• Suzanne Axelsson

The Healing Powers of Play

This is the last in the series connecting to the talk for Play First Summit 2020 arranged by Teacher Tom and Sally Haughey of Fairy Dust Teaching. Having said that, the previous posts all turned out to be bigger than I had expected and will be continued in the future...

it started with The Story of Healing where I introduced the topics I would be writing about...

The Art of Healing started sharing ideas of how art can be a part of the processing and healing in pandemic and post pandemic times (but I feel it can be used at all times, not just these times) and I soon discovered that I would need to return to this topic as I had much more to share than would fit in one of my posts (that I don't like to let get too long). The same happened for my post Philosophy with Children during a Pandemic where I started to share some ideas of using philosophical dialogue to be able to process anxiety and fears. The Story of Healing Chapter 2... will soon become chapter three and maybe beyond... as various approaches to story telling are explored. Most recent was my post about outdoor and nature.. Natural Healing, which will go on to explore more about the outdoors and nature as ways to feel joy and process thoughts. What is important to remember is that none of these things happen in isolation... each of these parts create a whole... its not just art, or stories, or nature or play... it is the interaction and the transdisciplinary space... borders are crossed, the borderlands enriched with all the possibilities each area brings, rather than barren wastelands deemed to protect itself from the other... This post will focus on play... the importance of play in our every day. And that there is maybe even a greater need to remind the world about the power of play in a time where many have been excluded from the usual source of education due to lockdown. I fear, and read, about the need to "catch up" will force many to consider "closing the academic gap" being a priority and make children sit down and learn what they missed in ways that do not inspire life-long learning or allow children to process recent events. This will mean the stress of catching up will be adding to the anxiety that some children will be carrying for a whole variety of reasons (from not thriving on distance learning, to being in homes that are abusive or uncaring, or without food or being isolated from usual friends and family that are essential to their well-being... this list is far from exhaustive) - this added stress will make learning harder, and catching up will not be efficient. So I truly believe that the fastest way to catch up is to slow down. Words I often use.

#slowdown #lookclosely - and a part of that is listening.

Listening to the children to meet their needs right now... to address any underlying anxieties so that we can then resume teaching and learning. Children learn best when they feel safe. Play is a way to create spaces that children can feel safe in, spaces where we can observe and see the anxieties that are hindering a child from feeling safe.


Personally, I think this should always be done, and not just in pandemic and post-pandemic times... but maybe, just maybe we could use this horrible virus as a way to share the power of play and that it becomes our default rather than the academic teacher down approach.


So now I share a personal story that taught me a lot...

I once took care of a group of children where several of the children had issues with adults and rules... I became a bit of an enigma for them ( a love hate relationship - loving me as a person, but hating me because I was an adult)...

at the start it was hard work to be democratic with them because they had a massive need to to challenge me no matter what I said, which meant they refused to do things I knew they loved and enjoyed because defying me was more important. These few children all had issues at home (which I discovered later by creating a listening environment based on trust) - I saw their play as dysfunctional, as either they struggled to enter the play positively or struggled not to self-destruct once engaged in play, with a lot of collateral damage...

I was constantly trying to work out how I could empower these children so that they did not need to feel power by being destructive.

But basically it came down to the fact we had some group rules and they just didn't like them... my group rules are... we respect each other, we don't purposely hurt each other, we listen immediately when someone says stop, and, with this group, we lined up - because not lining up resulted in chaos and someone ending up being hurt and crying...

We were stuck in a massive negative spiral... there was mutiny... the whole group was being infected by the "game" of defying the adults (which is extremely different from not listening) I asked them if they wanted me to stop ensuring we followed rules and stop deciding things...

ALL the children agreed and cheered...

But within 3 minutes several children were coming up to me and asking me to decide again - they didn't like how some of the children were behaving they wanted me to stop them... I pointed out that they had all agreed that I was no longer in charge and that the children had all the power.

"But they don't listen to us..." was what they said. Some children stayed by my side and refused to be a part of this...

People often say Lord of the Flies is inaccurate... but this is the only way I can describe this situation that was before me... a few of the children saw their chance to do everything they were usually not allowed to do... like hit other children... not because they were angry, but because all of a sudden they could, so they did. Some children worked out that the safest place to be was to be on the "same side" of the hitters, then there were those that tried to get on with play (the majority at the start) and those that came and stood by me... it probably all lasted 5-10 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime... certainly one of those slow-motion moments where I seemed to be able to see so much and at the same time feel complete horror at the choice I had just made. I had not expected it to turn out like that - literally two of the children ran around the room randomly hitting other children.

I called it to a stop as a second round of "please decide again" was asked and I asked is this a group decision and all but 2 children agreed.

We sat down and talked... I shared that the rules and decisions I make are not adult ones... but ones I see that they want. I see that no-one wants to be hit or hurt... and that is why I step in to enable the children to keep to that rule, I see that all the children want to be listened to, respected and valued... and this is why I help them with this too... I asked if these were fair rules and that they could agree on them, and agree that I was responsible for making sure they had a safe space to play.

They all agreed except one. The one with the greatest need to defy.

All the children went off to play, except that one, who the other children said they did not want someone playing with them that did not accept the rules (or one could also call them play codes). This child and I sat and drew together, my colleague was with the other children. We chatted, and I asked if she liked to be hit, or when others did not listen etc... she said no... and so I asked why these rules were so hard? She did not know. She breathed. And we just sat drawing together in silence. And after a while she was ready to say that she too would follow the rules of the group so that everyone could feel safe and she went off to play.


What I learned from this experience is that children do need play to process... even play like this, that felt incredibly risky (no-one got injured, although being hit would have hurt at the time, but left no marks or pain afterwards, I checked with them individually). This was the best way for these children to actually experience why I have the role that I have... that I am not there to decide over them, but to help them make informed decisions in a safe space...

It also made me think why did it go so bad so fast... and being able to look back with hindsight (knowing now, what I did not know then) that a few of the children had extremely controlling and/or abusive homes (we did end up calling social services to help one of the children) where all adult power was absolute, threatening and abusive and in preschool where they felt safe with me, they were able to act out what they probably wanted to at home, to try and gain some kind of power, some kind of self-worth.


That maybe we could look at Lord of the Flies not from the perspective that children are not able to play fairly, but that so many children have been damaged by adult abuse and misuse of power that suddenly being empowered means a misinterpretation of that power.

Children who are trusted, who are empowered by being listened to and valued will play fairly... the vast majority did in the above example... there were those that made the decision to stand with the "hitters" but that was a strategy of not being hurt that they made at a time of stress.

I think we see this behaviour in adults too... making decisions to protect themselves rather than making decisions that are right and for the benefit of everyone's well-being. I could bring up a whole list from history.. but then this post would get too long...


After this experience the group was able to step out of the negative spiral... the group remained a challenge until, sadly, one child suddenly moved from us to another town in order to avoid the social services. I wonder often about this child. I cared for her deeply, and we had a good, but intense relationship... and has been the only child I have ever known that could say such mean things that adults were reduced to tears... (which is indicative of the verbal abuse she probably received at home) the group of children left would talk about her every once in a while about how they did not like her because she was scary.

We had been aware of this... and ensured the group had time off from some of these children so that they could play, and I would take these children either individually or in a small group to listen and meet their needs. This was inclusion. Trying hard to find ways for all the children to be seen in a positive light by each other. To attempt to give skills that allowed them to engage in play positively ( I have to admit I don't feel I was ever truly successful with this one child, there were many amazing days, and then suddenly we were back to square one, and we needed to start all over again). My aim was to create a space of safety for all the participants... and not physical inclusion at all costs. We were able to get extra assistants to help us with this process, so that we could give one on one attention without compromising the quality for all the children. And I am very grateful of this service in Sweden, and I truly hope that they stop cutting back on this service, as it truly is essential for so many children.


I am by no means encouraging everyone to try this... I am simply sharing my learning story... I keep looking back at it with a sense of horror and admiration... horror that I allowed children to hit each other... admiration that I did not go back on my word to the children even though it made me uncomfortable... I mean I had agreed to step back and not interfere, that the children were making all the decisions. I had just handed over the power to them. I could not simply take over without it impacting the trust between the children and myself. It did not take them long to come to an agreement to hand back that responsibility to me, and therefore the trust that I would keep my word was kept. BUT this was all part of a play and learning environment where we had philosophical dialogues, the art I was doing then was virtually art therapy, story after story was being carefully selected to help the children reflect, process and learn from. I was constantly working on providing experiences and information for the children to apply to their play and enable them to make informed decisions.

The experience did make me even more aware of what words and ideas I was sharing with the children and to think things through first as to how comfortable I would be with things that we did together; especially as we were co-leaders, the children and myself, which meant I was never 100% sure of where we were going.

This of course is the heart of the problem with schools who have to ushering the children in the same pre-decided direction to the same pre-decided destination at pre-decided times. Play has uncertain outcomes... there will be learning, but maybe not the learning that is found on the pre-decided direction and time, and there are so many destinations to reach in a short period that there is not enough time to take detours and excursions that comes with learning through play.

The thing is, Peter Gray also shares, in the end they will get to the place of educated adult through play and joy. I mentioned in the Play First Summit 2020 that learning with joy is like play - I said this because this kind of learning is chosen, enjoyed and there is full engagement. I think there is a bigger risk of children not getting to this place of educated adult in a traditional teacher-down setting where the joy has been sucked from the learning, there is not enough time to play to process and there is no agency or choice about how and what to learn. There is not one way to learn math, or language, or science or .... and some children will thrive sitting down practising maths problems while others barely survive...

Fun lessons are not play. But this should not stop us creating fun lessons. They are great to weave into the play.


Play.

Supporting positive play.

Giving the children the self regulations skills they need to engage in positive play


these are, for me, the most essential elements of working with children of all ages... but especially the early years. Academic learning will come naturally to children engaging in positive play - where their bodies and minds are satisfied with the joy that comes with play, and that this joy can be turned to learning.

Children with play deficit will not have the same focus, will not be fuelled with joy to learn.


This is why Original Learning is important... it is the weaving of learning into play. That there needs to be adequate play opportunities for children to learn optimally. Lessons can be playful... but this is not play. Playful lessons are still what must be done, rather than a choice and no matter how much fun they are if it is being controlled for a specific outcome chosen by the teacher or the education authority... it has not been chosen by the child, the "playee".


I also think when it comes to lessons we should be teaching based on the following words...

wonder, curiosity, joy, imagination, knowledge, interaction, risk, reflection, collaboration.


These should be our guiding words as we plan lessons, provide time and space to play, offering threads of learning to the children to weave into their play warp threads.


I see play as a process

to heal

to connect

to build relationships with others and the world

to discover themselves

to learn

to make meaning


Play is an equal partner of learning.

We need to be play-responsive educators. Not just basing our teaching on play... which can be an adult interpretation of play... but responding to the children's play.


Below are a few more quotes, by myself and others... to further reflect on the power of play.














The above is a quote from a post I wrote many years ago...



Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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