A weird fascination
I am currently sitting under a blanket recovering from Covid and feeling very sorry for myself. I am certainly not feeling particularly joyful at the moment and yet the subject of this article is something that is guaranteed to put a smile on my face. You see I have a bit of a secret. I deliver a whole range of training on outdoor and imaginative play and love using natural resources to create unique moments of play. I have a huge range of resources that I use with our vulnerable children’s groups, from old cardboard boxes and recycled scrap materials to purpose bought items and toys. However, in amongst all of our kit there is one type of resource that makes me smile every single time. I just can’t get enough of “things that light up”.
And I am not alone in this weird fascination with light up resources. Every time I bring out the light up bricks, for instance, there will be an audible “ooh” as they light up. This is regardless of whether I am delivering a children’s session or an adult training session, there are just some children and adults for whom light up resources create a very special kind of joy.
Magical moments with light
On one of our adoption activity days, we worked with a little boy who had made a magic potion out of green food colouring and glitter. In order to make the potions truly magical we have a light box which makes the potions glow. The child, who was sat on an adopter’s knee, placed the potion on top of the lightbox. As the potion glowed, he began to physically shake and something appeared to bubble up inside him as with a look of absolute awe and wonder he squeezed the potion as hard as he could, which promptly shot out and hit the adopter in the face. There was a moment of stunned silence and then they both laughed together whilst the green food colouring dripped down the adopter’s face.
This is not merely some fleeting, nebulous experience but a moment of pure joy with a visceral and physical reaction. It was also a wonderful moment of bonding between the child and the adult as they shared that joy.
Why is learning with light so powerful?
So, I suppose here is the question. Potions are great but why is the experience so much more magical when they light up? Building bricks are always a fantastic resource but why are the light up bricks so much more stimulating?
If anyone doubts my credentials to write about “things that light up” I should point out that I am an avid torch collector (or geek as my friends call me). I have over 30 torches and know the brightness in lumens of each. If you ever meet me in person, I guarantee I will have at least three torches with me and in fact, I sometimes mention that I collect torches on training courses in the vain hope that someone will approach me afterwards and admit that they too collect torches. Then I will have made a special friend. This has never happened.
So, whether or not you think I have taken things too far with my passion for torches, light has clearly played a huge role in human evolution from the first time we used the stars to navigate, to the advent of fire to chase the darkness away. There is something primal and uniquely powerful about our ability to manipulate and produce light. Is it our innate fear of the dark that makes us love light so much? Or is it the tiny bit of us that desires the power to push back the darkness?
As one of the most fundamental and powerful forces in the universe, our human capacity to manipulate light brings a feeling of empowerment to even our very young children. The ability to wield light, to instantly illuminate things and bring clarity is universally empowering and if you give a child a torch or source of light you will see this empowerment.
Magical light up adventures
One of the many things we do with cardboard boxes is to create a branching tunnel system, covering the joins with den making fabric so that the tunnels are very dark inside. We then give children torches and they can explore their very own caves where they can hunt for hidden treasures (or biscuits). I cannot overestimate the level of excitement that this simple activity causes as the children explore their very own biscuit mines.
In Bob Hughes’ taxonomy of Play Types he describes “Recapitulative Play” as Play that displays aspects of human evolutionary history. This is arguably one of the most difficult of the 16 play types for modern children to engage in and yet I believe the human fascination for light and light up objects does just this. Some of our most modern and “technological” toys actually support very primitive aspects of humanity.
Light is not just empowering though. It is also comforting and reassuring, representing safety and security for countless generations of humanity. After all, as all children know, it is not the dark that is frightening but the monsters who live in the dark, and the one thing monsters fear is light. From those earliest days of using fire to scare away predators, to the comfort of a night light in a child’s room to help them sleep, light represents safety. So light up resources bring joy, empowerment and a feeling of safety. Even the most anxious of children will brave the biscuit mines if they have a torch or source of light to light the way.
Learning through light
Also let’s not forget that in Simon Nicholson’s theory of Loose Parts Play, he cites playing with forces as an integral part of enriched play environments. Playing with light and shadow is hugely beneficial for children and intrinsically rich in terms of spatial awareness. The fact that a shadow becomes bigger the nearer to the light source is innately mathematical and simple shadow play with children can help embed complex scientific concepts whilst providing them with joyful explorations. It is also a fantastic way to make stories come to life. The value of sensory play to developing brains cannot be overestimated and our early explorations with light and shadow are a wonderful way to embed sensory play into our settings.
The effects of light
But why do we experience such joy when things light up? Well, there is one aspect of biochemistry which might explain this. It turns out that one of the so called “happiness hormones” is a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is integral to our reward system, and we produce it when we achieve things or when we eat a wonderful meal for instance.
Did you know?
Here’s where things get interesting though. You all know that there are feelings of pleasure or contentment when you receive your pay for the month. But you also know that this is nothing compared to the feeling of pleasure when you find a tenner in your jeans pocket that you did not know was there. Even though the wages is a much higher amount, we derive more pleasure from the unexpected, but lower amount of money. It turns out we produce more dopamine if the happiness was unexpected. So, the child who did not know the potion was going to light up experienced a unique moment of joy. He also potentially produced more dopamine because the joy was unexpected. I believe that childhood should be full of those “unexpected happiness” moments.
Joy from the unexpected
And here is the best thing of all. I also believe there are some experiences that transcend the “first time” joy of the unexpected. Experiences that keep producing dopamine again and again because they are so fascinating they continue to engage long after the first time has passed. We have all seen fireworks before and yet we still “ooh” and “aah” at each firework. When I demonstrate the light up magic potions to adult trainees they don’t just “ooh” the first potion but every subsequent one. I genuinely believe that for some children “things that light up” continue dopamine production long after the surprise of the first time and I have seen this in the awe and wonder as their faces literally light up with joy, not just once, but over and over again.
So, am I saying that we should always use light up resources? Of course not. Equally I am not saying that outdoor experiences with natural resources can ever be replaced by any amount of technology. What I am saying is that there are unique moments of joy to be had through use of light up resources, empowering our children to manipulate one of the fundamental forces of the universe and unleashing their inner god.
So, let’s see what joy you can bring to your children, giving them that unexpected ten pound note in the pocket feeling, supporting them to play with light and shadows, feeling safe, excited and awed all at the same time. Oh, and maybe ask me about torches when you next see me.
If you enjoyed this blog, why not click on this link to read his second blog in this series called “The Power of Light”.
Many thanks to Ben Kingston-Hughes for writing this article for us
Ben Kingston-Hughes is an international keynote speaker, author and multi award-winning trainer. He is the Managing Director of Inspired Children and has worked with vulnerable children across the UK for over 30 years. He has appeared on television several times working on a variety of children’s projects, and his distinctive blend of humour, neuroscience and real-life practical experiences have made his training invaluable for anyone working with children. His new book, “A Very Unusual Journey into Play.” is now available.