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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Pedagogy of Participation

Creating a pedagogy of participation is a democratic action if, and only if, we are striving to create a space where every child feels safe and brave to participate as themselves. This requires that every child feels accepted, valued and that they belong.

Our role as educators is to create a community of belonging. Far too many children work hard to try and fit in, because they want to belong, but do not feel safe enough, and/or brave enough to belong as themselves.

As an autistic person I am fully aware of the need to mask, and of how exhausting that masking is, and how often knowing how to mask successfully completely fails and there are a variety of consequences, few of them positive.


I am not, by any means, advocating that we can all do what we want when it pleases us. Because such individualism seldom promotes community spirit or safe and brave spaces. It is simply about accepting each other in our strengths, weaknesses and otherness. That we don't have to hide our difference because it might mean exclusion, but to know that we will be supported so that we can participate.


This meant my responsibility was for the whole group to learn how to listen to understand, and also to take responsibility for their own actions once they understood.

I think back to my youngest in school and how it became a sport for some of the children to trigger him while remaining invisible to the teachers... so my son would face the wrath of the consequences; and how my son would lament how hard it was that it was always just his responsibility to change his behaviour and none was placed on the class as whole to avoid triggering.

Surely to create a learning environment where everyone, and not just the educator, is responsible for the health and well-being of the social space will lead to learning environments where everyone feels safe and brave to participate and learn?

This means slowing down from a fast based teaching curriculum to shift to an unhurried learning curriculum where healthy relationships are central. What I mean by this is that often curriculums are about when and what is supposed to be taught to be able to level up and get grades - instead schools (and schoolified preschools) need to focus on how children learn.


Fear based, control heavy teaching is not conducive to safe and brave spaces and optimal learning - and even the most joy-filled and empowering teachers are bound by an oppressive system that their own energy and bravery can make tolerable for an increased number of children, and for some children an amazing school experience.

There is plenty of research on how autonomy is vital for positive mental health (check my book research page for some link on this and other stuff), and play is the ultimate language of autonomy - becoming play-responsive educators is a way of teaching a pedagogy of participation (more on being Play Responsive here). I think it is a mistake to see "free play" or recess as a a break from the learning and the adult control, and that we should be seeing it as an opportunity for the adults to learn about the children, how they learn, what the know, what skills they are struggling with, what they are curious about, what motivates them etc... and to be able to utilise this information to create lessons that are meaningful, relevant, joy-filled and much more likely to motivate learning.

As educators we also need to invest time into the the well-being of the social atmosphere - to address bias and stereotypes that are shoving too many children into feeling unsafe, and far too many into such an extreme sense of non-safety that they are unable to attend school.

Having seen one of my own children pushed to the edge of his own mental health due to feeling unsafe, unwanted and not valued in school to the point of not seeing the point of living anymore I know in the deepest achiest part of my heart that this is an all too real situation and the the school system is failing its mission to educate children.

My fear is that here in Sweden, like many other parts of the world there is a tendency to make the early years more school like in an attempt to increase the status of working with society's youngest children. Why would we want to take away autonomy from children even earlier? The very thing that is essential for mental health? Why are we not demanding that the school system becomes more early years like? Where participation, play, autonomy, social relationship are (or should be) prioritised. Jools Page (see the reading/research list from my book, already linked here - Joy chapter) writes about Professional Love - and seriously this should not be just something that is for the youngest children - professional love should be for everyone of every age. Genuine reciprocal relationships. I have chatted with Jools many times, and her thinking has been a great inspiration in the creation of the Original Learning Approach - as she said love is an equity thing, if the care is not going in both directions then it is not love - but infatuation or obsession etc. Love comes in many forms, and I write about this in my book in the Joy chapter - because joy is rooted in the trinity of well-being, equity and love. It's harder to feel joy when our mental health is not thriving, it is harder to feel joy if we are being excluded and/or being discriminated, and it is harder to feel joy if we are not loved, accepted, valued and cared for.

How can children participate without joy? And what is needed from us to ensure that every children can participate with joy. As Malaguzzi said - "Nothing without joy".


Original Learning not only came from a place where I was exhausted by the dichotomy of play and learning/teaching, and the desire to find a space for me to understand how play, learning, teaching and understanding are interwoven and vital as a whole. It has also evolved from a place of frustration that not all children are included - to explore the power of the adults, how children can be empowered, the role of play in all of this, and how teaching listening improved the well-being of the individual and the group.

The aim of my book, the Original Learning Approach - is for every person that reads it to find new perspectives to reflect on what is familiar, to deepen their understanding of their own context, to problematise their own roles as educators and make personal plans on what steps they would like to take to evolve as an educator. I avoid the word better in my book, because it's not about being better, because I think that can negate all the amazing that educators are already doing, but to think about the changes we need to make to ensure the play and learning ecosystem is safe for every child to thrive and learn and to be themselves.


More blogposts to read that connect...





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