The Original Learning Approach

Creating Safe and Brave Spaces for Autonomy Part 2

Play is another word that I think we need to explore more. To look beyond normative interpretations of what play is and to ensure that we are not labelling some children’s play as “behaviour” because it is making the adults uncomfortable or is deemed too young/basic for the child of a certain age. My neuroscientist husband told me that play is the brain’s way to adapt to a complex world, and that we never stop playing. How we play changes, of course. As mother I no longer need to play families to test out the roles because I live it… the same for shopping etc. Play is not just for learning either, it can be for muscle-building, or a sense of well-being, belonging, self-regulation or for the pure joy if it. It is important to remember that some play happens because children do not feel safe and they are self-soothing. What I think is important is that children have a wide repertoire of play and reasons for playing. Self-soothing as a play form is not problematic if it is one of many reasons a child engages in play. But if the majority of their time for play is filled with self-soothing play, then it is the responsibility of the adults to make the space safe enough for this child to feel brave enough to test out other forms of play – and not to forbid the play that is helping them thrive.
Joy and choice are what I came up with as the “musts” for play. They both need to be present for it to be called play. The opposite of joy is not sad, but depression; and just as all emotion can be experienced through depression, they can also be experienced in joy – just that all emotions are much easier to self-regulate when feeling joyful. Children at play choose when they start, how they participate, and when they quit – many activities can be fun and look playful, but unless the children have the choice over the when and the how etc then it is not play – this doesn’t mean we should stop doing fun activities, they are important too, but we do need to make sure that children are getting sufficient amount of time and space to play to fulfil their need for autonomy.
Always be kind – because children are still learning how to self-regulate, and they have their entire childhood to practice being kind, so it is our adult responsibility to rise above the triggers and be kind.
We need to deliberately make learning pleasurable so that we, and the children, stay motivated. If we respond to the children’s autonomous play as educators, we are more likely to be in tune with the way the brain is learning; this requires adequate time for play and for educators to become play-responsive.
The five rules of play evolved from a sudden question that popped into my head in the middle of the night… does play have rules? And if play does have rules, what kind of rules would I make? Of course, play is filled with all sorts of rules – some are written down, some are agreements – spoken and unspoken. In play many rules are flexible in order to sustain the play. But the rules exist so that the play can be mutually enjoyable and can continue. What I think is important is that every child can feel accepted as themselves, and that their roles are part of imaginative play and not a forced strategy to belong. The second rule is all about joy, about finding your flow and that sense of motivation. Without motivation both play and learning struggle, and having watched my youngest struggle throughout his education due to lack of motivation I feel this is an area of education that needs to be addressed better. Scaffolding children to feel motivated and for the learning to feel meaningful and relevant is a critical part of the educator’s work. As I have already written, risky play is important for regulating fear and experiencing the thrill of adventure. Listening is one of the ten essential threads of Original Learning; it has also been something that I have explored a great deal in the last two decades to better understand what a pedagogy of listening is and could be. Philosophy with children has been one of the ways that I have worked with listening and scaffolding children’s ability to listen to their peers. Teaching children about consent is an important part of community building; helping them to learn about their rights and responsibilities, and that we don’t all have the same kind of boundaries – so listening to our own boundaries and those of others is important to know how we should act and interact. Play should be about action and reaction, just as dialogue is talking and listening. Some children, though, are forced into reactionary roles far too often; this is something I have always tried to keep an eye on in order to support the children who need certain activities, interests or group size/constellations (ie certain children) so that they get to act and not just react.
Examine our anxiety taking time to reflect on our fears is important. Fears can easily become thresholds that feel impossible to cross. What is important is to take sustainable steps in everything that we do. To be good enough right now, and appreciating our own power and potential. If we are only focussing on levelling-up and being better it can mean that we are failing to notice and appreciate our now. If we think of ourselves, and the children, as continuously evolving then we can take joy in every step we take rather than only valuing meeting goals. Anxiety about having enough resources also needs to be reflected on; it is not the stuff we have but how we use the stuff that is the most important.
Developing a play strategy can be an elective way to get to know and understand your play ecosystem.
It can also be wise to write a list together of what you assume children will do in their play – and then how you can provide for this in a safe as necessary manner – so that the maybe- factor can thrive.
Examine our actions are we walking the talk? It is one thing to read theories, to reflect and talk about them, but it is another to put them into action. Are our actions in line with our own personal thinking? What steps do we need to take to practically be the person we want to be? Children are watching our actions, and reactions, as a way to learn how to be an adult. So it is not just how we treat the children, but also colleagues, the resources, parents and the world around us that matters. How we take responsibility for scaffolding the children to become the kind of people they want to be within a community of learners is important. Facilitating children to take responsibility is a way of empowering them not punishing them; responsibility of their own actions, of relationships, the stuff and the world around them. It is how they remain competent.
Examine our agenda – why are we doing what we are doing? How is it in tune with the way the children are exploring the world?
Examine our bias it is vital that we address our known bias and take the time to uncover our hidden bias. In part this requires us to listen, and to be open. It also requires us to act, and that once we know that our words, actions, and choices are negatively impacting others we take steps to change and create safer and braver spaces for everyone.
Always be prepared – being prepared doesn’t mean that those preparations have to be done, simply that there is also a plan b to z – this is not about lots of written plans, but the kind of planning that allows us to be spontaneous. If we have genuinely listened to the children and noticed what they are up to and what they are likely to respond to (play-responsive) then our ideas are likely to be appropriate. We are prepared for change, we are prepared for the unpredictable, we are prepared for magic and wonder – even if we don’t know what it will be, we are prepared to embrace the unknown and get to know it. Being prepared also means keeping up to date with research and theories – what the world is learning about children, play and learning and how can we apply this in our work.
I will end this with the definition of play literacy a term that the English Playworker Penny Wilson uses and together we created a definition (as I wanted to use it in my Swedish book on Risky Play and Teaching). Becoming a play-responsive educator requires us to become play literate.

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