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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Mathematical Thinking: Play and Learning

Mathematical Thinking: The Pattern of all Patterns

images-5Tomorrow I present at the British Council here in Dakar, Senegal.  The subject is the creative ways of approaching mathematics in the classroom.  From the teachers I have had the honour of speaking with thus far in my trip there seems to be a significant challenge in how mathematics can be taught in an engaging and meaningful way that is less theoretical and is more about and of life.

I have said many times before that:

“I believe we are all born with creative capacities but suspect that these creative dispositions become diluted and lost when conditions for creativity are not met.”

Our challenge as educators, as parents and as contributors to children’s learning experiences is to create the right kind of contexts for learning to germinate, grow and evolve.  So how can we do this?

imagesMuch of it depends on how we view mathematics.  Do we see it as a separate subject form science, writing, the arts, geography?  Do we teach the theory of maths and not its application?  Do we consider the outcome more important than the process of arriving at a possible answer?

Fry (2015) challenges us to consider the pattern and nature of mathematics.

“Mathematics is ultimately the study of patterns – predicting phenomena from the weather to the growth of cities, revealing everything from the laws of the universe to the behavior of subatomic particles…

Mathematics is the language of nature. It is the foundation stone upon which every major scientific and technological achievement of the modern era has been built. It is alive, and it is thriving.”

Fry (2015) The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation

Unknown-1So we can see how Mathematics can be about life here in Senegal.  About how we survive and thrive with patterns and predictions of weather, to population growth in the cities that grow at exponential rates, the maths of engineering, of construction, of building, of tides and ecology. It is inherent in daily life too, the trips we make to the local boutiques, when tabs or monies owed lists are made, in the handling of money for exchange in the market, in the measurements of the street tailor, and the space, patterns and designs in the local cloths and fabrics.…mathematics we could say is part of the woven cloth of everyday life here.

images-1Children’s mathematical thinking originates in the meanings they make in their play.  We can help in this by making their school based mathematical lessons MORE PLAYFUL.  Research backs this claim up.  The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF,2008) in England commissioned a review into mathematics and teaching to find out about the effective learning in mathematics.  It concluded that effective learning in mathematics was:

  • Rooted in playfulness
  • Social in nature

DCSF (2008) Williams Maths Review 

images-3The Williams Math Review reminded us also that the young child’s intrinsic drive to play and learn ‘through play’ was the beginning of ‘messing around’ around with mathematical ideas and creative thinking.  More alarming was that it was usually us as adults who failed to recognise this, or failed to offer an environment where this could take place.  In other words, these thinking dispositions were being diluted and lost because conditions for mathematical and creative thinking were not met.

images-2However there are things that we can do and can take charge of in our own classrooms.  We can look for local materials and situations where mathematical thinking can be explored and played with.  We can set smaller groups of children off on smaller tasks whilst teaching others, we can create caravans of learning experiences giving opportunity for mathematics to be lived and be connected in more contextual and culturally meaningful situations for children.

UnknownWe have dilemmas to face that are not just relevant here in Senegal but are part of a global crisis in education that asks for us not to continue the separation of subjects into distinct and different categories, to stop the over reliance on testing of knowledge and to embrace and create conditions for creativity, innovation and critical thinking to emerge.

Our challenges are:

  • To make the teaching of Mathematics more context and culturally meaningful for Senegal’s children?
  • To re-imagine Senegalese children as rich and competent makers of meaning?
  • To ensure our children are higher order thinkers, that display habits and minds of mathematical thinking?
  • To cross the threshold between the theoretical classroom of yesterday and the concrete and practical classroom of tomorrow?

Therefore, we must for our children create the fruitful conditions for learning in our changing world.  To create contexts that value children’s play with ideas that involve mathematics and combined subjects and images-4dispositions.  We have to change the dominant paradigms that continue to emphasise testing and instruction and that view the child as weak, and empty.   This is not just for children in Dakar, Senegal but a call for revolution in education globally supported by a growing global family.  If we fail, then I fear we will leave our children unprepared for the challenges in our rapidly changing society and economy.  We can make change in our own classrooms, and each small change is an act of humility towards a better place for the children of Senegal.  Together as a community, we can begin to extend those ripples of change and find our supportive partners who wish for the same goals.  The goal being to give the right contexts for learning that enables Senegal children’s to thrive and seek meaning in their cities and places that they live, breathe and play.