• Suzanne Axelsson

The Story of Play and Listening

Play and listening... it keeps coming back to these two things for me.

If I was to boil it down to two important words it would be Play and Listening... although maybe that is exactly what Interaction Imagination is too? That all along these words have been with me condensing over time. When I first started my blog it was a space for me to play with pedagogical ideas and to listen to my inner voice... because, maybe we do that too little? We get swept along with the voice of the norm and out own voice gets drowned out. We fail to ask ourselves the questions that need to be asked about how we really think, feel, should be, because we get carried along by the normative tune singing that everything is just fine. Everything is not just fine.


There is a lack of social justice, there is a lack of climate justice, there is a lack of listening and play in our schools...

Hearing what the teacher instructs is not listening. It is a one way communication based on filling and forming the learner with pre-approved, agenda-filled information.

My mother in law recently shared a photo of a 1890's newspaper from Jämtland in Sweden in her social media where the text quoted teachers fearing children "having lots of ideas" and to prevent access to the commoners children to continued education.

Schools, let's be honest, were not really designed for learning - they were designed for training a workforce to be more useful. Schools have also been used to erase knowledge and learning - it is only to look at the horrors of residential schools devastating impact on Indigenous communities around the world. Scandinavia has its own history with this kind of erasure to acknowledge, respond to and compensate. You can read more about this here


Are schools assimilation rather than education?

Places where children learn how to assimilate to the norm they live in?

What they need to learn, when, what order, at what pace, what they should not be learning? That play is subversive... because it is not controllable, it is not measurable and there is far too much autonomy and potential to discover "lots of ideas".

Is the fact that schools do not focus on genuine listening a way to disempower children - the individualist nature of schools virtually creates cesspools of taunting, bullying etc. If you read the text about the Sámi that I shared above, it states that many of the Sámi children in the residential schools created factions, teased and bullied each other as a way of gaining power in a powerless situation.

Autonomy is power. It is also well being. Children, all humans, without a sense of autonomy are not going to thrive, or will seek other ways to try and reclaim a sense of it.

Creating learning spaces based on listening and play will improve the sense of autonomy, well-being and togetherness based on understanding and respect.


As I watched my children grow up it was strange to observe that the older they got and the further away from the play-responsive environments of early childhood the more almost dystopian the classrooms became. Especially in foundation school here in Sweden (grundskola, 7-16yrs). When they continued their education all three of them commented about the shift in autonomy and a more respectful relationship with the teachers...

(this is not saying all teachers are disrespectful, but that te curriculum is founded on distrust, and of sausage-filling children with facts that they are to regurgitate in specific ways to get points that will qualify them to the next round - my daughters, who will start their final year of their university degree after summer, have commented how their 15 year old results no longer matter, or that even their 18 year old results don't even mater much now (they started school a year early - it was right for them... my son did not))


There are articles and research and philosophers that write and talk about the ills and unnecessariness of standardised testing and exam results. There are schools that do it differently, but mostly open to those who can afford it (and not really in Sweden as all schools are funded by the government whether private or not, and all must follow the same curriculum, some small adjustments can be applied for and require approval - and homeschooling is illegal - the aim is in part a noble one - that all children should have te same access to the same quality education to prevent gaps created by wealth etc. The tragedy is that this "quality" is a one size fits all standardised school that fails so many children and the teachers for multiple complex reasons by failing to see children learn, experience and interact with the world at different paces, in different ways and with different needs and interests).


In a previous post (The Characteristics of Play) I characterised play with the words choice and joy. So what would happen if we brought these words to the school table? What would a curriculum that was truly based on choice and joy look like? Not fun lessons, but ones where the children can find flow, engagement and autonomy - so it feels like play.

I think we have all experienced that at some time, when we are so engaged in our own work, that it brings a sense of satisfaction and well-being (even when it is hard) that it almost feels like play... or that we are so deeply engaged in something that time has flown by without us noticing.. time behaves differently in play.

Listening to understand rather than reply would also make an enormous difference in the classroom (and in play interactions). When I observed my preschoolers who engaged in philosophy with children over a longer period of time (years) I noticed that the need to jostle for power decreased. Their sense of autonomy increased in collectivity. By learning to listen and value others, the understood that they too were being listened to and valued. They all learned they had the power to influence their day and were not subjected to just going with the rhythm of the music chosen by the adults (teacher, school authority, normative society etc).

In classrooms the direction of listening lacks the multiplicity required of collectivity - it is mostly child listens to the adult, and some adults truly listening to the children. This creates an environment of hearing words and facts not an environment of listening.

Listening is based in trust, respect and equal value.

By practising real listening a person is also practising how to trust and be trusted, how to be respectful and feel respected and how to equally value others and be equally valued.

This all gets put into the play and the learning.


So as a play-responsive educator I observe the children's play to understand the how, why, what, when of the children's being, interests, capabilities and capacity - this informs how, when, what and why I introduce facts, stories, resources and how much needs to be teacher led, and how much space the children need for autonomous exploration. How often are teachers out during "break-time/recess" actually observing the children in their play to understand them?

I understand teachers need breaks (as an early years teacher I get one half hour break a day, all preparations, plans are done in a one hour a week scheduled slot, as long as there are no pedagogues off sick and ratios work) but so much knowledge is being lost because play is not valued. How often do teachers consult the playworkers/wrap-around care workers (fritids personal) in order to gain a deeper understanding of play, social interactions, what the children are interested in, how lessons are manifesting in play, or how even together they could discuss what materials could be provided in the afternoon fritids/wrap-around care/afterschool club that would allow children to explore through play the theories/facts presented in lessons during the school day?

Why are playworkers/fritids and early years educators so devalued and seen as less than because they are "just play"?

Just play? Imagine if it was just (only) play - in the sense that lessons were just about joy and engagement? Imagine how much learning would happen then.

That does not exclude frustration - I have seen many children extremely frustrated in their freely chosen play. That does not exclude hard work - I have seen many children engaged in physically, cognitively and socially hard work.

Society's failure to observe play means they seem to have forgotten what play actually looks like or feels like - so it just gets labelled as something frivolous. The just is added to reduce it... here I reclaim it the just play as a celebration of it. In the UK there are many tat understand play that are calling out for a summer of play.

JUST play. No school lessons to close the gap. But play to heal, to close the gaps the lockdowns have had by restricting play - the brain's way to adapt to a complex world. Our world changed dramatically by the pandemic... and for some more than others... play is the way to adapt the change, to process what has happened and to discover which paths to now explore and discover from. In the Original Learning Approach it is the balance of play, understanding, teaching and learning that is optimal for the well being and development/evolvement of every human. The four elements are out of balance - with too much focus, time and energy being on the teaching and learning and not enough space is being given to play and understanding.

(many children are forced to learn the next thing on the curriculum before being given the chance to understand the preceding things).


I will end this story of play and listening with some questions Why do we say learn to ride a bike when really we play to ride a bike?

Is it because the end result is useful?

Who decided that this was learning and not playing?

Can bike riding be learned from reading books and theories?

Is this proof there is practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge?


When I wrote the quote below, it does not mean that play is never pedagogical... humans learn while at play... the purpose was to point out that adults should not be hijacking play to teach with, but that we should be learning from play and notice the pedagogy that naturally occurs in play - for the children, and for us about the children. If children do not have access to adequate time and space for autonomous play then it is impossible to become a play-responsive educator and will more likely become a play-manipulative educator.


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