• Suzanne Axelsson

Understanding Play

As part of writing my book on Original Learning and currently as I write about risk (for a Swedish book Lek, Risk och Undervisning - Play, Risk and Teaching) I have found myself digging deeper into my own understanding of what play is and also how play is understood by others.

Play seems to have very many descriptions and categories depending on who is doing the talking. I have also come to understand how normative many (most) of these play descriptions/categories are and how that excludes some children, or pushes them into a space where they are viewed as a deficit.


Even at the recent EECERA conference there were circumstances where I felt the play being described was too normative, there were also talks striving to broaden our mind about what play is.


When I interviewed playworker Penny Wilson recently we were discussing why there is even a need for understanding what play is and we came to the conclusion that all these play categories and descriptions are needed because there is no trust in children.

Trust that children are curious beings with an innate sense to explore, discover, experiment and gather information and skills for sense-making and world-making. They are actively acquiring the facts and the experience to know.

Schools are very good at providing facts, so that children can learn about, but seldom provide the time for children to process this, test out ideas and make sense of them to convert it into knowing. For example, a child can learn all about snow through books, films, being told, remembering facts and figures, but will not truly know snow until them have been outside in it and made snowballs, walked in deep snow, soft snow, icy snow, made snow angels, tasted snow, or generally played with snow their own way to actually know what snow is, how it makes them feel, how the snow feels, how it changes everything around them etc...


Time has been one of the things many people of raised in the EECERA2022 conference - from Karin Murris who encouraged educators to take the time to revisit films, photos and other documentation to truly understand the child as agentic at the opening of the conference to the final day where Alison Clark talked about claiming back time for children - to acknowledge the need for slow pedagogies, slow knowledge and unhurrying. My own talk at the conference also focused on slowing down, looking closely and listening deeply and I had aesthetically designed my slides to be few in words and rich in images and the slowness of the forest in an attempt to slow down the pace, not easy when you only have 20 minutes to talk about two years of co-researching pedagogy with the forest!



I have no doubt in my mind that the Original Learning Approach aligns with the idea of Alison Clark's slow pedagogy. It has been for some time that I have been writing about slowing down, as educators ourselves and also the pace of projects and teaching offered to the children. Not a series of events that offers the children as many tasters as possible, but instead slower, richer and deeper experiences that offer complex tastes that each child can savour, understand and know how they work with others flavours.


I have been using the hashtags #slowdown #lookclosely #listendeeply in my social media for many years now, and privately for longer - slowing down every day to look closely at something to notice it in new ways - sight, sound, smell, touch and taste (when appropriate). I take photographs to help me see things I know well in new ways, and revisit those photos to notice things I missed with my own eyes at the time, reminding me of Karin Murris's encouragement to revisit many times, I realise I have been doing this naturally in my own way to connect. The slowing down has been a process for me to understand how I feel when I am slow, and that noticing is much easier when in this state. I am now aware of when I am working with children what sort of state I am in - hurried or slow.

And as Alison said, slow in this sense does not mean that you are going at the pace of a snail or getting little done, it is more a state of mind that allows you to be present, where being hurried is constantly pushing you to think about what next, rather than understanding and valuing what is happening now. Slowing down also doesn't mean I stop being aware of what is next, in a way it is giving me bigger presence of mind to know where I have been, where I am now, and where I need to be going based on what has happened and what is happening. Sometimes I am moving fast, laughing, running, doing chaotic experiments and aesthetic experiences within the calmness of slow - it doesn't mean it's stress free, it just means there is time to recover in between.



Understanding play. Maybe it should be understanding children instead? Because if we understand the children we will understand what they are doing. As I keep writing and talking about - play is the brain's way to make sense of a complex world. We never stop playing, ever. How we play changes. How we value that play also changes. Yet the word play is nearly always used as something young children do, and is not valued. So maybe it is not play that is not being valued, but children. And if we (society at large) value children more, then maybe how they play will too? After all it was a 100 years ago that adult women were classified as children and this is why they were not allowed to vote. If we read about Indigenous communities it is not uncommon to see that they are "infantalised" as a way to make them less than... We need to take the time to understand that adults going out on boats, or to dance, or to the pub, or sports, or theatre and other leisure activities... are all valued and easily seen. But children's play is seen as something to level up out of, frequently used as an insult or seen as a waste of time because there is an expectation that children should learn like adults despite all the evidence provided by neuroscience that children's brains work differently from adult brains. Play is sense-making, safe-making, world-making, strength-making, resilience-making, friend-making... and more

Our roles as adults should be about helping children make connections, and as many as possible - not by being in a hurry, because then a connection might be missed. But by slowing down so all the threads can be woven, connected to create a rich fabric of life.

To make connections with others. To make connections with the world. To be a PART of the ecosystem and not apart from it.


The forest has been my guide for the last two years - but my need to slow down really started a decade ago when I realised “doing philosophy with children” was never going to work unless we slowed down, me and the children. We unhurried ourselves. We learned how to listen with ears, eyes, hearts and minds. Slowing down to ensure the children had all the skills they needed to be autonomous and empowered in their listening to each other (not via the adult). I still remember a sense of slight panic at first when it seemed to not anywhere… when all of a sudden, spontaneously, the children started using their newly gained skills in listening and map making to direct the project and we could respond as educators. I had to learn to let go, and the children had to learn to trust there was space for them to take. The gentle play experiences to practice skills, dialogues to test ideas, exchange knowledge all started to be pieced together by the children in their own way collectively.

I was lucky to work with the same children for 4 years (2-6yrs) - slow pedagogy needs time

Just as the different seasons affect the forest, and years affect seasons and coming back to the same part of the forest reveals new things - we could revisit the dialogues we had experienced together over the years and add to them, change them or laugh at them - the children saw their own ideas and language processes #slowpedagogy is something we need to embody - to know when we are hurried and not noticing because it FEELS different in the body. To practice slowing down to feel comfortable with it. And for it to become second nature.


Slowing down, looking closely and listening deeply has become a part of my decolonising and Indigenising - because I don’t want to just remove ways of thinking I also want to rejuvenate with (new for me) thinking. Listening with the whole of me has been key. This has been something I have been doing with children for a long time - but now I applied it to the forest. To feel a sense of belonging. I have so many stories. So many parallels with pedagogy, children and play…

At the root of it we need to understand play as part of an ecosystem - the play-ecosystem where we see everything interconnected, interdependent and complex.

Below are images of my play to learn about the forest with the forest, and I will write more about this at a later date.

All images from my paper at EECERA2022


The Gentle Art of Recombobulating

Original Learning in 1 minute Tethered Listening The Story of Time

The Thinking Pause



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