Creativity, exploration and understanding all have one critical thing in common: autonomy. If children are to have the education that they deserve, then the starting point has to be how much we ‘see’ them, how much value we place on their choices and what they are trying to communicate, both about themselves, and the world around them.
Exploring is vital to the programme of play - it’s a drive that is deeply ingrained in children, like a perpetual thirst, a desire to make sense of the way things work, of cause and effect and of the one thing that the school system seems unable to grasp but yet is so crucial, identity.
Who we are, who we are becoming and the person we will one day be are all contained within the context of identity-shaping, of self-architecture. Knowledge is one thing, but self-knowledge goes beyond a curriculum, beyond the outworn models of education based on control and hoop-jumping.
Every day is a ‘story’ that tells us who we are. Every experience either diminishes or grows us. In the Early Years, we often focus on physical development but running parallel to this, is the development of the ‘soul’, of each child’s ‘who-ness’. Play is the story of ‘being’, a story of the soul itself.
"A thought that never changes / Remains a stupid lie / It's never been quite the same..."
Your Silent Face, New Order
Across 2019, it has been a very real privilege to spend time in settings and schools helping to support practice and grow the conditions for play to thrive. So many educators want children to experience joy and wonder across their day, and it's been encouraging to see this happen with practitioners who are eager to enable choice, creativity and collaboration. In nurseries and preschools, there seems to be a strong desire for play to flourish, and it has been a blessing to have time in these settings, connecting with the magic of children and its infinite possibilities.
Play and freedom to explore is critical in our pre-school early years settings, simply because the echoes of play need to follow children into school, and do so like a happy twin through their educational journey. If play isn't alive in our pre-schools, then it becomes a lost word: parents aren't opened up to seeing just how important it is, and then don't expect it within their child's school experience. When this happens, when play is stifled, the Adult World is in danger of creating 'play deficit' - a very real and damaging experience for children. Play deficit pushes children to ‘the side of their own lives’ and denies them the ability to follow their own learning adventure.
S E L F D I S P O S A L
“You're falling against the world again...”
Hold on, Roosevelt
It’s probably the hardest thing to do as an educator: letting go. Relinquishing control and enabling children to find space for themselves. The Adult World is dominated in its education systems with behaviour management and timetables and groupings and lesson planning and one great big preconception that children need to be ‘taught a lesson’.
So, it can be incredibly challenging to find the faith to let go, to accept that children don’t always need adults, that they are capable of being without intention.
When the Adult World begins to realise this, not only does it liberate children, it liberates itself: what we try to control, controls us. We lose patience and become afraid when children don’t do what they’re told or reinterpret the lovely continuous provision that we have painstakingly set up.
By letting go of children, we let go of ourselves and the moment we do that is the moment we awaken from the sleepwalk of the past, the ‘what-has-always-been-done’ and we enter a new freedom that, through play, can take us anywhere...
S H I P B U I L D I N G
“Closed minds don’t open doors...”
Addicted, Night Cafe
It’s all about joy: the joy of connection, the joy of discovery, the joy of belonging and the joy of being alive in the moment...
The abandonment of time, the openness to possibilities, the delight in being protagonist not antagonist, the surrender of oneself to what-might-happen-ness not what-will-happen-ness, and the discovery of purpose and meaning for itself are all deeply embedded in play.
Play isn’t frivolous. It has a current under the surface that breaks out in a child’s face, in the way they run, the way they rush to collaborate and support one another, it’s a look in their eyes that tells you that they have been ‘seen’. Play is the child...
This seeing-ness can only happen when we ourselves interact with love and hope, when we demonstrate that we value children for who they are in the Now.
When we look through the lens of love, we see children for who they truly are: competent, deserving and capable - play reveals the true colours of a child, colours which refract outwards like October-pale sunlight through jamjar water on a windowsill...
K E R B I E . . .
“You could have done anything, if you wanted /
And all your friends and family think that you're lucky / But the side of you they'll never see /
Is when you're left alone with your memories /
That hold your life together, like glue...”
This Is The Day, The The
Kerbie was simple. That was its beauty. To stand on one side of the road in the Summer heat of an East Midlands housing estate flanked by replica houses that sat squatly in the sun, a gang of us throwing balls to rebound from the opposite kerb.
We’d play it for hours - no points, no competition, children of all ages, a disparate group, standing at various distances that were negotiated and accepted dependent on skill and age, almost as wordless as the Sun above.
And we played it with no awareness of time because time just slipped away into a long forgetfulness of jokes and play-teasing and encouragement and laughter - it was like we became the game, life took on a new meaning in each moment of success or not-quite. Different balls appeared with each new child, rules evolved with every throw and we were timeless like little Zen masters in our own Present with no past or future plan, just laughing comrades and a kerb...
And this is the essence of play itself: togetherness, negotiation, solidarity and the word-warmth of joy.
It’s the essence that we can strive to echo in our pedagogy: giving children space to explore and collaborate. We may not have Kerbie in our setting but we do have children who are capable of living in its spirit. It just needs faith...
“There you were / Driving miles through an open land / Escaping thoughts...” If There’s A Light On, City Calm Down
Plan for identity. Plan for freedom. Plan for a landscape that sings with opportunity and possibilities. The less we control, the more children come to a sense of their capabilities.
Provision is at its most effective when it offers adventure, not a linear journey. The landscape we create for children can offer the anything-ness of learning. It can be ‘full with emptiness’, open to interpretation, to the subtlety of play with all its rich collaboration and creativity.
When our landscapes are an invitation, then children immerse themselves and they hand us an invitation in return: to join in with the dance that is play and to release ourselves from the past and enter the present. Because that is the potential that play has for us: Now-ness, the Dreamtime in which we discover as much about children as we do about ourselves.
If our children’s days are to be the Great Adventure that they deserve and need, then the simplicity of not-setting-up-ness is key. Play is the Unknown to step into with faith. When adults resist their Ego then they awaken to the Psyche of children, and then the adventure can truly begin... 👧🏼not🤖
“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...
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....