Imaginative play is essential for the healthy physical, emotional, social, and academic development of the child. Waldorf Education recognizes that when children are given a safe and beautiful environment they use the power of their own imaginations to create learning experiences. Hasbro invited Meadowbrook kindergarten teacher, Su Rubinoff, to share her expertise with its innovation design team.
Hasbro is a leading global play products company based in Pawtucket, R.I. with many well known brands including Play–Doh, Transformers, Scrabble, and My Little Pony. Most of us will remember games such as Monopoly and Candy Land from our own childhoods but Hasbro has since added a new generation of electronic toys and digital gaming, and continues to look for new ways to play. MWS alumna, Ceileidh Siegel, is currently the company’s Director of Imbedded Innovation and leads a team working on design ideas intended for production 3-5 years from now. Ceileidh says her job is a mix of the Tom Hanks role in the movie Big, where a 12 year old wishes himself into an adult body then lands his dream job of professional toy tester, mixed with Shark Tank, the television show that ruthlessly investigates the viability of new product ideas.
In 2015, Ceileidh’s team hosted a Hasbro “Summer Camp” focusing on the reinvention of two core brands. Her group worked with members of the company’s Marketing, Design, and Engineering, teams with the intention of providing timeless favorites, Baby Alive™ and FurReal Friends™, with a timely new twist. These lines feature play characters for young children that encourage patterns of role play and imagination. As a foundation for their work, Ceileidh felt that an in depth perspective on children’s innate need for play was essential for the group. She particularly wanted them to understand the importance of nurturing role play and what it brings to the developing child.
Having experienced play–based Waldorf education at Meadowbrook from early childhood until graduating from grade 8 in 1997, she decided to invite MWS kindergarten teacher Su Rubinoff (known hereabouts as Miss Su) to share her expertise with the Hasbro group. Su has worked with children for more than 40 years and holds a Master of Science degree in remedial education. She has devoted many years to the study of child development, investigating the connection between sensory and academic learning. Su, who has known Ceileidh since birth, was honored by the invitation but also a little nervous so she enlisted the help of another MWS alum, Cassandra Duda, for technical assistance. Cassandra graduated from Meadowbrook in 2013 and is currently a junior at the Lincoln School. After researching the school archives, she created a PowerPoint presentation with photographs of young children at play to accompany Su’s talk. She also brought along her favorite childhood toy, a doll named Ellie. Ceileidh says that Cassandra’s input was tremendous, “She brought the team on a lovely digital journey from the forest kindergarten, through Su’s trips around the world, to show the global drumbeat of play. She was poised and articulate speaking about her connection to the doll, the weight of its bean bag body and the rituals associated with it including purchasing clothes and accessories on family visits to Germany each summer”. In reflection, Ceileidh shared how her Meadowbrook education prepared her for the presentations she gives today. “Making my own textbooks reinforced that I really needed to know the subject from the inside out and from every angle. It gives me a great sense of calm because, if you know the material the way we are required to at Meadowbrook, there are no “gotchas”… you literally wrote the book (well, now it’s a PowerPoint) .”
Su received an enthusiastic welcome from the Hasbro team. She explained that play is not just something children do for fun or to pass the time. Play enables children to make sense of the world and it establishes the foundation of future learning. Unstructured, imaginative play activates the entire brain resulting in the building of new neural pathways. Activities practiced in play that are associated with communication, memory, self regulation, and problem solving, help to develop the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning and critical thinking. Play is also essential in learning how to interact with others, promoting social as well as self development. Children learn by exploring their environment through their senses, translating what they see and feel into a picture of the world and their place within it. For healthy development, it is important to surround the young child with beautiful and meaningful experiences that encourage trust and confidence in the goodness of the world.
Su told the group that children learn predominantly from imitation in their early years. They are not ‘little adults’, although they are driven by a strong desire to behave like the adults around them. Children imitate daily living when playing with dolls or stuffed animals, thoughtfully recapitulating the tending and caring they themselves have experienced. Children as young as one year old can be seen bending over a little crib to kiss a doll. New skills are also learned in this way. When feeding, brushing hair, or dressing their ‘babies’, children are learning how to care for themselves.
Dolls appear throughout history and in every culture, made from a wide variety of materials including cloth, grass, corn husks, plastic and clay. Children’s touch is sensitive so the intrinsically warm qualities of natural materials, such as wood or silk, make for a deeper connection than might be formed with toys made of synthetic materials. Children also see themselves in the doll, bringing it to life through their own imagination. Waldorf dolls have tiny eyes and, perhaps, a simple stitch for a mouth. Su described how these small, neutral features allow the child to explore a wider range of emotions and experiences through creative play.
Six months later, the Hasbro group is still talking about the insights Su provided. Building on the knowledge that play where the child takes the role of nurturing a toy is instinctual, they are considering ways to augment imaginary play instead of replacing it with lights, sounds, and motion. Ceileidh surmises, “Su really made it abundantly clear that the power of play and imagination is the strongest force in childhood, and the foundation for growth and success later in life.”
Ceileidh calls Meadowbrook the place where she learned how to learn. She credits Meadowbrook with helping to develop her innate internal motivation and is convinced that Waldorf Education’s consistent focus on what you do with knowledge, rather than on reciting the facts you know, resulted in her being very well prepared for work in the innovation era. “At Hasbro”, she says, “We have the privilege and responsibility for making some of the world’s best play experiences”. When it comes to the essential business of children’s play, that sense of ethical responsibility carries great importance. No word yet on what changes will be made to Baby Alive and FurReal Friends but, as a Waldorf alum leading the way, Ceileidh will likely succeed with her persistent request that a toy be just as much fun when the batteries are dead.