After a recent conversation with Pasi Sahlberg, hosted by Future Schools Alliance Australia, which highlighted the importance of ‘play’, in all levels of schooling (in fact, at all levels of society), I walked away with a niggle to wrestle further with the ideas raised. I found myself wondering what might have been in the minds of different people listening, as more time to ‘play’ was proposed as a key ingredient to throw into the mix of effective pedagogy and the future of schooling.
Two questions that have stayed with me, in response to the conversation, are, ‘What do we actually mean when we suggest children and students need more time to play?’ and, ‘Why value play as a part of the school day?’. These are not simple questions, primarily because we all carry different and distinct experiences, expectations and ideas of what play is – and is not.
In our jam-packed school days, the notion discussed in the conversation with Pasi, that students need more time to ‘play’ each day – time to breathe, chat, process and step away from fast-paced, structured, timetabled and often teacher directed learning tasks, made a lot of sense. More ‘play’, understood as more ‘breaks’, would give essentially needed time for students to let their hearts and minds settle each day, precious time to make connections between ideas and with peers.
Whilst I certainly welcome and celebrate any strategy that intends to introduce additional and intentional breathing space and processing time for students, I did find myself wondering if, in associating this need for ‘down-time’ with ‘more time to play’, we might accidentally undermine and oversimplify the sophistication and complexity that could unfold if we embraced play as a more specific and complex strategy for learning in all aspects of school life.
Subtle, but I think present, in educational conversations is a notion that play is easy and restful time away from real work. ‘Child’s play’ is common vernacular for tasks that are characterised by ‘ease’ and simplicity. But what if there’s more to play than that?
I see a very different idea of, and value given to, play within early childhood educational settings. Play in these settings represents a multiplicity of encounters that take place every day, shaped by the mutual and passionate commitment of all involved, driven by questions, sustained through creative explorations, and developed in a bedrock of social engagement and the innate desire to unravel problems and influence the world. When play is at its best in an early childhood setting it looks like the opposite of a break. Play is when everyone is ‘all in’.
Equally, play in these early years contexts is not an escape from adult expectations or the presence of educators. Instead, it occurs under the very intentional gaze of a present, listening and thinking educator, who draws on sophisticated theoretical understandings to consider how to enact their role, in context of the lived stories of children unfolding before them. Playful encounters amongst children are the context for a dance of theory and practice, that happens every day as these educators come alongside the children – making subjective, influential choices about when they will listen and when it is best to step in with a question or bring a provocation that invites children to go deeper with their learning. Play, in this context, is not when the teacher or the child switches off, it is the very time they lean in. In playful encounters, educators bring complexity to invite deeper thinking, intentionally disrupting the image of the teacher as ‘the one who will explain’ or ‘the simplifier and packager of ideas and knowledge’.
An ideal play time, as understood from this lens, is when all players are fully engaged. In early childhood, these ideal play sessions ooze with shared commitment to whatever is unfolding. Laughter, persistence, mess, making mistakes and flexibility are accepted as the norm as play provides a means towards researching the world, exploring and testing theories, making friends and solving problems. As children play, they are developing and co-constructing complex understandings about themselves, others and the world – and, as they do, supported by engaged adults, culture is built within these learning communities, that are marked by reciprocity and relationship.
When we see play as primarily time ‘outside the classroom’, we underestimate the potential of playfulness as a way of learning, especially learning with others. In all of life, making more time for play creates the possibility for multiple, rich and complex opportunities to connect and learn with others. Playful approaches to learning welcome scepticism and the suspension of disbelief, as people play together on the borders of the unknown to uncover new knowledge. Play by nature invites its players to deviate responsively and regularly along multiple pathways, flexibly adjusting in the ‘moment’ to follow wherever encounters may lead. In rich play encounters generosity is the norm, with conflict seen as an inevitable part of the journey, buffered by an overall welcome-ness towards otherness. Play depends on creativity, questioning and negotiation with others. It is by nature experimental, willing to accept questions without answers and to leave stories unfinished until another day.
Our tendency to underestimate the complexity inherent in young children’s play, as they work with others and with materials, and our low expectations of young children’s capacity to theorise, to think and to create, is perhaps why we so easily imagine play in later years as more akin to ‘floating on the surface’ of a matter, than diving deep to the heart of it, with all the delight and danger that suggests. As ‘play’ finds its way onto to the educational table, let’s not underestimate what it could mean. Perhaps it’s about time we took play a little more seriously and spent some time better understanding it’s possibilities from the perspective of our youngest learners.
Here’s a link to original conversation the sparked this reflection…
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