The Original Learning Approach

Creating Safe and Brave Spaces for Autonomy Part 1

The Original Learning Approach is something I came up with when I felt frustrated with the teaching/learning v play dichotomy and the lack of space for myself to explore the dawn and dusk of play and learning, where it becomes hard to define exactly whether it is play or learning.
Also as an autistic person I wanted to create a pedagogical thinking space that was more intersectional, and more intentional about the inclusion, the real inclusion, of all children. Having witnessed my own three autistic children (two with the added bonus of ADHD) struggle in their different ways, and the attempts by the education system to be inclusive, which, due to so much bias and stereotyping, often resulted in more alienating than helping, mostly because the education system is in too much of a hurry to actually notice how to scaffold the learning of each child in a relevant and meaningful way.
I also wanted an approach that could be used by every educator regardless of what pedagogical method or approach they used, or what age they teach – because the approach is a reflective practice that acknowledges the power and importance of play, the impact of the educator and the need to address bias. These reflections can be applied to any teaching style.
There isn’t one way to weave in the teaching and learning into the play threads, there are many techniques, and we should pay more attention to the possibilities. And we need to take care about the threads we are offering children – to weed out the ones that are harmful (rooted in bias and stereotypes) and to offer more than just the normative basket of threads, so we can oer multiple perspectives that can genuinely include and counter harmful bias. Even when we consider the word “child” it is filled with bias – resulting that children are supposed to behave in the way that adults perceive children should be.
I think it is always important to explore the words that we are using – to see if we all understand them in the same way and to avoid those kinds of misunderstanding that wear away trust and a positive sense of community.
What I think is important in this description of the word “safe” is that it refers to significant risk of harm, damage or loss. It is virtually impossible to keep children completely free of harm, in fact it would be detrimental to children to even try and do so. We all need to be allowed to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them in order to evolve and also to develop a healthy resilience that allows us to bounce back from our own explorations that don’t turn out the way we planned. This connects to being brave – and the need to consider how we, as educators, can scaffold children to build the mental and moral strength to deal with unpleasant and dicult situations. This requires us to provide activities to help them practice safely and within their capacity while at the same time stretching it just enough so that their courage can expand at a similar rate as their desire to explore and discover.
Risky play is not about doing dangerous things – it is about being at the edge of our capacity – cognitive, physical, and emotional. It is filled with uncertainty – but what is important to remember is the maybe-factor. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t – in that uncertainty there is the thrill. If it is likely to not work it might place children in a dangerous position – if not physically then maybe emotionally. If it is likely to be successful then all that thrill and excitement has gone, it might still be fun, but the opportunity to learn how to self regulate fears and other emotions are lost, and the joy when succeeding is not as sweet. This means that risk taking is incredibly subjective, what is risky for one child is either too easy or too hard for another. Designing our spaces so that they oer flexibility is a way to design safe and brave spaces – so that each child can challenge their own capacity. It is equally important to consider that no-one thrives being at the edge of their capacity for too long – it requires large amounts of energy. The optimal space for all humans is to be in flow.
Some children will be pushed to the edge of their capacity because the space as not been designed to be safe for them and their needs. This might be spaces with too much stimulation (sound/visual/noise/tactile), or too little autonomy, or discrimination or… and while other children thrive, these children seldom can find a state of flow because just being in this space forces them to be at the edge of their capacity. Some children will act out. Some children will go unnoticed as they are able to mask, even from a very early age, but will be exhausted at home (this was how two of my children reacted). Also do not always take laughter to be a sign of enjoyment. Both my daughters used laughter as a way to diuse situations they were incredibly uncomfortable with, and at first their educators thought they enjoyed the game where the boys chased them when in fact the “game” was a form of harassment that they were not brave enough to say no to. It required myself to intervene and point it out to the teacher and to remind my daughters that they had the right to say stop.
This is why I so strongly advocate for slowing down, looking closely and listening deeply. To find out exactly what is going on rather than hurried adult interpretations. The close up photos that I take have been a part of my own process to embody what it feels like to be unhurried and to really notice. By slowing down to notice the small wonders of the world, and taking photos that allow me to see things from a new perspective has been a way for me to develop an openness for what is there waiting for me to notice. I become aware of how this unhurried and open state feels in my body so that when I am working with young children I can be aware of when I am stressed and hurried (and likely to miss things) and when I am unhurried and open to notice the play unfolding before me, and what the children are communicating to me and others.
Autonomy is vital for well-being regardless of our age. For young children the language of their autonomy is play. Autonomy is a sense of independence, self-governance, self- sufficiency, self-determination and the ability to act on your own values and interests. In the Original Learning Approach I write about a collective autonomy, a sense of “mwe” where the me and the we are valued. Mwe is something I learned in dialogue with the Swedish philosopher Jonna Bornemark and has been something I have but into practice in the ten years since then. My aim with all the groups that I work with is to create a sense where every child feels accepted and valued and that the community of learners enables the child to be themselves.
Many of the activities that I provided, as a play-responsive educator, were opportunities to build community and the skills and knowledge they needed to do that. We often tested how many dierent ways can we do something – getting across a hopscotch, jumping into puddles – as a way of seeing that there are many ways to do something, to learn to be inspired by others (children used to say “they are copying me” in a whiney voice, until we talked about this and I mentioned that others saw what they were doing and were so inspired that they wanted to test it out themselves… suddenly tones changed and a delighted “they are inspired by me” was being used). “Together Paintings” are something I love doing with children – an opportunity to paint together in a way that encourages them to put their social skills to the test – turn-taking, patience, self-regulation, empathy etc. I have done together paintings in very many dierent ways – but my very first, intentional “together painting” had just two colours, black and white, with one paintbrush in each pot and two children – over time this increased to three or four colours and up to eight children. If the children wanted to change colour they needed to ask a friend. They learned that they could say no if they wanted to, they learned that if they said no, then others had the right to do this too. They learned that if they did not like waiting to change colours maybe others didn’t either – so they learned to paint for as long as they wished while at the same time being mindful of others. These were not conflict free art explorations, they were not meant to be! They were opportunities to practice being kind, and being a part of a community without losing sight of personal needs and interests – mwe. And my role was to scaold when needed, not to make it too easy, but to ensure that no-one was going beyond their capacity, or was forced to be at the edge of their capacity for longer than necessary – this meant for some children I intervened more than for others, because they needed more from me in order to access their right to play and participate.

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