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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Essence of Play



First of all maybe I should start with what mean with the essence of play.

It's an attempt to describe play as something more than just those usual categories that say what play is and is not, to remind us of the non-measurability of it like love, (and maybe even democracy) and also that it is more than a series of actions but also a sense, emotion, almost a spiritual state of being.

Can we have fun even when it is not play... absolutely. Play is more than fun.


Sometimes I think of it like a river, or maybe a natural forest -

the essence of play as a river is that it is flowing - sometimes fast, sometimes slow - and like the saying says we never step into the same river twice - the same is with play - even if we play the same thing, it has changed, because of how the participants have evolved since last they played it (even if if it was just a few minutes) they have new experience, knowledge, practice etc. Controlling a river has major impacts on not only the river but also the ecosystem dependant on it... the same happens if we control the play - the entire play-ecosystem is impacted - which includes what the children are learning, interactions, self-esteem, skills, the social environment and much more. It's not always negative - its not a human v nature sort of thing - but a more Indigenous view of how humans and nature are in a mutual relationship. I think this is something adults need to do with children's play too, it's not simply a hands-off things but a care-fully curated space and an ability to tune into the play. To sense it. This is where the forest comes in... when I have been walking in the forest I become aware that I am a part of the forest ecosystem. What I do impacts the forest - from scaring birds mid-meal, to where I walk and the impact of my feet, and if I am collecting anything - to consider it is then being removed from an ecosystem (it might have been food, home materials or nutrients for the soil - or new plants). It's not that I should never go into the forest, but that I enter with respect. In many Indigenous cultures the approach of asking permission before chopping down trees for a specific use (not just to make profit) as been shown to help the forest because the removal of one tree, in just the right space means that a small opening is created for new life to grow, without disturbing the ecosystem negatively.

The asking of permission slows down the process to take into consideration the whole situation and not just the personal desire.


When I was chatting with other playworkers at the wonderful Playwork in Progress meeting this week we started talking about that magical sense of understanding the energy in a room - the play. Because play has an energy. I can often sense when the play energy is beginning to thin out, and that by placing myself closer by I can be a tool of self-regulation for the children by just by my presence - for the children to either dig deeper and find new power of self-regulation, or to decide to play something else and re-combobulate through a different form of play.

Phronesis is a word I like to use for this sense. It's that just knowing. It's hard to describe - but it comes through a mixture of learning (theory), experience (practice) and being open (responsive/perceptive). I think maybe it is the latter that is the most important part and that the theory and practice hones the ability.


I also think the ability to be play literate comes from this play phronesis. Or, maybe, our ability to have play phronesis is more likely if we practice being play literate? it feels like a chicken and the egg sort of story.

But however it evolves it requires an ability to listen. Not just hear what the children say - but listen to the children, listen to the play, listen to the environment... Sometimes I think children say things that are very different from their play.


I have some times held playground evaluation weeks with preschoolers. Where we would visit various playgrounds in Stockholm and play for a few hours and then the children would rate it out of ten (I would too based on how they played). It was a way not only to see which spaces the children liked the best, giving them knowledge so they could make informed decisions about future excursions; but also for me to see if I was able to observe their play and rate it like them - I felt the closer my score was to the children's the more likely I had understood their play.

For the most part I was exactly right or almost. But on one occasion I was completely wrong. I had seen the children play really deeply, complex, rich play that had made me more or less invisible the whole time. I rated the playground high because I saw they all were self-motivated, engaged and filled with joy. The children, though, rated the park as average because there were no bikes and trikes like there had been at the park the day before. So despite their great play they were disappointed. This is why I think it is important to listen to both the child and the play. Interestingly the day after we were at a space with only a few bikes, and many many children from preschools all over Stockholm. Eventually one of the children in my care managed to get a bike. Every other child in the group kept asking them to have a turn on the bike, but they would not get off. The children complained to me. I was very visible!! I told them that they needed to resolve the issue, and I mentioned to the biking child that others were waiting. The child did not get off the bike. When we evaluated bike-child rated the playground with top marks. The rest of the children rated the park with extremely low marks and explained it was because they did not get a chance to ride on a bike (not having enough bikes really interfered with their ability to play). I guessed as much. We chatted about what could be done to make it a fun experience for everyone next time - and this one event of not making a child share resulted in that every single child in that group understood what sharing was about. Not once after that would a child just say no and refuse, they would always respond - just a little longer then you can, or sure... (I also informed bike-child's parents what had happened, not for the child to get a lecture about sharing, but as a heads up if the child needed to process all the other children being angry with them. I made sure that the parents knew that the situation had been fully dealt with and that all the needed to do was give comfort if their child needed it.)


But I sidetracked there.

In Swedish the word for curriculum is läroplan (teaching/learning plan) - and in my new Swedish book on risky play and teaching (available today) I suggest that maybe we need a lekoplan (play plan) instead. I kept thinking about how this would translate into English by messing with the word curriculum - so I looked up the etymology of curriculum and saw that the word comes from the latin to run a course. It sounds fast and fixed. Learning, I strongly believe, needs to be slower, more meandering and with plenty of opportunities for detours.

So I started looking up words in latin (just your ordinary online translator stuff - so probably mistakes)

colligo - I collect/gather/slow - (I like the idea of slowly gathering knowledge.)

ludere - to play

ludere consilium - play plan

consilium - advice counsel, policy, plan, wisdom

educatio - education, rearing, training, bringing up, instruction, tutorage

erudition - quality of having/knowing great knowledge (mostly a book kind of learning)

Ludus - game, play, prank, sport playing, school.

Hmm, I thought - school?

So I reversed translated the word and ludus translated as elementary school. So I reversed translated and the words ludi litterarii came up, which I reversed translated and it became literary games which translated as litterarum ludos - letter games - litterarum ludos - letter games - so the trail came to an end.

Was I any wiser or closer to replacing curriculum with a more playful word... absolutely not. Had I been playing with words again - absolutely. Fluviatilis is what I am given when I seek meander. After all I am seeking something that is the essence of play, and interestingly the latin word for meander is rooted in river, which is where I started with this post.

I don't hike in the forest, I meander. I go slowly so that I can notice what is around me. Sometimes I go fast, because that is what I feel like, but that vast majority of the time I am slow and listening. Sometimes I stand completely still. Other times I am playing and messing about.

The curriculum's running course concept seldom allows children to meander in their learning, or to pause to actually notice what is going on and to understand.

A horse-racing course is the example used to explain the etymology of curriculum. It is not horses playing, living, exploring life, learning and gaining knowledge for survival - it is an extremely controlled environment for a single purpose, and there is a winner and a hierarchy of losers. Play is the wild horses.

What I am asking for is a paddock where horses are allowed to be horses within safe parameters. And that this paddock is rich in stimulation, social situations, variation, choices, shelter etc. Where they can achieve an essence of being a wild horse even if they are tamed.


I think maybe this is what the education system needs to strive towards. Curating an environment that allows the essence of play to thrive - so children can be children rather than being continuously and relentlessly steered into adulthood. This play essence is where the mental health is, the physical health is, the ability to develop healthy social relationships, to practice being kind, to dare to make mistakes, to feel the thrill, to regulate emotions and so much more... unlike a race-course that has just one goal, play provides many - and not the same kind of goal as the race, that once it is reached it is over - but the kind that are more like discovering portals that open even more realms of possibilities.




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