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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Harnessing the Power of Play

I am a big believer in play. for me it is an essential ingredient in life.

And for those of you getting to know more about my idea of Original Learning understand that learning is woven into the play, and that play is not woven into the learning like it seems to be (if you are lucky) in most school systems around the world.

At the same time I am somewhat concerned about adults harnessing play in the name of learning. Play is a human right... it is something that is fundamental to our well-being, so we should not be using play as a learning tool, because then we are taking away the children's sense of well-being, their escape from the realities of the world. Greg Bottrill talked about the magic door between play and reality at The Play on Early Education Conference in Athens... and the children know where it is and can go through it with ease... and I have the great pleasure to be in the process of writing a post together with him abut this door. What concerns me is that as teachers/educators that are using play as a lesson are actually not just prising open the door but knocking down the whole border/wall to the children's magical realm of play. If there is no defining line between work and play, where will the children go for the sake of their well-being?

I also got to listen to Meynell Walters, a playworker from the UK. I listened with envy. because as a playworker you are completely free to support the play... and often that is done by taking a step, or three, back and giving the children time and space to fill with play.

I come at this from an educator's point of view, and I am extremely aware that in EY settings and schools we are an institution for children - and real play has a hard time to truly thrive there. And this is OK... we make space for play, but we have t be aware that this is still an adult controlled environment no matter how child-centred or play-centred the setting is. This is why I have opted to call it Original Learning and not use the word play... because even though play are the essential threads for learning and knowledge and experience to be woven into, it is hard in a preschool or school to allow "true", "real", "free" play.

We absolutely do not want EY settings and schools to be places of play - and the way play is defined and where the play happens... because then we are legitimising the fact we do not need to make space and time for children to play our of school/preschool and play in mixed ages and out of the sight of the adults... but maybe still under the guidance of the adults (after all as a child playing on the streets and fields, we were always aware of the adults being on the periphery of our play - but they were not guardians of our play or guardians of our behaviour like educators are in settings - but they would step in when things went really wrong - and there was always THAT one garden everyone was terrified of retrieving the ball from!!).

This means work like Meynell's is incredibly important... it reminds us that the play we offer in EY settings and schools are tinged by adult control.. it is harnessed play.

As an educator I always tried to make the distinction between play and activity - I could ensure there was a good sprinkling of play-elements in the activity - but it was an activity... a kind of lesson. Then there was the play. And my aim was to be invisible. it was something my colleagues and I would talk about a lot... this idea of being invisible unless the children needed us, unless they invited us into the play. I think as teachers, and all the responsibility that goes with that, it is hard to take the full three steps back and not interfere with the play... as a parents outside of school, that was so much easier... in part because I know my children well, and trust them, in part because I know exactly how I will react if they did happen to get hurt (when you are responsible for someone else's children you not only worry about how the parents will react, but also how the owners of the setting will react etc... this impacts, without you fully being aware, just how much freedom you are giving the children).

I do not want to use the children's play as a tool for their learning. BUT I would use their play as a tool for MY learning. I would observe their play to gain some kind of understanding of the dynamics of the group, of their possible interests, things they struggled with - and this I could weave into the activities I planned so that they developed skills to use in their play. Just as I would observe them during activities to see what further skills they needed (or had already mastered) so that I could keep supporting them as an educator.

For instance we did a lot of ore strengthening games, turn-taking games and self regulation games as activities to help them develop skills they needed to fully participate in philosophy with children sessions... the children then used the skills they learned in those games and the philosophy sessions to evolve their own play. They even used the structures of those games and evolved them in their play.The games were transformed and then belonged to the children.

For me it is being a part of the play-ecosytem.

We are always impacting each other.

And in preschool/school there is a very defined play-ecosytem and that can either be controlled by the adults or controlled by the children and adults together - depending on how open the adults are to truly listening to the children.

So what wisdom have I learned from all of this?

Time and space for children to play. To play outside of school and preschool in mixed age groups - without well-meaning adults prowling as some form of Dementer ready to suck the play out of the child...

To make space for this realm of play on the other side of the door... and that instead we become guardians of the door and border to make sure that no-one knocks them down in their desire to control play.

above quote by Suzanne Axelsson

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