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  • Suzanne Axelsson

A Play-responsive Space




In my book The Original Learning Approach; Weaving playing, learning and teaching together in early childhood I write not only about the play-responsive educator but also how the space is play-responsive...

Of course in a play-ecosystem a space always responds to the play (and the learning) - it can be very easy to see outside in how grassy areas get worn away in the most heavily played in areas, or traces of art left on tables...

In the below photo you can see how the small patch has been completely worn away, showing the popularity of going into the the bushes and amongst the trees at exactly that point. By following the worn-path you come to an enclosed area where there were more visible signs of play.

The play space below constantly responds to the play. Every time I have visited it has been completely different as the stones get moved around as the children furnish their play.

But often it is our adult decisions that impacts how a space responds to the play. It is an adult decision that has resulted in all those stone being there (a very smart and wonderful decision)

It is our adult ability to notice the children's play - how they play, what they play, where and when they play, who and what they play with... and translate that into how we set up the environments we are providing for the children and the kind of activities we offer and the sort of books we read.


The first image I shared is of a together painting. These were set up as play spaces for the children to practice social interactions, listening, turn-taking, thinking about fairness through artistic explorations. The group was troubled by constant squabbles, the need to be first and an unwillingness to let others use stuff even when a child was finished using it. The large easel provided a safe space to practice all these skills while engaging in something I knew they enjoyed. It didn't start out with so many children, but over time it became possible for the children to negotiate without getting angry, getting overly upset or lashing out. In the beginning I was close by scaffolding, but as they became more confident in their negotiation skills the more steps back I could take and the more free flowing it became.


it was the same piece of paper that was on the easel for several weeks, basically until the paper could not hold any more paint. To read more about together painting check out this post I wrote.


The images below come from a kindergarten I visited in Milan that worked together with Reggio Children. There was a great deal of thought that went into the materials that were offered to the children in the different classrooms - each one had a different selection of loose parts - some were all white, others all black, others more mixed - and different kinds of weight, type of material, size etc... the aim was that the children, as the moved through the kindergarten they could explore and experiment building on what they know with the new materials provided. To read more about this check out this post as it is a deep dive into these materials (it is also my last collaboration with Mia, who died a few months after I shared this post, it still feels strange not chatting with her)

What is essential in creating play-responsive spaces is that as adults we let go of our agenda of what an educational space should look like... because I do feel that there is a tendency for early years settings to have a certain "look" no matter where they are in the world - I write about that here.

What matters is being able to respond culturally appropriately to the children in your care with materials that are sustainable (economically, socially and environmentally)

I raise all of this in my book in several of the chapters, so from different perspectives. For instance I write about a sofa and how the placement of this one piece of furniture could transform how the children used the space - and the same sofa can be found in more than one chapter! In the wonder chapter there is a whole list of things to think about when choosing loose parts - and how they respond to the play. Thinking not only about what stuff we choose, but also how that stuff responds and interacts with stuff you already have is important to consider. Especially if creating a play-responsive space is what you are seeking.


The below photos come from Emdrup, a suburb in Copenhagen, it is the junk-playground that inspired the adventure-playground and playwork movement. Where the focus is always on adventurous, joy-filled play and not the aesthetics. it has it's own sense of beauty instead.

I have written about beauty here and how children often see things very differently from many adults, and that it is important to take into consideration that our adult sense of beauty might not always be the best way to honour children. Maybe the best way to honour children is to give them adequate time and space to play?


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