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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Future of Play

On Sunday 17th April I was featured in Kathimerini national newspaper in Greece, interviewed by Lina Giannarou who then wrote an article - which I will be translated and I can also get to read it. The article was written as part of the lead up to the second Play on Early Education Conference, in Athens which I will be a keynote speaker at. The topic of the conference is The Future of Play. You can check out the conference website here BUT, for those of you, like me, who cannot read Greek, here are the questions Lina asked me and the answers that I gave, that she used in the article.

L - There is a lot of talk today about the lack of free play and what this means for a child’s development and wellbeing. Why, in your view, is free play so important? And is it true the lack of it can affect our whole lives?

S - I think there are many ways that we play - alone, together with others, and multigenerational, as my neuroscience husband informs me, play is the brain's way to adapt to a complex world - so we never stop playing, just how we play changes. As adults we no longer need to play "families", or play "going to work", as many of us adults either experience it in our daily lives or have sufficient practical and theoretical knowledge. The autonomy in play is what I think is essential for well-being. In play children take control over their own lives, albeit for short periods of time, and often about things that seem trivial to adults. But this sense of control, or participating (and not just following instructions), of taking action and not only reacting, enables children to practice self-regulation, decision-making, sense-making, knowledge-building, self-awareness, self esteem and confidence etc. Of course they are not aware that they are doing this at the time. They do it because it feels good - the brain is sneaky like that - play makes learning complex, hard things that need to be repeated multiple times pleasurable so that we will keep doing it. It is just to look at babies learning to walk and the number of times they fail, fall and crash into things before mastering the skill in a wobbly and unstable manner that takes years to perfect through various physical play experiences. There are probably few adults that would persist in doing something with so many failures, this is the beauty of play. It provides the right circumstances for children to experience pleasure, thrill, excitement and satisfaction so that the brain can adapt, build strength, find out more, and connect experiences and facts to create knowledge and understanding as well as solutions, possibilities and inventions.

Limiting access to time, space and permission to play will have long term impacts on a person. It is just to look at the Romanian orphans where they lacked not only positive, loving human interaction, but also a complex, rich world to play with, and how that had massive repercussions on their well-being and development with autism-like symptoms that were reduced when they were adopted by loving families that provided time, space and permission to play in environments that were stimulating.

Permission to play does not mean a free for all, laissez-faire approach to either parenting or teaching; it requires a deep understanding of the child to know how to keep them as safe as necessary and to understand how play enables children to remain competent. The competent child cannot remain competent if they do not have permission, time or space to experiment and explore what they, themselves are capable of, test their own limits and discover how they personally interact best with the world.

L - Why is messy play valuable for children and how can we incorporate it in the classroom or in our house? It goes against a whole mindset focused on cleaning!

S - Maybe it's more about how to phrase it, play can be messy sometimes, especially when children have the permission to explore materials freely. Knowing your own personal limits when it comes to mess, or the rules of the school, or your own energy and time for tidying up is important. Then it is a case of being creative - how can I provide permission to play without too much extra time cleaning up. For paints and other sensory materials I have used old sheets or shower curtains on the floor or tables to minimise the mess - it's just to fold it up afterwards and then use it next time. Or plan to do some things outside rather than inside so that children have more freedom to make more "mess" or use bigger movements. Some elements of cleaning up can be enormous fun for children too. Most children I know love to wash the paint pots and brushes as it quickly shifts into play as they pretend they are cooking, or making magic potions as colours change and they swish the brush around the pot. This can mean making sure there is enough time for the play and the tidying up. I also watch as play spreads across the floor and start thinking about "is this mess or is it still a part of the play?". If the children are busy playing elsewhere I will pick up the parts that are littering the floor rather than having an obvious role in the play, while listening out for any objections. Sometimes children ask me why I am putting stuff away, and I will simply answer I see you need more space for your play, so I am tidying up these things that you are no longer using. Often they help me, as preparing for play can also be a part of the play. Of course messy, tidy, clean etc are all very subjective words, and what is messy for one person can be tidy for another. Often it is connected to aesthetics and is about creating beautiful spaces, but I find that children's ideas of beauty are very different from adult ideas, and that messy is more frequently seen as a thing of beauty by children than by adults. Messy is not synonymous with dirty or not being clean, but does not exclude a temporary state of being dirty like being covered in paint. Of course, some children need order to feel safe, and I feel that there is such a thing as an orderly mess, where children have the freedom to explore but that it is reasonably contained so that it does not infringe on the rights of others.

L - You use philosophy for children and listening to improve democratic learning. These three terms are quite unknown in Greece. Can you explain them for our readers?

S - By democratic learning I mean a classroom where all the children can participate (not just be in the classroom), they are all valued equally and they can all contribute and influence their learning. This means that as a teacher I empower the children to not only feel brave to share their ideas and thoughts, but also to listen and value the opinions of others, even when they disagree with them. We listen to understand each other, rather than listening to reply. The difference is that often children in a classroom (and the adults too) are hearing what is being said, waiting for a space for their turn to say something and then switching off after their turn. While listening requires curiosity in what others have to say, and respect that others can say things that can expand our own thinking, challenge our own thinking, make us more sure of how we think or even encourage us to change our minds. Philosophy with children is where we can practice this skill of listening, sharing opinions, reflecting on those and working together to understand how the world works, or how it might work. I could speak for a whole day about this and still not be able to share the full complexity of how this works as the three link together, and yet so many of the other things we do also contribute towards how we listen and interact democratically - from physical activities that strengthen our bodies so we are comfortable when sitting, to art activities that challenges the children's thinking about rights and responsibilities, to play. If the language of childhood is play - that being, how they make sense of the world, process it, rework it and feel well-being there, then in a democratic classroom a teacher needs to learn how to "speak and listen" to play, not just theoretically but also practically. How does it feel? What happens? How much space is needed? How much mess does it make? How do materials interact? We also need to observe if all the children feel safe and brave to play in all areas, with potentially all the other children and all of the time that they want to? As well as recognising that children do not all play in the same way. Normative descriptions of play might exclude some children who play in a way the adult does not recognise/accept and does not actually need "fixing" but instead requires support on their own play trajectory.

L - You are the mother of three children in the autism spectrum. What are some lessons you have learned from them?

S - So much. But I think there is so much to learn from all children, but my own autistic children have opened my eyes to how exclusive the norm is, and the massive focus on seeing children in comparison to the norm, especially when it comes to seeing the deficit. I think it is so damaging to a person's sense of well-being and self esteem to be constantly viewed from a deficit perspective that needs to be fixed. And also how much bias and stereotyping there is when it comes to things like autism. It is not a blanket diagnosis, that requires a standard set of measures put in place to magically make everything work. If you have met an autistic child, you have met one autistic person. The diversity of being autistic is just as great as the diversity of being "normal" (whatever normal actually means!) I think my biggest frustration with being autistic and being a mother of autistic children is that we are constantly being forced to walk in two worlds. Our own autistic understanding of the world, where telling lies is actually a bad thing, certain sounds, textures even words are painful and being able to filter out all the extra stuff in the world is impossible but we have to react as if these things are not painful, accept that people tell lies all the time and that it's polite (thank you for the lovely present, when you don't really like it) and to sit in a classroom full of smells, sounds, stuff on walls, multiple social interactions as well as things happening outside the window. It's exhausting. Austistic children are regularly reprimanded for having meltdowns, or stimming to cope, or not focussing because they are too tired, or are being trained to act "normal" and to catch up and behave "appropriately", often because it disturbs the neuronorm children and not because it helps the autistic child. The neuronorm, though, are not being taught about how not to trigger autistic children, or what they could do to create a more inclusive classroom. ALL the responsibility is on the autistic child, who is completely dependent on having a teacher who understands, has the energy to support and an attitude of respect and value - this, tragically, is all too rare in school systems. There are too many autistic unfriendly educators, too many systems that do not give the good teachers the time and support they need to make a real difference and also too many parents who look at this "different" child as something that should not be in the classroom disturbing their child's education without realising that their attitudes are influencing the way their children view this child which is contributing towards the problem of exclusion when the child desperately wants to be valued.

It is not enough for an autistic child, or any child that is othered or discriminated against, to be in the classroom in order to call it inclusion. As I already mentioned, democratic classrooms are about every child being able to participate, and to participate to the best of their ability. It is hard to do that if you are constantly feeling overwhelmed, being seen as a problem, or being made to be on a different learning trajectory than the brain is actually capable or motivated to follow. This is why play can make such an enormous difference.

L - In your experience what are the most common mistakes parents make? Is it a case of right and wrong or is it about the degree of one’s involvement in the child’s life and about conscious parenting?

S - I think mistakes are something that we all make, and they are important ways of learning. It is sad that there is so much shaming connected to making mistakes, because instead of learning from them, they get hidden or denied that they ever happened. We learned to walk because we fell down, because we crashed into stuff and these mistakes were essential in understanding how to walk. It's impossible to be perfect parents who get everything right all the time. When I was a new parent with my twins I lived in Australia for 6 months. I was busy reading parenting magazines from UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden - what shocked me was that there was a lot of differences between what you should and should not do as parent depending on which country I was reading the parenting advice from - like what to feed them and not to feed them and even at what age that was suitable or allowed was very different.

I also remember the nurse In Stockholm shaking her head and pitying my poor twins because I had no intention of feeding them Swedish "välling" - I was made to feel like a bad and inferior parent. When I did more research into "välling" - which is called gruel in English (basically thin porridge) I realised that Sweden was one of just two countries in the world that recommended feeding this to babies and young children, I realised that I should not have let that nurse make me feel like a bad parent. Yet this is a massive problem. As parents we all want to do the best for our children. But far too often we are made to feel like irresponsible parents if we let our children engage in risky play, or lazy parents if our home is not perfectly tidy, or bad parents if we are not ensuring the academic success of our children.

My youngest child struggled to "behave" in preschool, he was too loud, he wanted his own way, he had meltdowns. I was constantly being told about his shortcomings from the age of 2, and as I was a preschool teacher others would look at me as if to say why can't you control your child, which any parent of a toddler knows, mid-meltdown there is no controlling, only waiting out the storm before being able to successfully communicate. When he was five I picked him up and his new teacher told me all about the fun things he had done during the day. I cried. This teacher was the first person to say something positive about my child. A fun, loving, clever child at home that got overwhelmed at preschool and could not behave the way they wanted, no matter how hard he tried (and later school).

I think many of us as parents struggle with this. Being made to feel ashamed of children not behaving the way the system wants. Of feeling insufficient because some children can behave and get good grades and draw well and do other amazing things, and the comparison compels some parents to feel extra lessons are necessary, extracurricular activities are essential so that their child can be perceived by others as amazing. All of this extra stuff takes away time for play. Play is a child's main place for autonomy. Autonomy is a criteria for maintaining well-being regardless of how old we are.

I think the common mistake parents make is not listening to their own instincts about what their own child really needs to thrive - not get good grades in school, but thrive (my daughters got good grades in school by surviving the system, this is not what I wanted for them). As parents we should be supporting the children to be the best version of themselves. And the last mistake is that so many parents have forgotten the power of play.

L - There is also a lot of talk about helicopter parenting, the risk of too much involvement in our children’s lives. Have you noticed this working with parents? What would you say to someone to convince him or her to stop clinging on their kids?

S - Helicopter parenting, or curling - is basically when the parent simply does too much for their child. It's not a hands off approach either. It is about finding that balance so that children can have adequate autonomy in their lives as well as ample love and security. What is too much? I think this is something that we all have to truly reflect on, but one indicator can be if your child just sticks out their arms for you to put their jacket on, or sticks out a foot for you to put their shoes on, then the chances are you are doing too much for your child.

Yes, I know it is easier sometimes to dress your child, especially when there is not much time, but planning enough time for your child to dress themselves is actually a way to empower your child. One thing I have had to teach many children over the years is to ask for help, and not just expect it. There should be no shame in asking for help when we need it. Yet often, especially as adults, it is much harder to ask for help than it is to offer help. Asking for help also reminds the child that help is not just something that automatically comes, and that we should value those that help us. It also provides the space for children to try things themselves and not just expect an adult to do it by default. Not only that but children can also learn that peers can help each other, and that an adult is not the only human that knows how. And, it provides an opportunity for the children to know what they can already do, and what they are practicing.

A little adversity is a way to learn. Being frustrated, being on the cusp of being able to, and then the sheer delight of mastering the skill is important - to learn about the great diversity of emotions and how to self-regulate them all, to maintain resilience so they don't just give up (remember how many times they fell learning to walk, that takes resilience - it's not something that we learn, it is taught out of us by being over protected and too little access to play) and to feel empowered by their own capacity not only to do things but also in the process of learning. Too often we are judged by what we can do, the product - so our ability to be a competent walker - rather than the long, complex process of learning and the creative strategies (even those that don't work) used to become competent.

Helicopter parents are failing to value the process of learning - they ease the process of walking with those walker chairs, or other contraptions that limit the number of falls or the frustration - but prevent the child of being empowered by their own process, even if it might take a few days, weeks, or months longer. Of course, a helping hand and encouragement should be offered, but knowing when to take a step back so a child can make their own step forward is important. And one that is, no doubt, filled with mistakes by holding that hand a little too long sometimes, or letting go too soon and a little bump as the child falls becomes a lesson for both of you.

L - Did you always want to be a teacher?

S - I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a child. What I wanted to teach, and who I wanted to teach and how I wanted to teach has changed over time though.

L - What do you find inspiring in working with preschool children?

S - Preschool children are still so open to the world. They have not quite been burdened with the same weight of bias as older children and adults. They are more prepared to accept, to listen, to value and be curious about others and the world - of course if they have a very judgemental or prejudiced family or teachers those opinions can be seen in the child's interactions and worldview, but often they are still open to new possibilities.

It is such a privilege to be able to see the world through their eyes without the weight of hate, instead a world filled with wonder, joy and possibility. My role is to expose them to a variety of experiences that enables them to make their own informed decisions - this can be through risky play that is danger free, through dialogues, including philosophy with children, through art experiences, scientific experiments and silly things like how many different ways can we jump into a puddle - because I feel it is important that children learn there is not always one way to do something, and that being aware of all the options can enable them to make an informed decision about which one is right for them, and how that decision affects others.

L - After so many years working in the field, do you continue learning?

S - Constantly. I never stop learning. There are just so many exciting things in the world that I learn about that then provide new perspectives to understand what I do. In the last 18 months I have been going into the forest to learn from the forest. It has been enabling me to understand ecosystems, complexity, about how my very presence changes the way nature behaves etc - and all of this I have been connecting to pedagogy, children and play. Some of this thinking will be found in my book on Original Learning that will be published later this year, but I still have much to learn so I am sure there will be more to come on my blog, and maybe even future books.

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