Structure for Freedom
Over the years I have worked in places that have had dysfunctional groups as well as groups that have played well together. I have often reflected over what makes a group work. How do we support a functional group? How do we give children the freedom to play? I define a dysfunctional group as stressed, focussed on the problems of maybe one,two or more children disrupting play for whatever reasons so that play does not flow as usual. It made me realise just how much structure is sometimes required for play to exist... which seemed totally absurd. But when I got thinking about it maybe it has something to do with self-discipline/self regulation... some children are totally lacking any of it and will do whatever is on the top of their head (repeatedly) without reflection on how it will impact others, just because it feels good to them. So before their own self-regulation kicks in, we, as adults, have to act as their self regulation. Supporting them to understand the social play codes. Eventually the group of children will co-regulate the play. In previous posts I have explored how we, as adults, often use the words "are you listening" instead of "are you obeying", because frankly they probably have listened - they simply have chosen not to act upon the words... We need to think about how can we support the children to make better life-decisions - as often these "are you listening" phrases are connected to safety and creating more positive social interactions... (not just simply obeying an adult). Lining up and rules have been an essential part of this self regulation... not just following rules blindly... because you learn nothing by that... but by understanding why we have the rules... For example lining up is not just always about making the child obey an adult, it can be the safest and smartest way to wait an then to get from A to B. And lining up to take turns on a slide can make it easier for those children stressing about whether or not they will get a turn... walking in a line can make it easier for those children who have such a strong desire to be first that they make the choice to hit or trip people over to get to that position. Knowing that you will get there, and that the group takes turns in being the leader of the line can help children not only relax knowing they will get a turn, but also practice self regulating their emotions when they are not, as well as enjoying the joy another child feels when they are a leader...
And if you take a look at nature you often see animals walking in lines... ants, cows, etc... not like lines of soldiers marching to a beat in obedience, but more organic... these sort of lines I saw in Anji as the children moved from the outside back to their classrooms... the lines had holes in them, and some stragglers, but it was a line all the same. When you work for a longer period of time with the same group of children you get to know them well, you build trust and the children feel safe with the structure that you have created together... and as the children grow and develop the less they need me to act as their self self regulation... Its wonderful, making myself invisible and making their play visible. But this free play stuff did not come easily for the children either... it seems like they are conditioned to seek out an adult to solve their problems... if they have a disagreement, if someones says something they think is not nice, if they fall over... Its been a process to hand over the power back to the children... instead of them staring at us when a friend falls over, they go to their friend and comfort them. We are always watching and making sure that the level of risk is appropriate... too big/hard a fall and we will be there... but a minor fall the children can manage themselves... I remember when a child fell from some play equipment and the fall had been a little higher than I felt comfortable with I went over like a shot and two of my 4 and 5 year olds repeatedly told me "but we are here, we can take care of her" - it made me happy, and thanked them for their help and their consideration and explained how we were always watching and if we felt the fall was very big then we would always be there... Sometimes the children have made this judgement by themselves when a child has been sadder than what their abilities to comfort could manage... they have come to us and asked for help... and this asking for help i consider an important skill... but this just standing there watching a friend be sad and expecting the adult to take care of I felt disempowered the children...
Scaffolding is also about rules and the need for them to create safety... it is when we are safe that we can play and learn best. Understanding why we have rules and being aware of the safety issues is essential for children... and adults.
As educators we are not there simply to provide space for free play, but play is an important way for children to process lessons, activities, experiences, stories and events that happen to them or in the world... As educators we are there to teach the children... to facilitate their learning. Children that are safe and have autonomy and have a sense of their own agency are more likely to to learn better, as energy is not being wasted on trying to survive (because they are thriving) or in a some form of power struggle as they strive for their own sense of agency... they are free to play and learn, the structure is created by the educators to ensure that ALL the children feel partake in this freedom. Some children take more space than other children, and as teachers we strive to ensure that all children participate... even the quiet children. But we cannot encourage the quiet children to take more space is we are not encouraging those that take lots to learn to listen. I often think that there is a finite amount of space in a classroom, and this needs to be shared amongst the children and the teacher. It is easy for the teacher to take LOTS of space, but equally it is easy for some children, in a diversity of ways, to consume more than their fair share. So despite my striving for a freedom of play, I am also providing structure... both social and pedagogical. It is not simply child-centred, but a space for us all to connect and learn - adults and children sharing the power and the space... creating a freedom within the structure. Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva (2004) write that settings where there is a balance between child-initiated and practitioner-initiated learning activities provide the most favourable conditions in terms of children’s cognitive, social and dispositional outcomes. it is not simply about creating free play in early years settings, but ensuring that free play exists to process the learning provided by educators. So what structures do you have to enable freedom for the children to play...? below are some of the structures I have used over time...
here the structure was finding a safe way to explore heights to conquer fears as well as turn taking and supporting each other
the talking rings were a form of structure to enable children to talk freely and to know that they were being listened to... that their words were being valued by their friends.
the structure was learning about who you could make handprint marks on and who you could not... not just an art exploration but also learning about how we all play differently... the rule was you HAD to ask first before making a paint mark on another... some were very keen on this play.. while others absolutely did not... this was very much about consent.
rules for risky play.... YES we can play with sticks... YES we can fight with sticks... but we need to have total control... once we have body contact we finish the game (as experience tells me that is when they are getting tired and an accident is likely to happen - and the children know why this rule is in action... and that is JUST as important)
more risk taking in a structured form... so that they can apply it in a free form... thinking about the surface they land on, thinking about turn taking, thinking about taking care of each other...
the together paintings have a lot of structure in them in order to paint freely... but also a way to communicate and solve conflicts
painting within the lines... understanding that your actions affect another person's reaction... if you do not concentrate and keep within the lines then it will go into the space of another person's painting area... what does this mean and how can we be a part of the social interaction of cause and affect... (this activity was Kandinsky inspired, but not about creative expression as a primary aim, but as a social exploration of responsibility)
Blowing bubbles... instead of at the lunch table where it disturbed many (including those who were not keen eaters, which meant they ate nothing and then had low energy in the afternoon) we created the structure of bubble blowing time at other point of the day
and it is important to remember that children are not just learning all of this for future use, but to be active social beings right now too.