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: 

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg-GEzM7iTk 

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:

 https://tecribresearch.wordpress.com

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:

https://debikeytehartland.me/tag/progettazione/ 

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

https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/65

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:  

https://www.sightlines-initiative.com/images/Library/Articles/What-Life-Means-to-Einstein-sm.pdf

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.
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Drawing as Meaning Making

drawing-428383_1280From Reggio, we gain a perspective that the ‘Arts’ are equal and co-existing ‘languages’ of expression and communication alongside and together with other ‘languages’… of science… of mathematics… of written word… of other ways of knowing, describing and discovering the world.  Loris Malaguzzi’s poem,  “No Way.  The Hundred is There” is testament to this.

Materials in this context are referred to as languages that are capable of expression and communication.  However, it suggests that there is an ‘if’ there somewhere…

When working with early childhood educators, one of the things we jointly ponder is the issue of skills and if children must first understand the sensorial properties of materials such as clay, paint, charcoal, markers etc. to then be able to engage in representational, expressive and communicative purposes.  It sometimes seems as if children are asking of materials in their first encounters what is this, what does it do… and then through working with it begin to ask what if or how can I use this?  It fits in a similar way to how Anna Craft (2002) described ‘Possibility Thinking’ as a slide between a realm of finding out and discovering something before using it to represent a specific thought or idea.

Sylvia Kind (2010) challenges this however, saying that: “It is not necessarily a linear progression from experimentation to communication.”  Instead, Kind invites us to think about children’s artistic languages as “explorations in interrogating spaces and investigating relationships, and as a social process of making meaning and as generative acts.”  Therefore children can and do make meaning in complex ways during and simultaneously whilst exploring properties and affordances (the skills) of using any such media.

I have wondered for a long time about the process of meaning making in the act of drawing and in how that meaning can change across contexts.  For example, I once watched a child drawing and after a while she declared to me it was a cat.  Not five minutes later the same child, with the same drawing, told another educator it was a Beanie Baby.  I was left feeling a little confused, was I wrong in my understanding or was the child wrong?  Well it’s not going to be the child, it will always be me!  It seems that meaning making is far more complex, and more generative of multiple meanings that may or may not connect in a logical manner.

towards-outstanding-in-writing-the-importance-of-drawing-001

I find this particular drawing that I have shared in a TEDx talk here fascinating for many reasons.  One, because it ‘represents’ something huge and almost unimaginable neatly contained on a single piece of paper.  Two, because the narrative that accompanies it is a strong theory of how the sun and moon works, and three, because of the sheer beauty and aesthetic of it from such a young child.  But let us not (as my good friend and colleague Louise Lowings would say) get lost in the awe and wonder of it, for it might just dazzle us into doing and thinking nothing more about this,  thus remaining fixed and static in our thinking ourselves.

If we take this drawing as simply an expression or communication of what she knows and understands then we would be in danger of just saying she is wrong in her thinking.  The meaning as dictated through her words would be interpreted as singular and unchangeable.  But Sylvia Kind is suggesting that there is more going on.

Now I read this drawing as a generative act, of thinking in action; an active inquiry into the physics of the solar system.  She is not only actively trying to explain something but is also at the same time trying to understand it herself through the action of drawing and the movement of the material across a piece of paper.  It is rich in description, of texture, space, relations, and movement made in a social engagement between where the marker meets the paper, herself and the atelierista who was observing and listening closely to what she was doing and saying.  There was an interaction, it was intra-active.  An encounter between what she knew and what she was becoming to know.  She was drawing objects as she thought them, not as she saw them (to paraphrase Pablo Picasso).  And of course there is the interaction with the audience, of who views the work and their own meaning making.

When viewing a piece of art, we the audience, are drawn into the world of making sense and meaning of that work, its materials, its presence.  The meaning making therefore does not just lie with the maker but simultaneously sits with the viewer too.  Therefore, this drawing is part of a complex creative process, what Sylvia Kind calls an object of encounter rather than just being a drawing that represents or communicates a fixed thought.  Rather it is relational and interdependent.

“…art as a state of encounter considers that meanings are constituted in the relation between things and in movements of disruption of previously held ideas.”

Kind (2010)

So, and with this is mind, I can now re-describe this drawing as an encounter or event as being:

Sociable – and in a process of exchange with others (those who were present but also those who are and become the audience)

Relational – in that it is situated with an interdependent system of meaning making where ideas connect with those in the making, a sense of becoming

Generative – of negotiating meaning, knowledge and understanding with and through the materials to hand

 

It means as educators we need to:

Be open – to the complex and fluid thinking and action of children

Hold an awareness – of our our positioning as audience or partner in drawing

To recognise – that their meaning making is neither fixed or static

To act in researchful ways  – to listen and look out for the connections and interdependencies that become visible (or remain invisible) between the context – maker – audience that are not always logical in order, or sequence

To adjust our pedagogy – to see drawing and other forms of making thinking visible as an encounter or event with many possible directions and not a simple linear journey from developing skills and understanding affordances to expression and communication of a singular thought.

 

References

Malaguzzi, L.  No Way.  The Hundred is There.  Accessed at http://www.thewonderoflearning.com/history/?lang=en_GB on 5th March 2017

Craft, A. (2002). Creativity and Early Years Education. London: Routledge.

Kind, S. (2010) Art Encounters: Movements in the Visual Arts and Early Childhood Education in Flow, Rhythms, & Intensities of Early Childhood Education Curriculum.  Ed. Pacini-Ketchabaw, V.  New York: Peter Lang.