Reflecting on Words that Describe the Processes of Children’s Learning

“The teachers art is to CONNECT in real time, with the LIVING bodies of the children with the LIVING bodies of KNOWLEDGE.”
Stephen Nachmanovitch(1993) 

Free Play: Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts

A page from my visual notebook


I have been part of a wonderful learning encounter in Toronto, Canada called #Rhythm2016 with Diane Kashin of Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research.  As part of this experience I have been reflecting on words that are important to me that describe characteristics of children’s learning.  The above quote is never far from me.  It is a quote that reminds me about the relationship between children and their learning and the art of the teacher.

Vitality is a word I am drawn to as a way of describing learning that is alive, fluid, under constant construction and grows in organic and multi-directional directions. It is an energy that must also be present in our teaching.  There are deep patterns of curiosity  and connection to the natural world that go beyond interests in popular culture and schema’s of play.  Relationships to more interrelated and more complex ideas about interconnectedness and interdependencies of nature.  At the centre of their research is a characteristic or drive to find out what it means to be alive in a context of other things that are also alive and full of vitality.

Encounter is a word that for me describes the way in which children experience the world through shared experiences with other children and adults.  If learning is constructed as part of a social group, the encounter serves as either a planned invitation or spontaneous happening or indeed as an offering of an idea that holds a different point of view than your own.  I prefer this over provocation, as it is suggestive of a meeting or coming together of materials, experiences, concepts together with children, ideas and thoughts.

Felted compositions made as part of a workshop at #Rhythm 2016


Playfulness is the word that I try hard to embrace in everything that I do.  It is a characteristic of my own play as an artist with coloured wools and yarns as I felt and create layers of colour representative of my ideas and thoughts in the present time.  Sometimes this playfulness is shared with others, sometimes I am alone in my playfulness.  Working with children, this playfulness is a site of exploration, testing, hypothesising and messing about (David Hawkins) Messing About – Hawkins Centers of Learning




Exchange is about how I consider the foster and generate situations that enable children to exchange ideas with each other so that differing and multiple perspectives can rise up and be ‘encountered’.  It is also a characteristic of teacher/educator reflection on children’s learning  – a process involved with pedagogical documentation that enable teachers/educators to come together to revisit traces of documentation collected (photographs, notes, dialogue, video etc.)  in order to reflect on the strategies of learning of the children and to re-present/re-construct it for further audiences to make further layers of interpretation.

Collaboration for me is the process of working together on a shared idea of the group to realise ideas and thoughts.   It could be a shared question or hypothesis, a shared point of view, a shared representation of thinking in a creative way.  The process of collaboration is linked to the social constructivist idea that children learn socially with and from and each other.  It is the opposite of competition.

Mutual Learning is for me the result of interaction in the process of collaboration.  Again an interdependent process of evolvement in multiple directions rather than progression in linear and hierarchal ways.  Learning that happens as a result of social interaction, in a context of playful encounter, exchange and collaboration.

These words have resonated and reverberated with me this week together with many, many more.  I leave you with this quote that I took from Ontario’s exhibition of Reggio Children’s The Wonder of Learning that for me prompted and reminded me about these words and introduces others.  It feels important to recognise the connectivity of these works that give that vitality to learning.

“Encounters between curiosity, spacial sensitivity and a places ‘invitations’ give form, energy and rhythm to moments.”

The Wonder of Learning Exhibit, Ontario , Reggio Children




Why ‘exchange’ and not ‘study tour’? A Sweden/UK Educational Exchange Project.

A Visualisation of Exchange? A swedish teacher came across this composition, the young child described it as the cold country (the tiles) and the green country (the green pegs) and in the centre is the middle land. I couldn't help but see this image as a metaphor for the reason of exchange.

I have just returned from a visit to some of the pre-schools of Stockholm, Sweden.  It was an exchange opportunity organised through Sightlines-Initiative for three settings I work with here in the UK with three pre-schools in Stockholm.  In just three weeks time, our Swedish colleagues come to visit here in a mutual exchange and for participation in our daily school life with young children.

The schools involved in this exchange are all ‘inspired’ by the context of education seen in the Reggio Emilia pre-schools of Italy.  To be inspired does not mean to copy or replicate their experience but instead to reflect upon the ideals and values they place upon the environment as a teacher, pedagogical documentation as a tool of research and making learning visible, group learning, a rich image of the child and the connectivity between school and community.  What is interesting in the Swedish context is that here lay a group of schools examining these principles of Reggio within their own Swedish cultural and educational context in a similar way to how we are examining the principles of Reggio within our own UK context.

Exploring the variation and tonal hues of autumnal colour. A five year olds composition.

This experience so far is very different from a study tour, which usually focuses upon a go, see, and find attitude that I liken to a kind of teacher tourism led by the knowledgeable pedagogical guide. This exchange felt more like a live, feel, and hold experience.  There was something quite unique in the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, even though for just a week.  Often it was overwhelming, as at first you have so many questions that are all aimed at orientating yourself around what you are experiencing and making sense of what you see and feel, but then as time progresses, your questions become more refined, more attuned to finding the similarities and differences between the two positions and practices.

Doing this as part of network feels important too, as it is not just about your classroom, or your individual school but how an experience like this can challenge the culture and perception of education, family, child and childhood for a connected group of people.  This is important because it is only together in the situation of a small group can we exchange our points of view and reach a possible third way of understanding or a new creation of knowledge and understanding.

Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) describe this process of constructing new knowledge in relation to children, but I propose here to use it as a way of understanding how as a group of educators we too construct new ways of being and seeing.

“Recognizing the function and peculiarities of conversations held in small groups is an important step for adults.  It requires the adult to shift from a perspective which sees language as the revealer of thought to that of language as a generator of thought…It is possible therefore, to see group discussion as a way in which to create knowledge instead of being simply a method for discovering who has what knowledge.”

On a study tour, it is easier to go and see and find out ‘the ways to become a better educator’  – a process of osmosis where you seep up the educational chlorophyll from others who have already discovered a better way of being.   This experience of mutual exchange has enabled through active participation, constructive dialogue and group discussion/exchange a method to generate and create new ways of being and thinking.

As a group of children sat talking and painting about the transformation of colour in leaves, another group drew what this discussion group looked like. It reminded me of the importance of seeing ourselves from a different perspective.

What I have also understood so far from this experience, is that there is no one singular way of improving education, there is no necessary singular path to follow, we must not become all the same even though we may share values and principles. I understand too that there is still also the danger of responding to what is seen and felt and lived passively i.e. to become consumers of thinking rather than searching for the possible third way.  We might do this in looking for answers on the how and what we want to change and develop, the bits that we already know don’t quite work.  We have to be wary of just looking for solutions, too easily.

So, instead of focusing on the what and how of our educational practices maybe we should first start from the point of view of why.

Our questions in the beginning were:

  1. How do we work with parent participation (strategies, methods, building mutually respectful relationships)?
  2. How do we think about the environment and prepare materials and areas for children and children’s own choices?
  3. How do we construct meaningful learning projects?

But the danger lies in how we might replicate what each other does in our differing settings and doing so in admiration of the other but without critically deconstructing the experience and reconstructing new possibilities.  I realise now that our questions should have been written instead as:

  • Why do we want to encourage parents to be active and equal participants in the educational experience of young children?
  • Why should we think about the educational environments and materials we offer children?
  • Why construct meaningful learning projects for young children?

Maybe, if we think about the why, learn to construct and reinvent our knowledge and practices continuously we can indeed transform our practices.


Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) in Reggio Children Reggio Tutta: A guide to the city by the children.