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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of... Destructive Play

Uppdaterat: 24 sep. 2023

As a little reminder, I use “The story of…” as blog post titles because I think it is important to consider that my opinion is just one of many opinions about play, learning, children, teaching etc… and that it is important to consider other opinions, as well as your own experience and knowledge when forming your own opinions.

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This last week I held some presentations about play, with a focus on risky play. I tell many small stories of incidents/experiences that have happened over my entire life… I received some feedback that some of these stories were not fully understood - especially the ones about destructive play… you know the kind where children smash down the sandcastles or the block constructions of others, or throw things etc.

I think what is always important to consider is that we always imagine within our own context, knowledge and experience - so sometimes what I am saying is perceived very differently by those that are listening. This is why I try to use images that connect to what I am saying as much as possible, to make it easier to imagine, but sometimes I can't or won't show a specific image for various reason, integrity being one of them. In the Original Learning Approach I write about knowledge being like an island and imagination being like the coastline, the larger the island the longer the coastline (especially if we have lots of fjords - so an environment that allows the imagination to thrive).

One of the stories I told was about some children throwing buckets as high as they could along a very high fence - if our knowledge of preschool fences means we picture a specific fence that children can climb over, then maybe this story takes on a very different feel than the one I was trying to share… The fence in my story was wooden, about 3-4 m high and designed to block the traffic and sound pollution from the road on the other side. It was extremely unlikely that the children could throw buckets that high for them to get over the fence, and absolutely impossible for them to climb over.

There was a small group of children throwing their buckets. I know from experience that this kind of action can result in buckets getting broken, but if I walk over with authority in my body and words then it is unlikely I will find out what it is they are doing.

So I walked over with curiosity.

Before I could get to them, another adult marched over and told them to stop because it was dangerous, they might get hit by the buckets. This reason seemed futile because the buckets had already landed on them several times without causing any harm and the play had continued. They were instructed to go to the sandbox, because "that is where you play with buckets". They promised not to do it again. This was ignored and the instruction to go to the sandbox was repeated. The children tried to explain that they were cleaning cobwebs and that there were some at the top of the fence… I looked up and saw several old dirty cobwebs high up on the fence. This was ignored and they were instructed to go to the sandbox… the tone of this last instruction felt more like the adult had backed themselves into a corner and felt unable to change their mind. Not coming with curiosity makes this harder, but also I think we should be able to change our minds - it’s not a sign of weakness to say, “oh, so that is what you were doing, maybe we could find something more suitable than buckets to clean them” - I think it is a very important lesson for children to learn - that we are allowed to change our minds when we learn more.

This story is not about allowing children to throw things however they want. Instead it is about pausing a moment to find out what the children are up to, being curious, so that we can support the play process. In this case it was cleaning cobwebs, the throwing of buckets had been the idea that they had come up with.

In other play circumstances it might be a need to throw things. And things just get thrown around. Throwing stuff is one of the many play assumptions - the verbs of play - throwing, jumping, running, poking, spinning, swinging, sounding etc etc etc Children are going to do this one way or another in their play… and my assumption is that they need to do this, so my responsibility is to create spaces where they can do this

  • as safely as necessary

  • so their play does not disturb or destroy the play of others

  • so their actions do not unnecessarily destroy property and stuff

Sometimes things do get destroyed in play, and the destruction is a part of what makes the play the play… but there are other times when the destruction of stuff is unnecessary - for instance the buckets being destroyed in the above example would not have added to the play value of the experience, and instead could potentially decrease the play value of the space if the number of buckets decreased. I also think from a sustainable point of view we should take care of the things we have and try to keep them functioning for as long as possible. Therefore finding out what the children are doing can mean we help them find the right tool for the play, that is sustainable, without interfering with the play-need/flow.

If I see children throwing stuff at other children - I have to be curious to find out why…

  • is it an act of frustration, or

  • is it a play need, or

  • is it a play frame that is disturbing the play frame of others?

A play frame is the space one play takes - it is not a fixed geographical space like the concept of the home-corner - but is fluid and moves with the children’s play flow. So these different play frames can enter each other… and can disturb/stop another frame, or inspire it, or collaborate… There are many possibilities.

If it is a child who throws from frustration, then I need to support this child with their self regulation. If it is a play need, then I seek out ways to help this child meet this need safely with various throwing games or having adequate space. If it is because the play frame is disturbing another… I try to find ways to enable enough space for both frames. If I notice there is a specific area where children like to throw things, for instance at the top of a rock or hill (because it is fascinating to observe how far it can go with the added support of height) then I will make sure the space below this raised area is free of other children to make it safe, and maybe even draw circles, add baskets, or hula hoops at the bottom for the children to aim at, thus creating a game that invited more children to join in.

This shifts the way we see the children at the top of the hill/rock from problem causers (which the other children will also pick up from the adult attitudes) to those who inspire play and fun. It helps these children with their own self esteem to feel positive about themselves rather than negatively - because their actions and play needs are being met with curiosity and joy rather than negativity, authority and restriction.

This same approach is what I use when it comes to children who destroy sandcastles and block constructions etc. I first look to see

  • is it frustration, or an impulsive reaction?

  • is it intentional, envy, or being triggered/teased or some other reason?

  • is it a play need?

  • is it accidental and the play frames were too close?

This is why we need to approach the situation with curiosity. There are many possible reasons, and often in preschools we don’t always get to witness the exact moment but the aftermath, and it can be far too easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. And approaching a child that struggles with self regulation with an angry tone about how that’s not kind and look how upset the other child is unlikely to help. The child needs opportunities to practise their self regulation - they probably already feel awful, are made to feel even more awful by the educator’s response, and their inner voice starts to tell themselves they are a bad person.

If it is a play need then I will maybe create sandcastles for them to destroy - to have that need met, without upsetting others (because I have told them that I don't mind them destroying my castles... this is a way for the child to learn about the importance of consent in play)… often others will join in, and I have created a situation where this child, who has just been seen as a problem by other children, is now viewed as a source of fun. Many times some of the children will join in helping me make mini sandcastles for others to mush - providing opportunities for these children to see the joy of their work being destroyed and that it’s not always something negative. Other times I will start to build a massive sandcastle, and many children will join in to build… and eventually comes the great joy of flattening it. If there is not enough space then I think it’s important to look at the environment… is this just a one time thing, or does this happen often… is the sandbox too small for multiple play frames? Is it worth having a sand table outside also, so that some children could stand and play/build there while other play happens in the sandbox? Or investing in building a bigger sandbox?

If the destruction is intentional, what are the reasons, and what dialogues, stories, activities etc are needed to help all the children involved through this situation - because it’s important that all the children are involved in this process… I have often found that the focus is on “fixing” the child who destroys the play and forgetting that the other children have just as much responsibility to not trigger or tease. My youngest child felt often betrayed by adults in preschool and school because things were always his fault, when his actions were a reaction to how others treated him… the others seldom, if ever, got a talking to like he did. It became apparent that it was like a sport for some children to trigger responses from my son that would get him into trouble - I have also seen this phenomena in preschools amongst the older children - and I truly believe that this comes from years of the children noticing that their responsibility in the reactions of some children goes unnoticed and they are testing to see how far they can take it. It becomes their play, just with devastating consequences.

So yes, I am going to do everything I can to ensure that all children can build on their self esteem and also understand their own responsibility in play. Creating listening environments has been a massive part of that.

If a child has destroyed a block/loose parts construction then I will be curious in the same ways as above. Trying to discover the why of the action.

If it is a play need I will build a tower for them to knock over. Often filming in slow motion, so we can watch the fall afterwards… it looks fabulous, also sounds fabulous. Many times the child that was initially upset will want to join in, and will build towers to be knocked over.

I will build as many as a child needs. Most often a child will join in with me to build to knock over. But I also believe that for some children the knocking over part is the way they learn how to construct. If we look at the youngest children we work with, most of what they do is emptying, knocking over, pulling bits out… and eventually filling, building and putting parts in (I remember those wooden puzzles with animals and other shapes that fit into the right shaped hole on the board… when my twin were toddlers the first joy was to pull those things out… they had not yet mastered the fine motor skills, coordination and spatial recognition to put them back in… so that was no fun.. It was beyond their capacity. What was fun was pulling them out, this trained their motor skills, coordination and spatial recognition until they had developed enough to place them in the puzzle, which they did over and over again, until they were no longer fun, and another challenge was needed).

I think this is what is happening with those children who have a need to knock over, they are learning - not only about how things balance, and the different stabilities of towers and constructions, but when it’s together with others there is learning about consent, consequences, teamwork etc.

This is why sometimes my focus will not be on making a child build with me to knock them over… because I am responding to the joy - and as I believe that the brain releases endorphins to keep a person repeating something over and over for a reason, then this is why it important to meet that need. I find within a week of constant knocking over a need is met, and then a child moves into building themselves. Sometimes it’s just an afternoon of knocking over.

Other times I notice that this is a way a child self regulates… so if I make a series of sandcastles for this child to mush, then I have helped them re-find their inner control and can join in social play much easier and with less negative consequences.

One of my favourite activities with children is sitting at a table with young children playing with play-dough. I usually just sit and make loads and loads of balls of different sizes, and just popping them on the table... eventually children ask for them and use them in different ways, very often squashing them is the play... especially with one and two year olds... I speed up my ball making to meet the squashing needs. I have literally sat at a play-dough table for an hour with very young children deeply engaged in squashing the balls, to eventually start rolling the balls, to eventually creating things with the balls... with squashing sessions occurring on and off throughout.

We can’t just expect children to be competent without helping them hone their skills, self regulate and feel valued. We also have to remember that children have their entire childhoods (ENTIRE childhoods) to practise being kind - and that it is our role as educators to help them practise, not expect them to be kind. I also think that it's not my job to make a child build their own tower to knock over, but to help them find the skills they need, joy and motivation to build their own towers... and sometimes that is found in the knocking over.

So my approach to play is not about letting children throw and destroy things any way they want, but about understanding whether this is play or not, and how it interacts or interferes with the play of others. It is about supporting play needs as safely as necessary by helping children work on the skills they need, understanding that the brain at play is the best way for us to understand how a child is learning, what skills they are refining, what they are curious about, what motivates them, how they feel a sense of well-being - and that if we have too normative views of play then we will often view knocking over and destructive play as behaviour to be fixed rather than a play need to make sense of the world.

Yes, sometimes it will be behaviour - this is why it is important that we work on our play literacy to better understand when it is play and when it is not. So that we can scaffold children accordingly and play-responsively.

The Original Learning Approach is a mix of teaching, facilitating and playwork. I find that this combination is optimal, because it allows us to teach the skills the children need to play, teach the knowledge that expands their imagination, and allows the children to remain competent. The ten essential threads of wonder, curiosity, joy, knowledge, imagination, interaction, risk, time, reflection and listening - are not only vital for the children… but also for every adult that interacts with children.

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