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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Empty Spaces

This post was first written in 2014 when I attended the Play Iceland Conference

The 2019 conference is already fully booked, but I am quite sure that there will be further chances to attend in the future. The conference is a space to visit early years settings together with other educators, to be inspired, to share wisdoms with each other, to attend lectures and workshops, to play and to feel alive in the Icelandic nature and hospitality.

One of the things I noticed about all the preschools I visited in Iceland was that their rooms tended to be rather empty looking. This took me by surprise at first. It was not what I was expecting - although I am not sure what I was expecting. But I think the fact that I was visiting another Scandinavian country lead me to believe that the insides of the preschool would be similar to our ones in Sweden. Empty space is not something I am unused to... at previous workplaces we have been careful not to just fill the space/rooms up... but to observe and listen to the children to see how we can best meet their needs... which has meant that rooms were slowly added to, and dividing walls constructed - one room was expanded. There were two rooms that were "empty" in a similar way to what I saw in Iceland - and both these rooms are used for nap/rest time, which is also something I observed in Iceland with the shelves of mattresses high up. Another thing I noticed was the calmness of the children... and I was not alone in this observation... I overheard many others saying the exact same thing. Is there a connection here? It could be that the long periods of time spent playing outdoors could have an impact on this as well. Could it be that the emptiness of the rooms leave space for the children, their play and their ideas? Does a room filled with things albeit for inspiration, to offer choice etc etc... does all of this fill the space that really belongs to the children - the children's creative space? Have we got it wrong? Does offering children a myriad of possibilities mean that we are allowing the children to be competent to be creative... or are we spoon feeding them... and therefore not giving them the creative freedom that they are capable of? When I observe the children at the Swedish settings where I have worked there is never any lack of play in those empty rooms... quite the opposite - those rooms are always filled with play. And also empty rooms also means that children can get to do one of their favourite past times... transporting toys and things from one place to another... it also means there is not an enormous amount of time being spent on tidying up - which, really, steals time from the important play. Empty rooms also mean that you can fill them with other things... like light and sound... and movement... which can be hard to do when the room is already full. I would like to point out that all of these preschools had well stocked storage rooms, where they kept toys and equipment so that it could be rotated... to meet the needs and interests of the children, as well as challenge them. The children were able to go into these storage rooms and select items too. So the children were participating in making the choices of what materials/resources were made available. If everything is always out then maybe they become invisible? Like the information signs put up for parents... every preschool I have every worked at has had that "problem" where parents simply do not see the information notices... and you start using techniques like hanging them from the ceiling so they crash into them, or changing the colour of them all the time... but parents are busy and many don't seem to always take notice of them... maybe in much the same way the children are always busy at play that they don't always notice everything that is out... and therefore it just becomes a kind of "background noise" or "visual filler" - and taking up space that could be used more creatively...

So in this sense having an empty space means that the few things that are provided are seen, that if these materials are changed, rotated in a variety of ways, then they will be noticed and will impact the play in a different way than what it would with everything out at once.

At one of the preschools that I have worked at, we made the decision to take away the vast majority of the toys and resources (insipired by my trip to Iceland) and left only loose parts, books, construction materials (not lego at first) and art materials. What we saw was the the play changed. There was more space for play, there was more time for play (as less time was spent bickering over who had the certain toy, there was less time needed for tidying up) - the play became more generous, as children understood the equality of the materials... previously some items had a much higher status than others for some children, which made sharing/turn taking extremely hard for them which added extra stresses on their social interactions with others. Over time we did introduce toys and lego etc again but we found that the skills the children developed through playing with loose parts continued with whatever materials and toys were then introduced. I found it an amazing experience I learned so much, the trip to Iceland, an also daring to try putting some of the ideas, our way, into practice. There are some images from the Icelandic preschools below...

this was the only shelving in the room...the rest of it was empty. (this was at a small seaside town preschool, that I have now forgotten the name of)

this was all the furniture in this room (Aðalþing Playschool)

empty rooms can be filled with construction materials and with light and sound (Aðalþing Playschool)

empty spaces... you can see in the top right that a table is being reconstructed for the room, after the Christmas party (Stekkjarás Playschool)

So what do YOU think? Would you dare to go bare? To allow the children's play to fill your setting rather than things? What do we really need to support children's learning through play? And what is superfluous?

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