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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Nomadic Play and Learning

This is coming from an idea that play does not need a fixed physical space... neither does learning.

The word nomad means a member of a people that travels from place to place to find fresh pasture for its animals and has no permanent home.

What is we could use the word nomadic to create a reflective space to consider how children move from place to place to find fresh pasture (inspiration/possibility) for their play?

I have frequently seen how young children slowly (and sometimes speedier) transition from space to space with their play - sometimes it is the same play that evolves in different directions as it moves, other times the play is restarted, or a new play begins.

For this kind of play it can be important for children to

  • have permission to move things from one area to another

  • have adults who are aware when play in one area is put on pause to be returned to or when it has come to an end, and tidying up can be beneficial for the space to be opened up to new possibilities

  • have adults who are play literate and understand that if they move certain items into the periphery of the children they could inspire, or help the play continue.

  • have baskets, wagons, bags and other methods of transportation to ease not only the movement of things - but also to make the tidying up, when play is completed, more playful

  • have space to park/pause their play - so that it can be continued later, the next day or over a period of extended time.

  • permission to not have to tidy up every time before moving on to something else

I think rigid thinking about how space can be used, the movement of stuff and tidying up can limit children's play.

When I have worked with toddlers I have seen a lot of this nomadic play - as they play with something until something else catches their eyes - like butterflies flitting around the room enjoying the nectar. What I like to do is to tidy up the mess they leave behind, mostly because one of the best play patterns a toddler likes is to dump everything out. So I figure if I put everything back in the baskets, boxes and shelves again then they get to play the play they love so much.

Sometimes I notice things that have been arranged - those things I leave... they might be returned to, or they might inspire another child's play. But the stuff that looks like it's been dumped, I tidy.

It's something others have commented on, at one place they were comfortable with the mess and said I could just leave it, as they cleared things up at the end... but I explained what i was doing, that it was not because I thought it was messy and needed tidying but because I noticed the children liked to empty things... and if everything was emptied there was a big chance that a play need could not be met, and they might start seeking out things to empty that they were not allowed to...

I like to have things so that the children know where to find them. A kind of predictability that provides space for the children's creativity. So if they think of an idea they know where to get what they need to bring that idea into play. Play time can be wasted if they spend too much time looking for what they need to play.

This is why I like making tidy up time fun, and that I will always help the children tidy up. Too many times I have seen adults demand that the children tidy up and just watch them without any guidance (or maybe some orders) - and then get frustrated when things are in the wrong place... my experience of young children is that they like to tidy up fast (to get it over and done with) and things tend to get dumped in any old box and sometimes in the right one.

It's why I think of the materials from play start to finish. Do we (the children and my colleagues) have the energy to take responsibility for all the materials available to play with? Sometimes less is more. I have found that some of the best play moments (where all the children are deeply engaged, all participating and clear signs of joy) have been with no stuff whatsoever - just the landscape (or roomscape) - children sat under tables, or running around outside or...

So the have vast quantities of stuff is not essential to play.

This is not me saying don't have stuff, or feel bad about having lots of stuff. If you have a group of children and staff that easily manage taking responsibility for lots of stuff then I say go for it. I think problems arise when the adults feel frustrated with the tidying up part.

Sometimes over zealous tidying up can make the play frustrated... it keeps getting put away and not allowed to survive until the next time the children breathe life into it.

Another kind of nomadic play that I have seen is when a small group (sometimes large, but mostly 2-5 children) hang together talking, laughing and doing small play actions of various kinds, and then walk to another place and do something similar... a constant migration from place to place. I personally find something very soothing when I observe this kind of play. I think mostly because I remember three children who played like this every day for almost six months for at least a part of the day... chatting laughing, doing little movement - and sometimes suddenly run to a new place and start laughing and talking again, and then walk slowly to another place, then play for a short time on e.g the swings, to then return to their nomadic play.

For this kind of play there needs space and trust.

They often went into smaller hidden areas where they could divulge their secrets beyond the prying eyes and ears of the adults... I could hear them, but not the details. The energy was positive.. I seldom needed to intrude... occasionally when they came closer I would listen in... as evidence collecting to make sure my teaching was in line with their interests. Visibly invisible.

There is also that transient nomadic play when visiting a new place. Where the novelty of the space means the children have a hard time focusing on just one play... they need to explore, test, try out everything - what play possibilities are there.

Knowing this is important. It's impossible to demand settler play or learning when the children are in nomadic play/learning. For example if you visit a museum with the intent to learn something specific, many/some children will struggle to settle to that one topic as their nomadic drives are telling them they need to find out what is there, what possibilities, what will I miss if I settle for just this... it makes it hard to focus. So I usually start with some time for the children to look around at everything if I must focus on one thing. If I am designing the museum visit - the first time would be just dedicated to exploration. It's why young children prefer to visit museums with their families... less other children's interests to compete with - they get to choose themselves how long to look at something and what next to look at...

This is just the beginning of looking at this concept of nomadic play... I need to reflect more... these are just my first thoughts.

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