Saturday, 30 June 2018

The Benefits of BIG play

I have regular contact with the educators from Jenin, Palestine - sometimes to ask about things, sometimes to share what they have been doing, and sometimes just to say hello, how are you doing?

Yesterday I received a series of photos of children playing on old tires and the comment that she (the educator) had been preparing the setting as the children arrived, but the children came and took over... and the surprise to see them playing, learning and enjoying themselves despite her concern.
We have talked a lot about risky play and the benefits this has for children's ability to do their own risk assessments, rather than being dependant on an adult to judge what is safe - of course we do not want to expose them to danger, only to situations that allow them to learn - a small scratch or bruise will not hurt much or for long but can provide an enormous lesson for the child about what is safe and what is not... and how much their own body is capable of.

I also got to watch some films of the play sessions.. which I will not show here, and although I am not particularly good at Arabic (its words rather than full sentences) I was able to pick out the "careful" was being said many times.

BIG play like this is a test for the adults just as much as the children. What are WE capable of allowing the children to experiment with themselves before we come and wrap them in cotton wool. I think it is a human instinct to want to protect our children... but sometimes too much protection can mean we send them out into the world unprepared. We have to learn balance.

In the photos below we can see some of the learning that is going on (I am of course privvy to more photos and films, the teachers there were able to see even more of the action, play and learning)

The learning that I can see is that the children are learning how to interact together... the films in particular showed how stacking the tires was hard for one person to do, they needed to collaborate, together they are stronger. They learned about physics - how the wheels moved, which directions and movements made it easier to move them around, which directions were harder, they learned about gravity and stability. Maths comes into it... how many tires can they manage to stack, how many is possible before it becomes unstable, if they are making stacks of three then they can start thinking about their three times table... multiplication - three towers of three are nine tires... all of this is happening naturally in their play. Since the tires are painted they can think of patterns and design.

Then there is the physical learning - the children strengthen their hands and arms... to be able to hold a pen to write children need to to have the muscle strength... BIG play allows the WHOLE body to be strengthened - because reading and writing (what many traditionally see as "learning" ) requires a child to be able to sit at a desk and hold their pen and concentrate... this big play is giving them the training they need to be able to do that... and even when in school this kind of BIG play is still needed to maintain muscle and concentration - we all know that if we stop training or stop speaking a language that we become less good at it, or weaker... it is the same with learning... too much focus on academic learning means that the whole child's needs are not being met... PLAY is essential for all ages to ensure there is the physical and mental well-being to learn - and also as you have just read above, learning is also happening in play.
Far too often there is an intense focus on forcing the child to sit, be quiet, and learn certain things in a certain way - learning is much more complex than that.
There is a phrase/word in Swedish called "studiero" which translates to study peace... ie there is peace in the classroom to be able to learn.
The thing is that this is being interpreted as being quiet... that children need to sit in silence or use hushed voices to be able to learn. And I seriously question this... is learning always quiet?
my experience is that it can be all sort of things... sometimes it is total silence as the children are fully engaged/mesmerised - other times it is extremely noisy as the children explore, discover and are excited about the learning. Sometimes learning happens individually and requires a muted space while other times it is in groups and is a lively dialogue, or even at times a heated one... As teachers/educators we need to be aware that we are creating learning spaces - this is not the same as "learning peace". We need to be aware that children not only learn in different ways from each other... they also need, on an individual basis, a varied learning diet. Sitting at a desk learning by listening only to the teacher and repeating what the teacher says is like eating only boiled rice and beans every day... yes, you can survive on it, it gives you energy and nutrients - but after a while you become disinterested in it, especially when you can see all around you other options. We need to give children a varied learning diet... and this means generous servings of play... the WHOLE child. My posts on Original Learning will describe in more detail how learning and play are woven together and should not be separated.

What do we want for our children?
What IS it we want them to learn... to achieve? What does the future hold for them? And how is school actually preparing them for that? By giving them the same skills we got last century? or by giving them the skills they need to look forward, imagine and solve the potential problems of tomorrow?
As Einstein said -

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." Schools trades in knowledge... what is already known... and yes this is useful, but it is only part of the story. Children need imagination... and that is best supported by play...

I have been reading Alison Gopnik over the last few days about how the very youngest children learn - the importance of play, the importance of interaction and the importance of the adult actually understanding how children learn rather than just filling them with information and sticking to what has always been done.

BIG play allows the whole child to learn... their entire body becomes involved. Mixed ages in this big lay allows the children to learn about taking care of each other, it also allows the youngest children who maybe do not have the muscle strength yet to participate in all of the play, the chance to observe and develop strategies - by watching they can see the interactions of others, they access social learning, they also get to observe the materials - science, technology, maths all of these can be observed. By interacting with each other the children are developing the language skills, by constructing together they are learning how to communicate spatial awareness, make predictions with each other and test them out... these are science experiments - what works what does not work.

BIG play also lets the child to enjoy themselves... and in this joy it is easier to feel safer, to connect with others and also to learn. As Malaguzzi said "Nothing without joy". We do not have to make learning fun... what we need to do is awaken the joy within each child to learn. Play is a fabulous way to awaken that joy... play is exploring, experimenting, testing, discovering, repeating, developing etc etc...

The adult needs to take a step back and allow uninterrupted play. Observe. Is there anything the children need to develop their play further... can this be provided in a story read later, or by offering small blacks to build with, or by asking some questions, or maybe showing  a small film to stimulate their construction.
The teacher invites the child to try something new, or provokes the group into thinking deeper... and then gives the children the space to test out the new and the deeper thoughts.

My time working with 8-13 year olds allowed my to understand that children appreciate learning from each other... they appreciate being trusted as competent... they appreciate being supported by educators who provide them with information, ways to find information and activities that allow them to discover learning so much more than sitting in a room having to just accept what a teacher says.
They want to learn with, talk with the teacher... not be talked at.

useful links
Peter Gray - Risky Play... Freedom to learn
The importance of outdoor play
Original Learning - my blog
Play spaces and play - giving children the freedom to play (my blog)
redefining play and education - we need to look at what the words mean
Malaguzzis three children - what kind of teacher are YOU... how do YOU view the child?
Together play - learning together by playing together
Purposeful play
Climbing Trees- to do not not to do - risky play

This is not an exhaustive list of links... there is much to read about the benefits of play, or risky play and outdoor play.
Also the above does not list everything that can be learned through play...

 with thanks to Suzan for the permission to use the photographs
you can find out more about her preschool "Best Of" early years center, Jenin, Palestine  by checking out their facebook page (click the link, which is the name above) - they are a setting that is striving to create  a place for children to learn through play, which is not a common feature of the local area where learning is very much seen as academic and rote.
So a huge applause I sen to them for their efforts to create the best learning environment for children, so that the children are ready with mind and body to face whatever the future holds for them. They do this despite not all understand the importance of play and put pressure on them to teach the way it has always been done.
Its not easy to do what is right... we have to be BRAVE.

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