It's Mental Health Well-Being Week this week, and it brings the importance of finding time within our squeezed days to take care of ourselves into sharp focus. Taking care is something that many of us find hard to do however - often we put ourselves at the end of the queue...
If you look back over the past month and you count the times you did something that helped you relax, switch off and temporarily 'step outside of life', you'd probably count no more than three or four if that. Modern Life was already condensed into a rush and push, and Covid-19 seems to have only exacerbated the pressures both physical and mental. It can begin to feel that what we see around us is the only possibility, stretching out to the horizon - we want to see hope, to feel that the present challenges will come to an end, but the path to this seems remote and dim.
Uncertainty and stress seem ever-present companions in each day nowadays. Not only do we need to meet the practicalities of coping in the face of the ongoing pandemic, many of us will also find ourselves in environments that feel 'different' and untypical of Early Years spaces that we might hold as being effective. We want play but it feels, just like the path out of Covid, far-off and distant. Relationships with parents may feel less personal. Rules and updates on the use of playdough, water, sand, Lego, books all seem to have sprung up and impacted on our provision. We may feel at a loss, unable to spring the richness of play to life. Some of us may also be under pressure to ensure 'catch-up' especially if we work in schools and settings that are driven by the spreadsheet and micro-management. It's as though we feel leaned on from all sides.
All of this can have a significant toll on our mental health, and it's certainly true that if we are not at our best, then we can fall short of giving our best to our children. Do we ever feel like we have somehow been pushed to the side of our own lives, as though we are a bystander watching on, an observer in a maelstrom not knowing which way to turn? We want to feel joy. even a glimpse of it, but the days seem bloated with external forces pressing down on our ability to do something, to act. We can quickly discover ourselves in a state of mind that has its finger permanently on the 'react' button, pinballing from one thing to next. Pinball Brain can lead us to another state if we are not careful: Unravelled Brain. In this state our good intentions for children, our playful pedagogy, our self-perception as the 'teacher-who-is-me', the Controller of our little world, can often represent a chicken coop when a fox gets in...
Can we find a way in which the joy we and our children need to feel so desperately can be taken by the hand, especially if we currently feel unable to bring play into the room for the majority of the day? Well, yes, perhaps we can...
I would suggest that we take some time to look at our week. Look to see what moments there might be for co-play, that rich and immersive phase of a day when we can become embedded in children's play and its magic. It might only be an hour a week, it may be an hour a day. One hour of co-play a week is better than none. And why is it better than none? Because it is here, in co-play, that the magic of children will bring us to life - the starlight that children have within them, that they have in their souls, that light that just wants to burst forth and show us how to live once more, with wonder, curiosity, creativity and collaboration will sweep into the room.
It is here that the mystery of childhood will reveal itself - that Great Unknown of play that will embrace you and pull you in. The choices children make, their re-imagining and inventions, their ability to cross-pollinate language and ideas, and their delight of being valued and listened to. of being seen because we let go and stepped into their world. And like them we can become 'play-full' even for that hour. For it is there that the joy of life awaits us. It can fill us - we'll feel its warmth in our limbs, even when we anticipate it - that Golden Hour(s) - we will have something to look forward to. It will be the hope...
Because there is hope. There is a way forward. We may not be able to fully sense it yet, but the moments of co-play might just be the lens that we can put to our weary eye and see the possibility of joy once more. And this hope that is co-play is not just for the adult alone. It is for our children too - for play is buzzing and humming inside of them 24/7 and the moments in our week where we make space for co-play, very subtly but critically, will be showing them that they can change the world around them. It will show them that they are protagonists in their own adventure, an adventure on which we are by their side, there for them, with our own skills and and magic and curiosity to lend them when they need it.
If we can feel joy deep in our soul as we read these words, then we are halfway there. If we can't play for the majority of our week, then at least that hour or two can enable the one thing that will bring us and children well-being from here to the moon and back - play.
Play IS our hope - it's our Excalibur, let's pull it out of the stone that life has become and step into the fray. The children will be right there with us as we hold it x
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...
When I finally finished writing ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’ and all was done and dusted, the publishers said to be prepared for both positive and negative reviews. At the time, I was just happy with the idea of having a reader to even have a book review, so I didn’t really think about it.
And then, as word spread and as people started to feel the book spoke to them, the reviews began to come in on Amazon. It’s been amazing to see how ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’ has struck a chord with Early Years people, more so because I wrote it from the heart and a negative review might just break it into a million pieces if I allowed it to.
And then it happened. A three star review. Opening it up, I felt a bit sick. Had I offended someone? Had they read it looking for Bold Beginnings approval? Had I failed somehow to get my ideas across and been too critical of the adult world?
There before me, in the review headline were three words: Not for parents
This particular person had bought the book on the strength of other reviews which had mentioned its importance to parents but having read a short amount had decided otherwise and returned it. It’s at this point that my heart actually broke. Not because of the three stars, that’s fine, but it was more the fact that the reader felt like it wasn’t a book for parents.
It's always good to talk and it's even better to talk to others who get 'you' and understand that play is such an important key to effective child development. So imagine my surprise when the fab Vanessa Dooley from Jigsaw Early Years Consultancy invited me to share my thoughts on the reasons behind my passion and my approach to Early Years.
The recording of our discussion is below and I hope it inspires you to reflect on your own personal 'why'. I also hope you enjoy the moment where we compare sheds and muse over the word 'mizzling'...
small it may be to make a difference and affect change with energy and passion? How we might live! How we might teach! How we might see the child's world in a whole new light!
The magic of play is something that you can’t un-see. Once you’ve seen just what a powerful component it is in child development then you can never go back. True play is a hybrid of collaboration, creativity, imagination and interpretation beyond anything that an adult could hope to plan for in its worn out call for “children will...” planning sheets.
Children’s playfulness lies outside of the Adult World. A child’s ‘story’ comes from the heartfelt and from the wildness of imagination. Yet as adults we have detached from this. For some reason we feel the need to grasp the child’s world with the cold hands of control, analysis and domination. We seem unable to come to our senses and actually step into their world.
Children offer us a passport into their magical realm day in, day out yet we remain steadfast in our intent to ‘teach’, to lend our voice, our crooked dream.
Once upon a time there was a little boy whose head was full of daydreams and wonder. Deep within his very core he had a song. A beautiful song, one which the birds of the air themselves would envy. It was a song of joy, of energy and of delight.
Day in, day out the little boy would sing this song, to himself and the people around him. He would sing loud, he would sing soft, a lullaby of laughter like a babbling brook, dancing and rushing to meet the wide, wide ocean.
He sang and he sang, he sang and he sang. Other children would hear his song and join in, combining voices, creating a sea of sunlit-sparkled melody. Voice upon voice, flowing together til the little boy’s song led a mighty crescendo-roar, each child around him lending their voice, layer upon layer...
If you knew something magic that could change someone else's life for the better would you share it with them or would you keep it to yourself? Would you let it slowly burn inside you hidden away or would you, with great haste, go and tell that someone straight away? I'd like to think that we'd definitely share it and that we'd accept it would be wrong to keep it to ourselves.
You might not think that you have something magic to share but you do. The problem is that before you can share it you have to find it! You probably don't necessarily know that it's even there to be found, but believe me it is. The reason that you may not be able to find it is that you live a life in which there is a clamour of voices and distractions and problems and bills and family and relationships and self-image and on and on that drown out the knowledge of the magic that is whispering away inside of you.
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....