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.

Learning Interventions and Learning Group Facilitation

The view from my hotel in Edinburgh.  What takes precedent within this photograph I took is not the magnificent castle but instead the unexpected bus stop.  Within a group context, what takes precedent is often the unexpected too.
The view from my hotel in Edinburgh. What takes precedent within this photograph I took is not the magnificent castle but instead the unexpected bus stop. Within a group context, what takes precedent is often the unexpected too.

Learning Interventions and Learning Group Facilitation

I guess I have always considered myself and have been described as others as the outsider to the process of change happening within an organisation such as a school.  My role if anything has been to help facilitate an evolving state of change concerning professionalism, the raising of standards, articulation of pedagogy and values of education, families and community through facilitating learning groups and 1-1’s or 1-2’s sessions with educators, teachers and senior management.  In recent times I have networked groups together nationally and across international borders with the idea of working together as a group as a powerful motivator for change.  I have done much of this, if honest as something I enjoy and find challenging but without much theoretical underpinning, instead applying what I know about children and learning groups to the idea of working with adult learning groups.  Therefore, the course at the Edinburgh Gestalt Institute  sounded a great way to think about what I do but from a different point of view beyond the realm of educational theory.  Loris Malaguzzi (founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to Early Education) reminds us of the importance to read, understand and question from a multi-disciplinary stance as does Gregory Bateson (English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist) whose work spanned many different fields of thought and action.  What I attempt to do here is share some of my thinking around what I have understood and what I am now thinking about. Some people have requested I share something of what I have encountered in my time in Edinburgh, it doesn’t represent everything I did but gives a flavour of the intensity of the work and learning.

You can download Learning Interventions in Organisations which is copy of the full article I have written as it is too big for a blog post.  I hope you find it of interest and please do make comment, ask questions, agree and disagree with its content.

In the article I make particular reference to:

  • Learning groups, emergent processes and tensions

  • Shame, Humiliation and Power

  • Group Process ModelS, being and feeling included, controlled and affected

  • Being present, listening to ones own feelings and reactions

  • Reading and acknowledging the field, finding out what is present in the field (Lewin’s Field Theory)

  • Domains of Self and relatedness to others (Daniel Stearn)

  •  Trauma and cognitive thinking

  • Intervention analysis, modes and dimensions of facilitation