PresentFinding Nemo in an Interdisciplinary Study Group

By Kristen Kemple, Sondra Smith-Adcock, Tina Smith-Bonahue and Jacqueline Swank         University of Florida

In the popular Disney Pixar production, Finding Nemo, it is the first day of school and a nervous and overprotective clownfish named Marlin cautions his exuberant son, “I would feel better if you go play over there on the sponge beds.

That’s where I Nemowould play”. Marlin is later advised by a laid-back surfer turtle to “see what the young one can do for himself”, which results in Nemo becoming separated from his father. As Marlin searches for his son, he ultimately learns to allow him the freedom to both test himself and take care of himself.

There are elements of freedom, risk, and testing inherent in the act of play. Play is a natural place and process for trying things on, trying things out, and experimenting with the world. Valuing play for these functions is one of the core commonalities we have discovered in the interest that pulls us together.

A little over a year ago, several university colleagues began meeting as a local group of scholars interested in the study of young children’s play. We have grown to a cluster of 10 (professors and graduate students) who meet for one hour weekly, to enjoy conversation, company, and occasional play. Our group is interdisciplinary, and represents early childhood education, school psychology, counseling, and child development. Our individual interests in play are wide-ranging, and include playground design, play therapy, play in nature, and play-based assessment, among many others.

We view our “play group” as an opportunity to cross-fertilize and incubate ideas. In keeping with the spirit of play, we try things on, try things out, and experiment in a fairly casual context. We cross boundaries, encourage academic risk-taking, and present differing perspectives. More than a few times, as our Monday meeting draws to a close at 10 AM, group members have commented to the effect that, “This is the best meeting I’ll have this week”.   We cannot always all be in attendance, but something good must be happening to keep us regularly showing up at 9 AM on Monday mornings.

Our group has grown tentacles.   As ideas have been spawned, smaller groups and individuals have developed spin-off opportunities and projects that take on their own life. During a recent spin-off meeting, four of us (the authors) shared our personal views about the primary ways in which children’s play is important in our respective disciplines. While a variety of benefits were identified, we noted that a strong unifying theme involved empowerment. Comments included:

“In play, children get a kind of confidence”

“When we impose too many structures on children, we take away their power to create their world in a way that makes sense to them…opportunity to play restores this power”

“For a child, play is “my way to be who I am””

“Play is a child’s natural medium – it is a vital context for all aspects of development”

“Play is the native language of children – through play children are able to feel seen and heard”

“Play is a place for putting ideas together”

“Play is a natural teacher of limits – children discover for themselves how far they can go”

“Play is an opportunity not only for seeing what a child can do, but for letting her experience what she can do”

As we shared these comments, we were reminded of Nemo.   Marlin is reluctant to let Nemo experience life outside their anemone-home for fear he will get hurt. Over the course of their adventures, Marlin meets other fathers, and Nemo meets other father-figures, who teach them the importance of trying new things, testing your own limits, exploring your world. In essence, father and son negotiate a space where Nemo can stand a head taller than himself (ala Vygotsky) as he builds his competence and confidence.

We came to the realization that mainstream American culture has adopted Marlin’s child-rearing philosophies. Adults control children’s worlds through overly structured “play dates,” obsessive concerns about safety, and an over-abundance of adult-directed extracurricular activities. In our post-No-Child-Left-Behind schools, risk-taking is frowned upon, and creativity is definitely “not on the test.” Our interest in exploring and understanding play is fueled by a desire to change children’s worlds so they can explore and learn on their own terms, through their natural medium, and in their native tongue – play.

The study of play is by nature an interdisciplinary endeavor. By coming together as a study group, we have found support and created momentum for projects that might not have emerged had we stayed within the bounds of our own disciplines and departments. We are sure our little study group is not unique, but we offer this description to encourage others to swim into interdisciplinary waters and engage in similar collaborations.


 News from TRUCE  Truce

Submitted by Diane Levin, Ph.D.

Wheelock College, Professor of Early Childhood Education

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE) is a national group of educators deeply concerned about how children’s entertainment and toys are affecting the play and behavior of children in our classrooms. Busy families often find it hard to set aside time for play, especially with the distraction of screens and technology. TRUCE offers resources to help families choose appropriate toys and media and promote quality play. It’s most recent project is designed to encourage play with the whole family using natural and found objects as well as outdoor play for each season of the year.

Go to to print a two-page guide for each seasonal play theme with easy-to-follow ideas. These are great resources to share with pre-service teachers and families. Browse the action guides or download them in color or black & white PDF format. Feel free to copy and distribute the materials to help spread the word in your community about the value of family play.

Find them at:


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