”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.
So, 2019 gets underway and inevitably the majority of us begin a new year with a sense of looking forward, with plans both personal and professional and with a belief that betterment and positive development can come our way.
For the first few weeks we burn bright with optimism’s flame and then for most of us, Life seems to remind us that actually we’ve possibly over-egged our sense of what is achievable and that dreams and hopes are just that.
Maybe that’s just me but I have a feeling that I’m not alone...
One of the factors in this, is that we often wait for things to come to us or we commit to things that aren’t sustainable at the pace we set out with. Giving up alcohol, seeing friends more, eating more healthily, going to the gym, reading more books, less screen time, the list goes on.
This year however it IS going to be different....
For the fourth time in the space of a week, I’ve taken a phone call from an Early Years teacher who is strongly considering resigning from their setting. One common theme has emerged in their reasoning - the lack of school leaders who understand child development and are insisting on Key Stage 1 practice and readiness to be at the heart of their day.
It’s a bleak picture. Experienced and newly qualified Early Years teachers, passionate about play and age appropriate experiences coming to the edge of their well-being and feeling deflated enough just to walk away either to another school or from the profession altogether.
Our school leaders, and yes there are many exceptions thankfully, are existing within a landscape that has turned the screw on them, creating cultures within our schools that demand outcome, progress, measure and evidence at an increasing rate earlier and earlier in a child’s school life. This can only lead to one thing: the erosion of play. It’s a bitter irony that the one thing, play, the purest form of learning is being tossed aside in favour of ‘the illusion of learning’.
Play has an incredible power. It presents itself to us each and every day, the moment the children walk through the gates, play’s potential walks alongside them. Unfortunately, it’s as though we’re play-blind, refusing to embrace its potential, we shut it down and talk and point and show and fill and talk and demand and talk and put ourselves at the centre. I’ve said it before in blogs but it’s as though play is forced to stand in the wings, quietly tapping its feet in resignation.
So what’s to do? Must we bring ourselves to ill health, mental strain and unhappiness, fighting within our very selves, always feeling like we’re entering a battle? Must we forever be frustrated that no matter how loud we sing the song of play, adults around us, the policy makers and the didacts, drown us out with demand and expectations.?
Sometimes as professionals we have to draw a line around ourselves. When family suffers, when you find yourself on the brink then perhaps a choice has to be made. I love children but no child is more important than my own for example. I have huge respect for those professionals that see life in this way. It’s not a defeat, it’s a self-revelation.
My concern is that for every play advocate, there are two less play-based practitioners waiting to step in. Teacher training seems to focus less and less on Early Years, school CPD pushes child development to one side, parents seem oblivious on the whole. accepting the diet that is set before them.
And yet, there is hope. There is a movement out there working hard to sing in unison, to raise the profile of play. Some of this movement is based around Keeping Early Years Unique, some of it is more quiet, more localised. However it happens, it’s important that it does happen.
Play offers schools an unparalleled richness, a way of transforming communities, of shaping children with skills and spark in equal measure. It’s time to join the ‘Family of Play’ - key to this is parents. We need parents to demand play in schools. We need play to shine.
As another half term approaches, it’s my wish that you can be the one in your school to help play do just that - to shine and to shine bright...
Go gentle, but go brave :)
Back in early 2018, myself and the fab Hannah O’Donnell from Empowering Early Years, sat round the kitchen table mulling over the idea of putting on a day that would celebrate play and give practitioners a real lift in the face of the multitude of challenges within their settings. With busy lives, we decided to press pause, clear the decks and return to the concept when we felt more able. Life being life. several months passed and the idea kind of got mothballed in the dark corners of our busy brains.
However, I was lucky enough to attend the Firm Foundations event at Early Excellence in London in the Summer, and whilst there, stumbled across what felt like the perfect format for a day’s CPD. On the train home to Devon, I sketched out a rough plan over the phone with Hannah. The time felt right, we felt right and now on November 17th 2018, Play2 will be a reality.
Out of those cobwebbed brain departments, a day that is jam-packed with energy and drive has emerged, with a line-up that offers a host of inspiration for the Early Years practitioner who is either in the full flow of play or the one who needs a boost in confidence to reignite their passion for play.
As a collective, we should be exploring how we can raise the profile of play and playfulness, how we can create a supportive network for one another that is open to debate and questioning, how we can try to change the direction of early education and further on, not as just one lonely voice but as a choir. Play2 feels like the beginning of this movement - something that brings together, celebrates, sparks us into life.
Play2 boasts an impressive line-up: from the passionate play advocacy of Ruth Swailes to the loose parts expertise of Topanga Smith, from the power of outdoor learning with the Muddly Puddles Teacher to the brilliance of woodworking with Pete Moorhouse amongst the speaker and workshops, we're convinced that the day will be something very special indeed.
The best thing is that Play2 isn't going to be a one-off, We want to 'roadshow' the concept around the UK if there are people out there who recognise the need in their own locality, who want to make a difference, no matter how small. Already we've been contacted by Early Years practitioners from Manchester, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cambridge and Hampsire asking if Play2 can make its way to them. This just adds to our commitment to ensure that Play2 becomes something that puts play in its rightful place - at the heart of practice and from the heart of practitioners.
Why not join us in Devon in November? It's a beautiful county, is easily accessed, and is a little bit like Narnia. Play2 will make it even more magical, so it'll be worth every mile here and back again...
I think it’s fair to say that those of us who work in education seem to be naturally pre-determined to put the needs of others before our own. Whether it be children, parents or school leaders, they are often put at the front of the queue especially when it comes to well-being and mental health.
Education currently seems to be sandwiched between the forces of pressure and expectation, inexorably taking from us whilst rarely offering anything back. It’s like a one-way flow of energy, always outwards, outwards, outwards.
So it’s sometimes good to take stock and punctuate our busy brains with some self-reflection and me-time and this week, as it’s Early Years Well-Being Week, there’s no better opportunity than right now.
Looking after ourselves is vital, not only for us as ourselves, but also for all the people we do often put in front of us in the queue of importance. If we’re not functioning then we’re not the only ones to suffer. If we’re not feeling able to commit 100% to the young children and the team around us, then it’s they who feel the strain too.
When I wrote my Early Years book ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’ I did so because that particular phrase seemed to be said a lot by children. More recently, I’ve come to realise that perhaps it’s a phrase that EY educators should be asking too. Not just within their own practice but also outside of it. How often do we take work home with us inside our heads, rollercoasting and pin-balling about, leading to feelings of never switching off and self-doubt?
In this week of all weeks, take a breath and seek to put a slice of time aside just for you. Down time isn’t wasted time. It’s investment even if it doesn’t seem that way. And if you really can’t find the time to switch off then at least find a moment or two to talk to someone about challenges you’re facing.
We talk a lot about men in Early Years. Sometimes we’re seen as a holy grail because there’s less of us. I’m not sure about whether we bring anything extra particularly but I do know that our low numbers can feel quite isolating. Men do need the company of men along the way - we need open dialogue, honesty, connection and emotion, all the things that we might traditionally not see as being ‘Male-ness’. In a week, where a close friend got the news that a colleague, seemingly successful and family-happy, had taken his own life, now is certainly the right time for us to look after our mental health: male, female, adult or child - put your own brain first for a bit, chat if you need to but above take care of yourself because you’re the only one who truly, truly can...
Look for the #EYWellbeingWeek online :)
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....