“Tell me, is everything unplanned?
It’s all so unexpected that I just can't understand...”
One Day, The Church
If we say that children need freedom to explore and to investigate in order to discover the world and their place within it for themselves, then the learning landscape we offer them needs to become less tied to planned outcomes and more open to all possibility, to the Unexpected.
We cannot necessarily know how children will interpret the spaces in our setting if we agree they are capable and creative, neither can we control the collaborations that will unfold within them.
Our continuous provision needs to become less intentional, less restricted by what we want to see and instead, increasingly shaped by what we m i g h t see. When we let go of provision in this way, we turn it into a gift.
What we do plan for are the resources and equipment which children will choose from based on our understanding of how these can move their development forward and our own interactions within the space - in this way, we flip planning on its head and plan for ourselves, not the children. When we plan with the 3Ms in mind, we are re-imagining our role as educators and instead, emerge as co-constructors of meaning and experience not the controllers of them. We lose our intentions and replace them with intrigue: we take that step into the Unknown - and that is when the magic truly begins to happen...
“Take me through your barricades / Push me through your city walls...” No Stranger, Small Black
We can see the world through our chosen lens or the one that we are given. “I wonder what will happen if I....” is choice. “Get down, you might hurt yourself” is given. It’s why as educators and parents we need to take great care with the words we use and take a moment to consider the subtle messages that we transmit to children every time we speak. Words are hugely powerful. Often as educators we focus on extending vocabulary and modelling speech or sentences, yet perhaps we overlook the invisibility of meaning and of interpretation.
We tell children to get down because we are worried and in doing so we project our fears on to them, teach them that risk is to be avoided and that adults are the ones who make decisions on behalf of children. There is a control-through-anxiety.
However, if we enable children and bite our lips, several important things happen to the lens through which they look: they see that they are capable of exploring for themselves, discovering the world and making sense of it through autonomy; they realise that the Adult World has faith in them to express their instinctive curiosity and the balance of power can shift from the adult - experiences can be more democratic, more acts of solidarity.
Most importantly perhaps, our lens transforms too - children reveal themselves as teachers. They teach the Adult World that fears are often illusory, that if we take courage and feel our own strength then we can overcome malevolence and anxiety, that if we have faith in ourselves then the possible can be explored, that risk, taking The Leap, however daunting, can lead to new self-perception and rebirth.
And I think that’s one of the greatest lessons that children can give the Adult World - that the world is there for the taking if we face our fears and throw ourselves into it, if we unmask ourselves and step in to the Great Unknown. It’s where life and the index of possibility await...
"I sat on the roof / And watched the day go by..." Wishful Thinking, China Crisis
The Adult World seems to live in a state of constant demand. More this, more that, reply now, get to here, get to there, do this, do that, finish it, start it, watch this, watch that, an endless series of over-stimulation and under-pressure-ness. It rarely seems to have time to stop at think and just BE. We wait for a fortnight in the sun or weekending-ness so that we can step off the merry-go-round and find ourselves some breathing space before it all begins once more.
The same might be said of our children. Over-scheduled, this thing, that thing, got to get here, got to get there, all adding to their restless-legged-ness and the self-doubt that parents feel, especially over the Summer holidays, about how they might occupy time and keep children busy - am I enough? Am I parenting right? Am I fulfilling the culturally defined role of 'parent'?
It happens in our schools too. The Adult World demands that children are in a state of Doing, achieving targets, making rapid progress, closing the gap, It wants 'learning' to be visible so that teachers and children can be made accountable. So educators feel a similar self-doubt - am I providing challenge? Am I interacting sufficiently? Am I moving learning forward? Am I enough?
Yet children need to learn the Art of Boredom. They need to develop their own ways of planning and considering and wondering. They need the emptiness of time. They need space to think, to dwell, to play with ideas before acting. It is the child's way of weighing up and coming into a moment of self-awareness and self-realisation. "I am in a quiet state. I am awake to myself, I am me. I choose"
If we consistently move children from one place to next then we erode their innate ability to decide for themselves, to shape their own responses to the world. Through choice they exercise autonomy -in the moment of choosing they are making a conscious shape of ourselves - choice is identity.
The world doesn't have to be all rush and push. There is great value in solitude and pensiveness. Down time is the precursor to choice: "I could do this or that...I choose this" - there is responsibility, a growing sense of personal cause and effect, a route through which imagination can flourish and the possibility that children might decide to take risk because they can. Boredom gives way to creativity. It offers the chance for children to be protagonists in their own learning. It can lead to the solidarity or the individuation of learning - it is the evolution of the possible...
If only we weren't too quick to step in to get children 'busy'. If only we could take those moments before we intervene to look and listen, to wait for a child to unfold before us. The reality is that not all learning is visible, not all learning is open-book - there is a hidden world, a world of inertia and inaction, of slowly bringing into being through thought. Children are veiled in mystery. It is our responsibility to delve into it, to share in it. When we embrace boredom and passivity, we value the whole child. We give space for identity.
So, perhaps it's time to re-imagine the insistence of 'demand' and to recognise that in the moment of choosing children are making an unconscious shape of themselves. A child's plan is their route towards self-construction after all. We just need to demand more of ourselves perhaps: to look through eyes that look beyond the visible and see the possibilities that take shape when children have time to choose...
“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...
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....