• Suzanne Axelsson

The Stuff of Play




I keep thinking about how much STUFF educators are buying to teach the children through play instead of permitting the play to teach them what stuff can enrich and deepen the children’s experiences. The difference is - is economics and retail deciding how children play, or is the play deciding what kind of stuff is actually needed.


This focus seems to be on buy buy buy...

Which is hard to resist because there is so much amazing stuff out there and being shared in social media in a way that normalises having lots of stuff. And the digital world of stuff has opened up yet another avenue of "must-have" stuff with little programmable robot things that teaches preschoolers how to programme - when really board games, hopscotch, music making and singing etc etc actually do the same with actually less plastic and stuff that negatively impacts the planet.

I am far from being anti digital - digital play I think is simply another language of play, and with the controlling nature of adults on all levels and nuances of play in children's lives it is pushing children deeper and deeper into the digital world to find autonomy - no doubt until adults learn to control that too. So if you are not keen on digital play, or feel children are not engaging enough in analogue play take a moment to think about what freedom the children have, how are they able to express and experience their autonomy, and how much free time do they actually have?


In my book on Original Learning (released autumn 2022) I write about the importance of the relationships between the stuff we already have and to only purchase what we need and exponentially expands the relationships of all the stuff (toys, art materials, recycled, indoor/outdoor furniture and equipment etc) so the children can get creative and make connections and also value a more planet friendly approach. Instead of what is the stuff, or what can the stuff do, it is about how many different ways can we use the stuff. We need to take the time to really consider the playability of stuff within the play-ecosystem.

  • How does it connect to the context?

  • Is it relevant?

  • can it be used in multiple ways?

  • and together with multiple other stuff?

  • How is it made?

  • Where is it made?

  • Is something similar more appropriate and planet friendly?

  • is there already something similar within the walls of the setting?

  • How long does it last?

  • Can it be recycled, upcycled etc

  • Does it include all children, or exclude some by being too tricky, too heavy, offensive etc etc?

  • How many are needed for creative collective and individual use?

  • are the children being involved in the process of assessing what is needed?

  • does it connect to how the children are playing right now? or how you think they might play? or how you think they should be playing?

  • How do the stuff interact, intervene or interfere with the children's play and learning - and with the teacher's interactions with the children/play

There are of course many more questions that we need to ask ourselves when it comes to thinking about how to design, buy and provide stuff for play. I have been walking around Athens keeping my eyes open for children, play and playspaces. The playgrounds here have high fences around them, that give a kind of prison feel about them - I know it's about safety, but do they really need to all be so high? Also many have been locked with no access to them during the day. A few have stood out - as many were so standardised, and showed a lack of reflection of how children play and a lack of care ensuring they are in good condition. Those that have stood out have been financed privately - which is a shame. The one that felt the most comfortable - that mix of chaos and calm where play nestles best - was a space that is actually an occupied playspace... a squatters playground of sorts.

It did not have the same aesthetics as the other privately funded spaces, but it did have the greatest sense of playability. It had a messy kind of look to it, and parts that I know would make some of my friends shudder from a plastic and gender aware perspective - but the children were busy playing and seemed to have control over the space and how things moved in the space which the other playgrounds failed to provide. I think we also always need to be aware of how our adult perception of beauty might also be a limiting factor on children's play.


During the last few days at the Play of Early Education Conference in Athens the presentation called “Risky Missions: a journey from the schoolyard to the moon and beyond” got me reflecting in multiple simultaneous directions... about play, children, teachers, stuff, design, collaboration...

Designed For Better Learning is a maker space project located in the same building the conference was held. It is a team of architects and designers that are working together with schools and early years settings in the local area of Athens. The focus is to work with the teachers AND children to design stuff that enables learning through play. The presentation focused on a project with a preschool that wanted to transform its outdoor space to be more play friendly.

This project took the time to properly research the play needs of the children, the playability of the space, the attitudes of the adults before designing these objects that minimise waste - using all the surface - hence some of the very strange shapes.


New ways to see the myriad of possibilities instead of trapped by a limited view rooted in risk, fear and not having the time to creatively reflect with others - in this case teachers and children got to reflect with architects and designers. One of the many things that I liked about this project is that not only was it rooted in how the children play and interact with the time, space and stuff, it was also rooted in the transformation of the adult attitudes towards the space, time and stuff - for example not to see the poles supporting the sunshade as dangerous and in the way, but as a possibility to multiple kinds of play.


The stuff of play is never really just about the stuff - it is so much bound to how we perceive the stuff - the risks, the dangers, the bias, the aesthetics, the possibilities - which can limit or enhance the play repertoire of the stuff.


As you can see in the images below there are many other projects, play opportunities for learning science, maths and more through thoughtful design with educators and children of all ages. What brings them together is the passion for play, for functional yet sustainably aesthetic design that has relevance. I think relevance is a frequently forgotten element of the educational system. So I found this maker space in Athens, the people, the projects so refreshing. I wish everyone could have access to this kind of support, reflection, action and interaction.



Image from Designed For Better Learning facebook page


I like how the parts are designed so that the holes are not simply random, but allow for other loose parts to connect to them, and to connect them to other parts too - from cake tins to PET bottles to sticks. The parts are strong enough to withstand an adult being on them, they can rock, be stacked, be turned into steps (due to differing thicknesses). The parts were created to minimise wastage (you can see how the random shapes are in fact cut outs... like the leftovers from a cookie cutter). The smaller hole shapes that were cut out were used for decorations etc, so nothing was wasted.

The below images I took of the parts on show at the conference




More images from Designed For Better Learning FB page below


and back to my images again this time from the makerspace





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