• Suzanne Axelsson

The Story of being Play-responsive

Just as I no longer refer to myself as Reggio Emilia inspired, but Malaguzzi inspired because of the many different ways that approach from the Italian city is being interpreted, and not all of is it all that authentic, I have been distancing myself from the phrase "play-based" and turning to "play-responsive" instead. Play based can be interpreted as the teaching is based on play, the learning is based on the play... which technically immediately stops it being play and becomes a lesson or an activity (which of course can be exciting, fun, and engaging - but is not the children's own play that they can choose to participate in, choose to quit when they want, or have any real sense of agency or autonomy over).

Play- responsive indicates that my teaching, the learning and the activities are in response to the children's play. This means I need to set aside time and space for the children to engage in their own autonomous play that I (or any other adult) interferes with, unless it is a matter of safeguarding. I am observing this play - it informs me of the children's interests, the children's abilities, their competence and capabilities, their interactions, their needs etc... I write down notes, take films and photos etc to ensure I don't forget and can also see patterns, or return to and reflect on over time.

Responding can be adding/changing/removing materials, changing the environment, introducing new knowledge through books, films, experiences, visits, dialogues...

The response strives to be in tune with the needs, abilities and interests of the children as adults and also as a group.


As I progress with my Playwork course with Meynell Walters the more I see that the Original Learning Approach is a mix of playwork and teaching. This implies that in an EY setting educators/practitioners become both playworker and pedagogue - but it can also imply that schools that already have playworkers on location need to collaborate as equals to truly benefit the learning and well-being of the children.

The playworkers will notice things about the children that teachers often don't get to see as they are busy communicating information and seldom see the children at play. By listening to the playworkers the teachers would gain a better understanding of each child. Equally big ideas that are being explored in the classroom could be enhanced in the playspace by making suitable materials/resources/stuff available for the children to explore concepts, or process thinking through play. This means it is a choice, not a must for them... otherwise it would be a playful activity that the children engage in to explore the concept - which I am all for, but it should not replace the play. I have worked in both early years and in schools (as a playworker/fritidsledare - wrap around care leader) and I find that both of these roles are undervalued and belittled by others in the education sector (not by all, of course) and also by parents... it's just play! Yes - its just play! it should be just play. It needs to be just play... it needs to be without an adult agenda, or a learning agenda, or a well-being agenda, or a social agenda or... whatever agenda you can think of... As Meynell says... if playworkers focus on the play, ensuring children can access a wide range of play that can engage them deeply and lose themselves in... then there is no need to have an agenda of well-being, learning, development, relationships etc... because all of that will happen if there is play.

Just play... is not putting play down... it is absolutely necessary that children access adequate amounts of just play - no agendas... just play. Adults can be a part of that play... but they need to let go of their agenda, they need to be aware of the power imbalance and counteract that and they need to know when to step out and let the children get on with it.


The Original Learning Approach is about just play... and also responding to that play as teachers. It is weaving those two roles of playworker and educators together to facilitate children's learning and understanding.



As a play-responsive teacher you need to slow down and observe the children and the play... to really take notice of what you see (look closely) and what you hear (listen closely) - with your ears, eyes, heart and mind - hear, see, have empathy and think critically and creatively. If we are in too much of a hurry, and the agenda is dictating the pace then it will become harder to notice the multiple things that occur and only on those that fullfil the agenda or disturb the agenda. We also need to be focusing on the relationships... our relationship with the children, with the space, with time, with the stuff, with what we know and what the children know, with stereotypes and bias... just as we need to support the children build relationships with all of these - with us, with each other... because if the children are not able to listen to each other then the power balance will always weigh heavy of the adult side of the fulcrum. Reciprocity, democracy, collectivity, equity are all important words to connect to relationships.

We also need to be constantly researching... our observations of the children at play are a part of this research - but equally important is to dip into trans/interdisciplinary research theories (both theoretic and practical knowledge) to learn more. There is no point observing that some children struggle with an area of learning or play if you are not going to research how you can best respond to that - either by changing the play landscape, and/or by designing experiences (so both your playworker and pedagogue roles). AnjiPlay is a pedagogical approach that weaves play and pedagogy into the days of their children. The children have access to large chunks of "True Play" where the teachers observe and are as hands off as is safe (safe as necessary not safe as possible) - these observations are then utilised to engage the children in their learning, where the children still maintain agency within the teacher-led activity of discussing their play. This requires skill to not take over and control it, but to guide it.


So if there is play-responsive teaching there must be play-responsive learning... How does this look for children?

Within the Original Learning Approach my role as a play-responsive educator is to ensure that children can access wonder, curiosity, joy, knowledge, imagination, interaction, risk, time, reflection and listening - in the play and the learning. I would also like to add trust and agency here, despite them being included with joy (it is hard to feel joy of you lack trust in the teachers, children and the space) and agency is found within curiosity, risk, interaction and listening. But I felt there was a need to highlight them a little extra. Many of these words are easier to incorporate in play than they are a curriculum based education, of course we should always be thinking about how to make learning filled with wonder, how to provide enough time, the use of imagination etc.

If we bring these words into our pedagogy we can make learning more play-filled, and at times some children might consider it play - the choose to do it, they enjoy doing it and find flow in the process of doing te learning. I know there have been many lessons and classes that I have taken in my life that have felt closer to play than others... work days too. The important part is that children/learners get access to time and space for their own play to process the lessons, activities and experiences we have provided to help them discover new facts, and practice or learn new skills... The play time allows them to process these and also make connections - to start the creative process of reworking the facts, skills and knowledge that they are co-constructing with you. This play is our teacher. The children teach us all the time, especially if we are able to create democratic spaces where the children's knowledge, abilities, different personal history, experiences and cultures are valued and not seen less than, only different than. As adults we have the benefit of time to have collected more facts, to have experiences more things, and to have practiced more skills/doings - our bodies are bigger, taller, stronger and have fully developed balance and fine motor (which many young children are still developing). BUT children can still know things that we do not know, think of things that we have never thought of or have forgotten to think about, dare to do things that we don't (because if we fall we fall harder than their smaller, lighter bodies do) or can bend more or... We have to remember that different is not lesser value... it's just different. Being play-responsive is valuing the difference.

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