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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Life-long Playing

Usually we read about life-long learning - and I am all for that - but I think what happens is school-long teaching which risks people losing their joy for learning.

The Original Learning Approach began as I searched for a cognitive and emotional space for me to reflect on how play and learning could enhance each other.

And I continue to reflect about play and learning and how they intertwine - a thread of thinking is what could life-long playing be? and how can we support it?


I see life-long playing as the ability to tap into the essence of play throughout our lives - not to play like children, but to play according to who we are at any given moment. How we play as adults will be very different to how we played as children - our brain is different, our needs are different, our experiences, knowledge and skills are different. Play is the brain's way to adapt to a complex world - so yes, that might mean exploring and testing, but it will also be about relaxing and decompressing, as well as connecting with others and the world around as and more... the world is complex, so there are many ways to play.

Play is about well-being and creativity, about community and problem-solving, and more. As I write in my book on Original Learning - play is every bit as important as learning throughout our lives.

Of course some adult play gets a lot of space and investment - theatres, pubs, restaurants, boat clubs, golf clubs, night clubs and so many other adult forms of leisure and pleasure. I think for adults it is not so much the lack of space to access leisure/play but the time it consumes and very probably the need for it to be "productive" - time wasting is seen as a negative, and the way that children play is seldom viewed as "productive" unless adults have manipulated the play to be pedagogical or they are play-literate and understand the power of play. Essentially I think it boils down to time and how we experience it. At play, time often seems to fly by (and sometimes even work can feel play like when we are enjoying it) and there is a sense that we would choose to do this because of that sense of flow. As a reflect over my life there are many moments where it is hard to distinguish whether what I was doing was playing, working or learning because they have started as one thing and morphed into another without there being a clear line of when it stopped being work and started being play and vice versa.

When I have talked with children about their play there have been many times when they told me that they were not playing, but working in order to start the play. Play continues to be a difficult thing to say exactly what it is, or how you behave, or how it feels - in much the same way as love. There are many kinds of love - the love for my husband is different from the love of my children, which is different from the love for friends and children I work with which is different from my love of food. And how I respond to love, and show love will be very likely different to how another responds, feels it and shows it.

I think this is the same for play.

It is why we need to pause a moment to check our play-bias and accept the complexity of play.



So how can we foster life-long play? Being unhurried is a vital part, I think - that doesn't mean we are doing slow things, but that we prioritise slowing down from the stresses of life to enjoy it. We respond as ourselves.


I think the Original Learning Approach works well here as a way to support life-long playing (and learning) - as the name came from the idea of how babies, when playing with their hands are learning, but to know exactly what moments are play and what are learning are impossible to distinguish and is there really a need? Motivation in the form of endorphins released through being in a state of play is probably what fuels learning. This is why I felt being play-responsive as an educator is a way of weaving play and learning together, where play fuels the learning, which informs and expands the play with gives new fuel... of course play is more than learning too. Play informs the teaching, so that it can be fine tuned to be filled with joy. My aim is not for playful learning, but joy-filled learning that is as close as possible to a play experience.

A circle of play-responsive learning could look something like this image...


Motivation starts with wonder and curiosity - it gets the play started. This creates joyful experiences where endorphins are released. The endorphins motivate us to keep trying, to take steps into uncertainty, to take risks to find out what we are capable of and what is out there, and also the resilience to recover when things don't go as planned. Resilience is the speed with which we recover from adversity. If children are not able to participate in risky play, how are they going to sustain their ability to be resilient?

This all leads to new skills and knowledge being formed. The skills include the ability to self-regulate and not just the usual physical, social and cognitive skills; and that knowledge includes the ability to know how to keeps oneself safe, how to thrive - I think knowing ourselves is vital knowledge to possess as a learner and fellow human.

We then reflect on what we have learned and add this to our play and our interactions with others, thus extending the way we play and the way we interact with the world. We make adjustments and imagine new possibilities which motivates us to play through curiosity and wonder.

It requires enough time, and the ability to listen. This circle is what I want to encourage as an educator. What do the children need from me and the environment for them to access knowledge, to practice skills, to awaken their curiosity and inspire wonder? What do they need from me to feel safe and brave so that they can take risks, to test things out, fail and try again? What do they need from me to be able to make the connections between what they are learning and what they are playing so that there is no need for clear distinctions between lesson time and breaks for play?

the circle could look like this, as a teacher



Being play-responsive doesn't exclude projects... I always had/have projects - but how the children were playing would inform me of how to explore them.

So, for example, I knew that many of my children were seeking out sensory input in their play - so I would use that as ways to explore and investigate the project

For fairies for example - when we wanted to create a massive painting to transform an area of our space into a fairy world we painted the background with our whole bodies, the paint mixed in sources and couscous from Morocco - as one child came from there (the food had expired so it didn't feel wasteful) so the experience was for as many senses as possible to be stimulated (we drank Moroccan mint tea first to add taste)

Sometimes I designed an experience that would allow them to practice the skills they needed for their play while at the same time access information about the project...

The project is a vehicle for the learning - rather than the project being the thing to learn or the one tool of learning.

Instead many tools are used for learning - where play is one, the project another, routines, traditions, meetings etc etc - all have equal value. I use the word tool around play carefully - because I am not directing the play for pedagogical ends, but rather trusting that the play will contribute one way or another to the learning process.

I do not put the project on a pedestal or seen as a must - because we did lots of diversions, - which I realised later fuelled the project with new perspectives and skills that the children could apply; and I never felt we had to pursue a project to the "end" because if the children lost interest to the extent it was no longer a motivating factor and curiosity could not be awakened, then the project was no longer a vehicle that could take us round the play-responsive circle any more (it might be later... so I remained open to the possibility the children might return to it).

My role with projects was not to do things so that the project was visible as something evolving (for other adults/children) - but seeing what the children needed to be able to move the project forward with autonomy - what skills, what information, what understandings, what experiences etc. The direction and content was controlled by the children, my knowledge and experience meant I knew what materials were available that could help them, what excursions could be inspirational, and what books etc

Yes it meant that things went much slower, and at first it was scary, and it didn't feel like I had anything to show for it... but in the end we created a space where all the children felt empowered, able to listen to each other, were curious about each other's ideas and knew how to ask for what they needed to learn and play.

The project and play became intertwined.

My teaching became almost play like as the children would take over and transform it into their own - and I then shifted from teacher to facilitator and if successful into playworker.

I don't separate the day by now is the time for lesson, now is the time for free play etc....

I observe what role I am playing - not what the children are doing, or what the schedule says - but whether I am being teacher, facilitator or playworker - learning/work/play can happen at any time...

When I am teacher I am introducing something to the children, teaching them some facts, exposing them to a new experience, showing them a new skill; when I am facilitator I am supporting the children's learning and respond when they need me, but when I am playworker I interfere as little as possible.

We can design our spaces for autonomy, but also areas for facilitation and teaching - so spaces that allows interaction between the adults and the children, and spaces that allow the adults to become visibly invisible - there when the children need us, but when the children are in flow we are invisible observers.


If we create spaces where play is valued just as much as learning, and practical skills, emotional skills, well-being skills are valued just as much as academics - then I think we can create a life-long playing that will be beneficial throughout our lives.


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