyssa

Yeah. And he's like, here's how you use it. This is--


00:54:03    Rachel



00:54:07    Alyssa

He'll now say 'you might notice someone use it when'.. like 'you might notice,'... 


00:54:12    Rachel

Wonder where he got that phrase from. 


00:54:15    Alyssa

Oh my god. You know, wrote it in the book, open my mouth, my mom comes out. 


00:54:20    Rachel



00:54:21    Alyssa

Yep. Now I'm seeing him open his mouth and me come out. So that's a thing. 


00:54:27    Rachel

Totally. I think I want to go back to one thing that you talked about, though, which is like, we call it the division of responsibility in our house, which is like a kid feeding term. But this is how we talk about the mental load. In order for play to be accessible for both parents and to actually be like a connected stress -relieving thing, the mental load has to be shared. 


00:54:50    Alyssa



00:54:50    Rachel

Whoever is carrying more of the mental load just is going to have less capacity to be like, yeah, let me sit down for 20 minutes and play with you. It doesn't feel accessible if you're thinking about all the other things that have to happen just to keep your life moving. 


00:55:05    Alyssa

100%. And I feel like for me, there's the sharing of the mental load and also allowing it to be OK to set a timer. That like, I'm not just going to play for... like he has, Sage has more time to play than I do. Right. They're like he might have an hour and I have 15 minutes and then I really got to get dinner started if we're going to eat dinner tonight. 


00:55:28    Rachel



00:55:28    Alyssa

And I actually just did an interview that we'll dive into in another chat, but that was about the sharing of household duties, chores. What does it take to run a household? How do we bring kids into that? And one of my challenges is allowing myself to do household things when the kids are awake. I think especially when Sage was a baby, his sensitivities made it hard to do some things. I couldn't lay him down and do a workout on the TV because the TV was so overstimulating. Me moving my body, jumping, et cetera, was so overstimulating for him. I remember going to a yoga class one time postpartum. And all these babies are like laid out on, they're newborns, laid out on the mat next to their parents. Some of them are just like falling asleep on the mat as their parent is doing yoga. And like literally never, over my dead body would Sage have fallen asleep on this mat outside without a white noise dungeon. And I was like sweating through yoga and not the good kind, but the like, I'm stressed. I'm like trying to do this, but he, every time I lay him down and he's like whelmed by all the sounds and the whatever, picking him up. I'm now trying to do all the yoga with him on my body. It was so stressful. I was like, I'm never doing this again. And I feel like I got like in a conditioning for myself of just saving a lot of things. Like I couldn't run a vacuum when he was awake without overstimulating him. So many things that were really dysregulating for him as a baby that I just saved for when he was asleep or out of the house, and now Mila can handle 'em. In fact, I was doing a workout the other day and I laid her down on her mat right in front of me. Every time I did a squat where I like got closer to her, she was full belly laughing. She's like, this is hilarious. She's like watching the TV as I do this YouTube workout. And it has been like good for me to see like, I can do these things while she's awake, while they're awake. I can, whether it's making dinner or also just like cleaning, throwing in laundry, etc. And that not every waking moment has to be spent with my undivided attention. 


00:57:56    Rachel

Yeah, totally. Because it's just not sustainable, especially now with two children. If you try to save all of your household tasks for when they were both sleeping, like you would never sleep and you would be so burnt out. Like-- 


00:58:09    Alyssa



00:58:10    Rachel

--there's got to be a, there's got to be a better way. 


00:58:12    Alyssa

Yeah, exactly. And so I've like, that's something I've had to like, lean into more where Zach and I typically, before Mila, we would both do bath time and bedtime together. And it's something I really enjoyed. And then once he was down, we would clean up the house and do the dishes and make lunches for tomorrow. And at this point, I hang with Mila downstairs and bust out whatever I can while she's not living on my boob. And Zach does bath time bedtime with Sage and then he comes down and finishes whatever is left and then we get to hang.


00:58:47    Rachel



00:58:48    Alyssa

And I get to chill and it has been so freeing and I think about this with play that like it's for me also saying that it doesn't have to be the whole time that he's playing that I'm available for him, and it's been a shift for him where he is very disappointed when I leave the play often. 


00:59:12    Rachel

And I think it's hard to set those boundaries. It's like, it feels like you're saying no to a bid for connection. 


00:59:19    Alyssa



00:59:19    Rachel

Which is so hard to do. And something that's helpful for me when I am trying to do that and not end up in a guilt spiral is like, I want my children to know that like, yes, connecting with them, being there for them emotionally is really important for me and there's this whole other aspect of my life where I make sure that they have clean clothes and food to eat and that like their sheets don't smell like pee and stuff like that. And I have to remind myself like, it's not only okay, it's good for them to see the other ways that I work hard to make their lives work. 


01:00:05    Alyssa

100 % yeah and we'll go so much more into this with the like other episode on it, because it challenges me in both, like I have like two different parts that come up for me here. One that's like, yeah, I want to raise a well -rounded human who knows how to do dishes and laundry and sees that it's a part of taking care of a household and all that. And then this other part that's like, I didn't have a parent who played with me. I did have a parent who had five kids, or two parents who had five kids, and worked really hard to just keep us afloat. And I have almost no memories of them playing with us. And that part is just like, you have to spend all your time playing with your kids. Right? And like finding the balance between these two is, yeah, it's a challenge for me.


01:00:55    Rachel

Yeah. I think it's a challenge for a lot of parents. And I think setting the timer is so rad because if it helps it make it more accessible for you, it doesn't have to be an hour of undivided attention playing Lego. It can be like, hey, I've got 10 minutes before I need to start dinner. What do you want to do together? 


01:01:16    Alyssa

Yeah, totally. And like, just a lot of the times for him, like that's so cup filling. Yeah. Finding those little pockets of time rather than the big things. 


01:01:27    Rachel 

Yeah, totally. 


01:01:29    Alyssa 

Do we have any other play thoughts or head out? 


01:01:32    Rachel 

I don’t think so. I mean, a lot of what she talked about was how play is like inextricably connected to cognition, which like it is. And I love the brain science that she shared, but I think my takeaway from it was like, how can play be more accessible in our daily lives? 


01:01:52    Alyssa

Practically. Yeah. 


01:01:54   Rachel


01:01:54   Alyssa

Thanks for tuning in to Voices of Your Village. Check out the transcript at Did you know that we have a special community over on Instagram hanging out every day with more free content? Come join us at S -E -W. Take a screenshot of you tuning in, share it on the gram and tag to let me know your key takeaway. If you're digging this podcast, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. We love collaborating with you to raise emotionally intelligent humans.


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