Playing with Ideas: Play, Learning and Progettazione

The word ‘play’ is a very contextual and highly debated word.  What it means is often different from one person to another.  It can range from the totality for the freedom for play where there is no need or little need for adult direction.  This may come from a biological and evolutionary perspective such as Dr Peter Gray who can be seen in this TEDx talk here at: 

Dr. Gray documents why free play is essential for children’s healthy social and emotional development and outlines steps through which we can bring free play back to children’s lives.

Another way of considering play that this time involves the educator could be described as playful encounters or provocations, whereby the adult educator designs contexts where children can be playful in their encounters with media and materials.  These encounters of provocation can range from those that are more open in form to those where specific concepts maybe be explored such as symmetry, colour or balance.  Dr Diane Kashin, of the very thought provoking blog describes the term provocation as referring to “…the moment when teachers introduce a new element, carefully chosen to entice children. Provocations can come from nature (for example the sun), from the child, and from others.”  Her blog can be found here at:

Another perspective of play is the way in which children play with the world of ideas.  It is a concept that has deep connection to the experiences of the children in the Nidi and Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia.  In Reggio, the term progettazione describes a way of working that is co-constructed between children working as part of a group and their educators.  It is a way of being that explores children’s thinking in playful ways, enabling them to explore, discover and make meaning with the world they are a part of and encounter.  You can read more about progettazione here in a blog post I co-wrote with Suzanne Axelsson of Interaction Imagination at: 

and also here on the Reggio Emilia Australian Information Exchange at:

In a number of schools I work with in the role of the Reggio Emilian pedagogista, I am often drawn to the play of children around their ideas.  They are often engaged in thinking around things that they encounter and find, and things they want to understand more about.  This form of inquiry is very contagious as children work together on discovering something in relation to each other.  

At Madeley Nursery School children can often be found rooting around in their wild area, digging up woodlice and finding snails.  Their playful inquiry generates possibility for educators to join in alongside the children in their shared curiosity and fascination.  I say alongside, as this represents a position of being able to co-construct with children a way in which together they can imagine and find out more about the small creatures they find in their play.  

It is a delicate dance between observing what children do and say, reflecting on those experiences so as to be able to sustain the interest of the children in their shared inquiry.  It is all to easy to instead plan a range of instructional activities that test or provide information for the children, without thinking of the processes of the children’s own exploration and play.  For example, we could provide children with facts and figures about woodlice through a beautiful display of information books but if the inquiry was about what the children imagined the woodlice to have in their homes then we would be just providing the proof that what they imagined was wrong.  As Albert Einstein declared in 1929, “ I am enough of an artist to draw upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.”  And so it is that children act like artists too, drawing upon their imagination to consider possible ways of being in the world.  To see this quote in context visit here for the full article:

Going back to the children in the wild area, digging up and looking for woodlice, they were carefully listened to by their educator Helen who gave value to their play.  She created spaces both inside and outside where children could play with their ideas about the creatures.  In the beginning, there were possibilities to see the woodlice collected in the wild area under digital microscopes that revealed their armoured bodies.  Children, noticed the way in which they curled up and stayed still or when they flipped over onto their backs, considering that maybe the woodlice were ‘broken’ somehow.  It raised thoughts amongst the group that maybe there were different kinds of woodlice, those who were healthy, those who needed support to climb up and out of danger and those who couldn’t see very well and required lights to show them where to go.  As children shared their ideas with each other, they created ladders, rafts, boats and specially lit bridges for the woodlice to use to climb up and travel to safety using the materials of the wild area (sticks and tape) and later in the schools atelier with card, boxes and a variety of containers and more tape.

As children played together, their imaginations invented vehicles, ladders and platforms to help the woodlice get to safety and over time their imaginations took them further in exploring the idea of ‘sensational’ ladders that curved in astonishing ways aided by applying filters in the photography of their creations.  Each time the children met, they would use the materials to hand to build and construct these ladders and vehicles, they would draw and paint woodlice with increased skill and perception and go find woodlice to see them in detail under the digital microscope.  They didn’t tire of this and so this was a successful project that was sustained by the deep listening of the educator.  

Children’s play can often be directed and misdirected by educators who want to take the children to a specific goal or intention.  The role of the adult, can therefore, be seen as someone who interferes with children’s play. However by practising what Carlini Rinaldi calls ‘the pedagogy of listening’ we can see that the skill set needed by the educator to support and sustain children’s play and inquiry is one of:

  • listening and observing closely to the processes of children’s play and inquiry
  • reflecting on what is seen and done so as to be able to SUSTAIN and keep the interest going
  • plan meaningful and playful provocations that enable children to test out their developing theories as related to their play and inquiry
  • find ways to stay close to the ideas of the children and not the ideas of themselves as educators
  • to teach skills as and when required at a meaningful stage in the project
  • to offer information as a means of aiding discovery and exploration that doesn’t diminish the thinking of the children
  • to document the process of projects of play and inquiry so as to engage in dialogue with others about the meaning of play, leaning and inquiry of children in their own contexts.

A European Transdisciplinary Learning Research Project: Making the Parts ‘Whole’

IMG_1503I am part of an international group of researching schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus + strategy.  It spans four countries (England, Sweden, Spain and Romania) who are just beginning to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live in environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that we are calling transdisciplinary.   

We are referencing the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson, Nora Bateson, Edgar Morin and Loris Malaguzzi amongst others who each share ideas about learning that see it as, complex and tangled, without a beginning or end point, and that challenges ideas about learning and of seeing the world in separate subject areas (parts) with a simple linearity of progressional thought.  

In this way of documenting learning we are involving ourselves not just with languages of expression and learning but also with languages of evaluation.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to a living education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the objectified data or crunched number sets that the world of standardised assessment and testing tends to see them as.

Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007, p,37) warn us of the kind of abstract maps that we make out of theories of child development that, “…make us lose sight of what is really taking place in the everyday lives of children and pedagogues, since reality is more complex, contextualised and perspectival than the maps we draw, the descriptions we make and the categories we use…The child becomes an object of normalization… with developmental assessments acing as a technology of normalization determining how children should be.”

We are greatly concerned with this global problem of the normalisation of children through standardised tests and assessments that determines how children should be and denies them the complexity of being living and breathing subjects of a living system of education.  At the time this blog is being written the English government is considering how best to introduce, implement and administer a standardised test for four year olds whilst globally, PISA is developing and about to trial a standardised test for five year olds.   It is evidence towards a manipulating education system that values conformity and denies subjectivity and pre-packages children into discreet parcels of sameness that is considered as the norm in society.  Anyone who falls outside of this package, is excluded,  considered as in need of intervention, weak, and abnormal rather than having a differing point of view.  Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, cite Foucault (1977) who names this behaviour as dividing practices.  

Vea Vecchi (2010, pXV) describes transdisciplinary as, ‘…the way in which human thinking connects different disciplines (subjects) in order to gain a deeper understanding.”  It differs from interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary in that it is not just about connecting and  combining different academic subjects at the same time but is more about what happens when you do, what difference does it make, and what is it that is new, that arises from it? For Vecchi it results in a deeper understanding, for me it is like a new way of seeing in increasing complexity that sees the child and educator as rich, strong, subjective, relational and connected with a multitude of ways of constructing and expressing their own perspectives and learning within a living system.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses and connects perceived boundaries of subjects and invites methodology(ies) of working together from different perspectives and points of view to create NEW conceptual ideas, ways of knowing, of being, that combine, integrate and move beyond the capabilities that a a supposed singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of rich and complex border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of interrelationships.  It is neither to see the parts in insolation (separation) nor rather to regard the wholeness as what is important to study.  It is rather more likely to be the differing contexts, interconnections, and the relationships that are integral to the whole.  Nora Bateson (2016, p,157) describes this as systems thinking. She tells us:

“At the core of systems work is a search not just for details, but for patterns.  This is not easy with the epistemological limits of western culture, where the habit of applying notions of cause and effect has been rewarded over several centuries of cultural, technological, and theological development.  Systems thinking require us to see past those old scripts and into the world of interrelations.  To think in terms of systems is to suspend the version of reality of the wise scholar who looks through his binoculars or microscope and classifies parts of nature as he objectively sees.  This arcane character is replaced with another sort of scholar, one who is willing to see in several directions, seeking patterns of interaction.

I like this idea of being a researcher who is not searching for a certain truth but rather one who is able to see in transopic ways ie across multiple fields and contexts and is the opposite of myopic, the narrow and short fielded kind of vision, who is seeking to understand the variables of interactions and interrelations.   Nora Bateson continues to remind us that the complexity is in the ambiguity of parts and wholes:

“It is both correct and incorrect to outline parts and wholes.  Maddening though that paradox is for doing research, it is the only transcontextual way to account for the variables of interaction over time and in complex systems.” (p,160)

Nora Bateson then radically asks instead, “what happens if we begin to ask if perhaps the world is not made of parts and whole?  How can we describe it, study it and in fact … what is it?”  (p,162)

It is in this place of deep and complex uncertainty, that I now find myself in and am looking to describe with colleagues across different international contexts what learning is, how it happens and how it is best fostered and generated. The project itself is called Making the Parts ‘Whole’ and it is the first time that I am beginning to question this relationship of parts and wholes.  It is all rather fuzzy at the moment, but I feel that it is a good place to be as to be certain is to think I know the truth.  It makes me question such things I have seen as unquestionable such as child-centred and holistic learning and the relationship between teaching and learning (as if there is only one directional relationship).  All of it makes my mind swim, but I am excited nonetheless.  For anyone interested in hearing more about this project, and what it looks like in practice, then please let me know in the comments box below or by way of email to as there is an opportunity that as part of this project, we will be building a separate website where our shared learning as a research group shall be able to be explored in more depth.  


Vecchi, V. (2010). Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the role and potential of ateliers in early childhood education. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Dalberg, G, Moss, P. & Pence, A. (2007).  Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care:  Languages of Evaluation.  2nd edition.  Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Bateson, N. (2016).  Small Arcs of Larger Circles:  Framing Through Other Patterns.  Axminster England: Triarchy Press.