“Saw a girl like I’ve never seen before / Want to make her mathematically safe...”
Mathematically Safe, Half Man Half Biscuit
It's an extraordinary gift that we seem to have created for children within our education systems. We seem to take something perfectly natural and in good working order and then take considerable time and effort to erode it as quickly as we can through a combination of boredom, worksheet and emotional disconnection.
I'm talking of course about mathematics. Young children are incredibly adept at being maths-y. They have an ability to see number, to know concepts such as more and less, to be able to see maths in the world around them in ways that as adults we have long forgotten.
Yet by the time children leave our school system the vast majority will have a crushing sense that mathematics isn't for them or that it's something to be endured like high volume country music playing loudly, the same song over and over and over again. It's the message that we give children - that mathematics is somehow a strange language, something inaccessible and remote.
And yet when they were young children spoke the language of mathematics in abundance. Of course these very same children, who are made maths-muddled are the ones who become parents and pass the message on to their own children - "I'm no good at maths..."
Do you ever play the game where you imagine what people would write on your gravestone once you’re gone? Examples might be:
“Here lies the final remains of Greg Bottrill - he hated Monopoly” or “Here rests Greg Bottrill - he loved dogs”. It’s usually a frivolous game to play and I’ve not played it for awhile. However, I have a new orbituary after my visit to Athens: “Here lies Greg Bottrill - he was once in the same room as Peter Gray”.
Just being in the space as him felt incredibly powerful, spiritual almost - here was a man whose book ‘Free To Learn” had inspired me to continue exploring the education system, had opened my eyes to the damage, to the erosion, the ‘disappearance’ of children. It’s a book that was partly responsible in my decision to leave school to go out from beyond four walls to at least try to impact on something bigger. While at the conference I don’t think I said one word to him. I didn’t need to. My soul seemed to be roaring inside of me just being there with him.
And yes I know he’s just as normal as you and I, I know he is no greater than the lovely Nikos at the conference who said of himself “I’m just a parent”. It’s just that the first six or seven chapters of Free To Learn transformed my understanding and enabled me to see myself within the current educational epoch. Peter Gray didn’t show me the magic door, he showed me the reason why I’d gone through it and why I should sing the song of play as loudly as I could.
Plus I think he’d make a great Grandad...
“Far beyond the reach of my sight, I know the answer must be there...”
Inner Space, Chain Wallet
One of the perpetual difficulties in education is creating, sustaining and growing parental connections. It always seems to start so well and then, over time, parents seem to disappear from view, possibly washing up to the school’s shore three times a year for parent meetings which both sides probably find artificial and slightly tiresome.
As a teacher, I strived very hard to create strong bonds with parents being as they are the First Teacher but also because I failed in my own parenting to pursue a true understanding of my children’s school experiences and felt that I didn’t want to repeat that for parents ‘in my care’.
It’s a fine line however. I think all too often in Early Years we can get bogged down with recording observations for our parents so they can see what’s happening which then over-shadows the true purpose of observational practice. It’s like we take photos to ‘prove’ experiences rather than truly connect to growth.
Connections with parents can often suffer because parents bring with them emotional baggage and ghosts from the past based around their own school experiences and distrusts. Breaking these down can prove challenging though it’s my experience that once play takes hold amongst the children, once that door is opened to the magic realm then parents begin to thaw and start their own journey into the children’s world.
“I sat on the roof / And watched the day go by...”
Wishful Thinking, China Crisis
It’s not every day that you get the chance to be in the same room as a legend, but that was the case when Professor Takaharu Tezuka took the stage at the Play On International Conference in Athens.
As he stepped up, there was a sense that we were in the presence of greatness. If you’ve not seen his ‘best kindergarten in the world’ on YouTube then take a look - an extraordinary building from an extraordinary mind.
What followed was a trip through architectural design which was as heartwarming as it was emotional. The construction of a kindergarten out of the aftermath of the tsunami 2011 was a reminder that hope is what lies at the heart of salvage from tragedy, humanity’s vulnerability to nature balanced with resilience. Lighter touches were the designs for this playfully interactive space:
”Time, time, time... see what’s become of me...”
Hazy Shade of Winter, Simon and Garfunkel
It’s hard to know where to start when reflecting on the first International Play On Conference in Athens. A whole host of presenters and workshops each with their own take on play and pedagogy came thick and fast and posed as many questions as there were answers given.
Now, sitting in a moment of reflection, I’m hoping to piece my thoughts on some of the presentations to share with you the experience and what I unearthed for my own thinking along the way. I’ll share my own interpretation of the main keynote talks and I hope that the speakers themselves won’t mind me doing so.
Firstly I’d like to say what an amazing experience the conference was. A lineup of ‘giants’, an array of passionate Early Years practitioners from across the world and a team of volunteers making sure that the event ran smoothly - Greek hospitality is definitely second to none!!
The conference opened with Suzanne Axelsson exploring her concept of Original Learning, and what an opening talk it was!
What resonated for me most of all from the myriad of important thoughts which Suzanne shared was a discussion about time itself.
She presented the notion that there are two types of time based on two Greek words: chronos and aeon which can applied to our interactions with children and children’s experiences.
Chronos is timetable, the clock, the tick of the second hand, the wristwatch, the measure, the deadline, the school bell, control and order...
Aeon is akin to being ‘lost in time’, of timelessness itself, of living beyond time, of its existence just slipping away, of it no longer have meaning or purpose or delineation.
Children of course live in ‘aeon’ and adults live in ‘chronos’ so there exists a natural tension between the two.
I began to frame it in my mind akin to a holiday romance. There is a shared moment(s) in which two people abandon ‘time’ and become timeless - it’s as though both people step out of time itself and they enter aeon.
However, chronos is not so easily cheated: there is a schedule, a flight time and an inevitable closure to aeos which brings pain, difficulty and pining...
Children are no different in their play. They exist in a different time zone to us. They live in a time zone that isn’t about wristwatch and clock watching, they’re unaware and they become ‘lost in space and time’. Our role as adults and educators is to be sensitive to this time difference, to do our utmost to leave chronos and enter aeon with the children. It’s about giving children time, not taking it from them.
Yes, there is the reality of time but it is perhaps how we wield it that is most important - do we hold time as an unyielding series of punctuation points or do we treat it as a softer landscape of aeon as we step into the magic of children? Because who doesn’t want the aeon of holiday romance to last forever after all??
Certainly in my own practice and pedagogy it recalled my idea of the play sandwich - two short elements of skills teaching which one might consider as chronos, surrounding a think wedge of play which one would consider aeon.
Time clipping Eros’s wings - Pierre Mignard 1694
In much of my own thinking, I am drawn to the writings of CS Lewis to imagine the magic realm within which children exist.
As soon as Suzanne explored the chronos/aeon dichotomy, my mind raced to the final chapter of the Last Battle in which the magic door is opened by Aslan and the animals and the Pevense children walk through into a new Narnia, into a never ending magic realm, the realm of infinite aeon.
And who did Aslan call to destroy the old Narnia?
Who did he know would be able to destroy the world but ultimately could not destroy the power and the possibilities of aeon in the magic realm?
Old Father Time.
“Term time has ended, the holidays have begun...”
When was the last time you were so nervous that your hands couldn’t stop shaking? When you lost your appetite because you felt tense or couldn’t sleep through nervous tension? My last time was about a minute ago when I began to think about going to Athens tomorrow to be part of the Play On Early Education Conference. I’ll be speaking in front of a ton of people about play and the magic of children, something that I’m confident to do if it wasn’t for the possibility that some of the giants of Early Years might be in the room!
I’m trying to re-shape my self-perception of nerves and instead see them as a product of excitement, which is definitely something I’m feeling ahead of the trip. My message that play and the magic of children mustn’t be eroded by the school system will, I hope, be well-received!
Part of my nerves/excitement is based around the fact that I’ve made the decision to no longer think that I’ve got to defend play. I’m done with that approach in a way. I think it’s time to come out of the Early Years ‘cupboard’ with a sense of steely determination and show the system that children have a rightful place in their own learning journey and that play with all its potential, when combined with skills based direct teaching and high quality interactions, can not only enable children hugely but can also alter the perception with communities that school isn’t for them or their children.
I love stumbling across articles that really resonate with how I see children and today was no different when I unearthed a wonderful piece exploring the two sides of the brain by Vince Gowman (www.vincegowmon.com). Of course it's equally beneficial to look at writings that challenge your thinking too, though the feeling of validation you get when reading supportive articles is far less emotionally draining!
Vince Gowman's work has always had a fascination. He writes in a warm, comforting style and draws on a wide range of research to support his views. His recent piece on the left and right brain spoke to me hugely especially when he referred to the right side of the brain as the 'playground', the space of imagination and wonder. It felt very close to my interpretation of the magic of children - the seventh sense that they have to imagine, dream and perceive the world in a different light to adults. The fact that this side of the brain develops first and is linked to emotion, creativity and imagination is critical when we think about child development. It's the seat of curiosity and wonder, of being-in-the-now-ness. The left hand side of the brain - the constructor of logic, planning and pragmatism -develops later along with its ability to apply the function of analytical thinking.
So here we come to the crux - children between 0-6 exist in the magic, in right sided-ness, in the being of living. Yet we have a curriculum that demands more left sided-ness, that wants to accelerate this development, that seeks 'output'. And reading Gowman's article, it made me realise that the 3Ms that I developed in my practice and which are the basis for 'Can I Go And Play Now?', whilst not being pure play, are at least a way of assimilating left brain thinking and the demands of the adult world whilst all the time growing children in their sense of self and their light-ness of Being. I can't necessarily change the curriculum but I can change the way I implement it. As a practitioner I can do my utmost to work with child development and not against it.
It's why I've found the concept of 'joy' to be so central to my pedagogy. Increasingly I'm reflecting that any interaction, experience or environment should add to children's sense of self, not erode it. It should be our role as adults to enhance children not take away.
I keep coming back to the idea of 'shape, space and measure', not as in the Numeracy version but as in the balance of 'shape' (how and who children are, their magic, their 7th being-ness), 'space' (the environment and how it enables children to bring themselves into their own learning adventure) and 'measure' (the adult role, our interactions, our 'planning', our teaching, our view of ourselves as co-adventurers, as co-cartographers).
It's a way of thinking about Early Years Education that I believe can help us navigate a path through the System and, in doing so, can offer the possibility of changing it too. If Early Years should have an emphasis on the right brain, then it should be a playground. And what is the purpose of a playground if it's not about risk, imagination, freedom, physicality, exploration, adventuring, collaboration, experimenting and being?
I also think that this idea of 'playground' can't be kept secret. Isn't it our role as Early Years educators to explain to parents about the importance of play, about it's power, about how it is a necessity? Wouldn't it be great if we had a movement of parents who demanded and expected play, who demanded that the system be transformed? Isn't that when change can happen?
So many times I see on social media that school senior leaders won't listen so why not flip it and get amongst our parents, show them that the door to the magic of children exists and that on the other side lies a world of experience that is like no other, that can nurture children and enable them to shape their own learning landscape? So that when parent meetings come around the first thing they want to know is how a school or nursery has added to the shape of their children, how they've opened the door to the world of the right brain, to the magic. Does this have to stay a daydream?
Let's not allow the 'playground' go to rack and ruin. Let's bring it alive instead...
"Outworn maps of consciousness, sometimes have to be re-drawn..." Trinity, The Lilac TIme
Having recently worked in several schools who are exploring the development of play within their practice, I've begun to notice a thread linking each one no matter where they are in the country. It's based around a concern over what parents might think to a more play-based approach in the classroom. It's a legitimate thing to be mindful of, primarily because most parents have a set view of what education is, based on their own experiences and 'story' of growing up. It's often embedded in the notion that tables and chairs, quiet and order are what learning is, what it looks like. I can also think of many teachers who share this view but that's another blog!
In the times where I've been supporting schools and this concern has been raised, I've gone back to the analogy of the door into the magic realm of children which play opens for us. As we go in and further and deeper as teachers and practitioners, it is our role to call others to follow us, to show them that the door exists and sing the song of play loud enough so that they take those first tentative steps through it. If we don't do this then we keep the magic to ourselves and we inhibit the real power that play offers us - to change education from what it was and is to what it can be.
Recently I've been returning to the idea of there being a door in education. It's a door which I truly believe leads us to the magic of children. It's invisible to many and one which when it does come in to view, presents us with a choice. To open it or to never even reach for the handle.
Many in our schools never see the door. Many in our schools having seen it, do their best to ignore it or never try to open it. These are the educators that are fixed and have little perspective beyond children 'coping' and outputting. It always amuses me when I hear adults talk about growth mindsets for children because on the whole it's actually the adults who need this not the children. We give them days and days of worksheets and tiresomeness and then put the emphasis on them to cope with it - we talk about resilience whilst feeding them a diet of tables and chairs, textbook and banality. If only we might reflect on our habitual and recycled teaching practice... If only we could steer our gaze towards quality Early Years practice and begin to see that it needs to come up through our schools rather than the other way round.
So what is the magic of children? What are the conditions needed to reveal the door? It's actually quite simple - it just needs the adult world to open its eyes and look for it...
I love the picture above. I love the fact that the teacher, sitting behind the security of her desk, seems to be serenely planning her great escape, with her passport ready to go and a stash of brochures piled in her drawer. The plan of the boat in front of her suggests that she is choosing which cabin she's going to book on the cruise that's going to take her far, far away from the four walls of the classroom and out into the big wide world.
Far away from the bored children, the rows of desks and desk-bell which I can only assume children come up and press if they want her attention. The girl in the red dress is lost in a day dream while the boy at the back looks lost in boredom. The whole scene seems to summarise our classrooms today too, with children and teachers increasingly disconnected from their experience.
Teachers may have moved on from wearing a lovely party dress to teach in and certainly don't find spare time in the day (or evening for that matter) to plan holidays or even what to eat that evening, but the disconnection is still there. To my mind it all comes back to time: time to reflect, to breathe, to truly make time itself. Our educational experience today seems insistent on time being something that has to be crammed full of marking, meetings, assessments, planning, performance management, learning walks. book scrutiny, mock-steds, homework club, on and on and on.
It means that we find less and less time for ourselves on a personal and professional level but equally less and less time for the one group of people who really do need our time: parents.
Can I Go Play Now..? is committed to widening the understanding of the magic of children's play as an educational tool. Child-centred, play-based learning is where it's truly at....