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  • Suzanne Axelsson, Greg Botrril

Greg and Suzanne - a dialogue of Play, Time and Magic

Suzanne: Getting the opportunity to listen to you talk at the Play on Early Childhood Conference in Athens in mid April was a magical moment for me... it was like listening to someone who spoke the same language as myself.

The magic door.

This border between adulthood and childhood, between reality and imagination, between chronos and aeon.

It reminded me so clearly of why I started the International Fairy Tea Party in 2013 - not just a celebration of play and imagination but an opportunity for adults (teachers and parents) to step through that door and explore the magic of play.

Over the years I have met adults who have struggled with the idea of fairies, and this is the exact reason why I chose fairies, because they are other worldly, and not from "here". Adults have questioned me about whether it is ethical to talk about fairies when they are not "real" - yet when I have asked the children I have worked and played with they have always answered "Fairies are real, pretend real".

And this is the true magic of play.

Children understand how it works. They can disappear into the land of play and believe it and then come out and be aware of their here and now.

Young children become the lion or kitten, the dinosaur or dragon rather than playing the role as older children and adults do... they are still aware, for the most part, that they are themselves.

Unless you meet a child like my son (with autism) who hated dressing up as a young child, and it was not until he was 5 that I worked out why when he asked me "Am I still Michael when I dress up?" For him the transition into the pretend was scary because he was unsure if "he" remained.

I would love for you to explain your theory of the magic door for my readers... and for the dialogue to go on after that...

Greg: My belief in a magic door is a heartfelt one. It's based around how I see children, their capabilities, their creativity, their 7th sense in seeing beyond the objective world, of questioning reality, of how they bring a purity to the world - in short their being-ness is magical. The door doesn't exist if there's nothing on the other side. I strongly believe that there is a magic realm for adults to step into. It's an alternative to our traditional paradigms of mainstream education which tend to see children as having to be crammed with knowledge, to be controlled, to be shaped. Yet children already have a shape, an identity and to my mind it's a moral imperative to ensure that children's sense of self as creators, explorers, adventurers remains intact. So rather than pulling children out of their magic realm to 'teach' them, I feel that it is far more valuable instead to go through the magic door and into their world, to learn together, to share experiences and 'teach' them through their fascinations and drive to learn of the world for themselves. The door is a portal through which adults travel with a suitcase of skills to share with children and move their learning forward. I'd be really interested to hear your view on this way of working - there is inevitably an adult interaction in play with this way of working and some might argue that this then is no longer play. I agree to point but I if have to accept that I cannot change the curriculum, I can at least try to change the way that children have it fed to them and by going into their world we can at least maximise the shape of children rather than erode or replace it.

Suzanne: Thank you so much Greg, for this. I can so relate to this idea of being an educator with a suitcase of skills (although I rather like the idea that my suitcase resembles Newt Scamander's in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - that, I too, have realms of magic to share with the children if they choose to explore it).

I think there are few adults with the capability to go into the realm of childhood without trying to colonise it, that it is just a suitcase of skills brought out when needed and not a suitcase to settle down and start to rule the realm like some kind of Snow Queen. So, maybe, we adults need to be taught how to be adventurers in this realm with the ability to not change the landscape, but to enable the children to explore new countries?

Like I said in my talk at the Play conference in Athens, knowledge allows for the imagination to expand, and as educators we can help children thread knowledge into their play and allow their imaginations to soar.

I agree with you, as educators we have a very different approach than playworkers. It is not simply about play, and maybe in this sense there is no "real", "true" play within an educational setting. But, like you write, we can ensure that the educational part of our work does not transform their realm like the Snow Queen did in Narnia - all seasons must continue to exist - including the season of play.

Sometimes I have concerns about us adults trespassing in this realm... have we been invited in, or have we sneaked in invisibly? But then I also think that some of us, and I very much feel that you are one of these people, never closed their magic door and that we have never lost the ability to visit. Therefore we are not sneaking in through the children's entrance, but have our own door where we can meet them.

I think, in a sense, what we can do then is not only allow children time on the other side of the magic door to play... but we have the ability to bring things back through our own doors to make the adult world more familiar to the children.

In other words we can furnish the classroom with elements of play, creating a safer space for the children.

I also believe that there can be some educators that can steal from the other side of the door to decorate their classroom, to give the appearance of play, but really the children are being manipulated to do as the teacher wants.

Play is democratic, as Peter Gray mentioned, children who abuse the unwritten/unsaid play rules will soon find themselves without play companions, when an adult is using play as a teaching tool the children do not have this option to just leave, they must follow, and therefore play has been transformed into a dictatorship.

Hence the reason for the International Fairy Tea Party... to help adults step into the world of make-believe, to feel comfortable there, and also to not take over the play. It's a process, and I feel this is why it is good to test it out every year to see how it feels, and to feel how your own relationship with play and imagination changes over time.

How do we train educators to go through that door with minimal impact? How do we train teachers to pack their suitcase wisely? How do we train teachers to understand when to open their suitcase and when to keep it closed?

Maybe these are questions that cannot be answered?

Greg: You raise many important considerations around the idea of interactions and the adult role with children. Not all are easily answered and I'm not sure that there can ever be a claim to 'being right' either. However I would say that the adult role is almost certainly as a co-adventurer rather than an instructor or leader.

I come back to the idea that education should have a final arrival point but the map to get there shouldn't be entirely drawn by the adult. The skills that go into the suitcase are vital to get right if academic progress for want of a better phrase is to be achieved. These skills rely on a 'passport' that takes the shape of planning. Planning to my mind should be based on skills alone not activity. If we go through the magic door with clear ideas about skills then we can have the confidence to look for them both in the children's independent play and in our interactions. To some degree it could be argued that the mere presence of an adult negates true play but I would rather that than drag the children out of the magic realm.

I'm less precious about trying to clarify what play is or isn't. The magic that lies on the other side of the door is what play enables - creativity, confidence, wonder, collaboration, and a sense of self. It's these things that are the essence of the magic of children especially when seen in the light of their 'seventh sense' - the ability to see objects 'beyond their fixed reality'. It is the soul-ness of children that is key above play for me. I see play as being the door frame that enables the magic door to even exist. Without play there is no door.

I think this is the biggest shift in our adult thinking - we feel that as adults we know best and that children need to come out of their world and into ours to make progress. However they don't and as soon as adults enter the realm of children then life can change for all - play provides well-being both for child and adult. We need our educator training centres to see this too - that the magic of children is a real as the computers and the cups of coffee the adult world sits in front of. It exists and it is our job to look and see the door before our eyes. Once you step through it, you never want to return and I'd argue that it becomes impossible to.

Suzanne: The word that jumps out at me the most is "co-adventurer" - as this is something I strongly believe in too, and I have written many posts over the years that have included that "co" prefix... co-learners, co-teachers, co-documenters etc. This idea of togetherness, respect and equality. That I am learning, not just the children, that the children are teaching each other and me, and it is not a one direction event of teacher down...

Especially if we are going into their realm, the time of aeon, then as adults, we need them as our guide, otherwise we are dragging chronos in where it does not belong.

Over the years I have written about learning journeys often... and being a co-adventurer really feels like a suitable title for this kind of pursuit. You mention a passport... I have talked about maps in the past... it all connects.

I feel like, as teachers/adults, we have more advanced map-reading skills than children... this has come with experience and the knowledge gained over time. The thing is I don't just want the children to follow me, it would be easy to do a tour, point things out, give them facts and expose them to new places on the map... I want them to be able to read the map themselves. To be able to make decisions about what direction to take, to decide together if we need to back step and take a different route, how long we stay in a place before moving on etc... I also want to give them the skills to be able to go into uncharted areas and make discoveries of their own... after all not everything has been discovered yet, we do not know what the future holds - and if we are only allowing children to follow our directions and not giving them map reading competency and explorer skills then there will be little room to make new discoveries.

On the other side of the door, in aeon, is a safe place to test these skills, to allow the imagination to explore new possibilities - so it really does not make any sense that adults and teachers restrict access to this magic realm.

Maybe we need, as adults to reconnect with our our 7th sense again?

All the posts and articles and research about taking care of the self, mindfulness, relaxing, doing nothing... they all show that this loss of the 7th sense has had a detrimental impact on our well being.

Again, this is part of part of the intention of the International Fairy Tea Party - to encourage adults to reconnect with magic, with play, with childhood - and their 7th sense!

I am, personally, wary of mindfulness in schools and EY settings... as I see it as an adult form of achieving well-being, controlled by adults. IF children were just allowed to spend more time on the other side of that door, then there would be no need for the children to do mindfulness - their well being would be already attended to through play.

Of course some children might need mindfulness as a response to trauma or something else in order to support them on the other side of the door... this I don't have any problem with, but I do struggle with the idea of mindfulness replacing play to create well-being.

To read more from Greg - take the time to explore his marvellous blog - "Can I go and Play Now" - Greg suggest starting with his first post "The Wood between the Worlds..."

To read more about time, aeon and chronos - The Story of Time

To read more about how we as adults need to listen, but also encourage listening amongst the children, and how we impact the children, and the need to tell multiple stories so that the children can make up their own minds and build their own knowledge - The Story of Listening

To read more about play and how we adults impact play... Harnessing the Power of Play

If you start researching mindfulness, the word well-being is the main reason for its importance. When you start researching well-being in young children the word PLAY comes up. This feels like it will be a post for the future.

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