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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Progettazione, by Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

We have been inspired by through a recent question about progettazione posed on the Facebook Page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/ReggioEmiliaApproach/ about progettazione that Suzanne curates.  We have decided to collaborate together on a piece that explores what for each of us progettazione means and looks like.

For Debi, progettazione is best described as a transdisciplinary, flexible and open approach to working with children’s hypothesises and thinking whereby their ideas are subject to moderation, elaboration and transformation as thinking develops as part of a learning group. (For more on Learning groups see here)  It is a way of working that goes beyond the completion of a topic or theme set by the adult in which certain concepts are covered through teaching to one that is more akin to a research approach where the educator is a co-researcher alongside the children exploring how young children learn both individually and as part of a group.

For Suzanne, progettazione is an approach where children and teachers are learning, they are collaborators, researchers and teaching each other. The educators are observing the children at a level that is informing them about how they are learning as well as what fascinates them within the project.  It is a complex multi-layered learning situation for all concerned where the educators document the children’s knowledge about the project, as well as their own learning styles and development and analyse this information to improve themselves as educators.  There is a mutual respect between children and educators and the project is driven by the teachers and children together.

For Debi, the children are not guided to cover a range of topics or themes but rather learning situations are created that generate a context for discussion, expression and the contesting of ideas in many modalities and ‘languages’ about the world. Children learn through being offered these generative contexts and provocations that enable children to discover learning for themselves. Progettazione therefore promotes educator development, the co-construction of knowledge as part of a learning group and should be in relationship with the children’s families. In this way, families are invited to learn about the group as the progettazione progresses and not just their individual child at the end.

Another good descriptor about progettazione can be found here at: https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/65

And look here for more information on the general guiding principles of the Reggio Emilia schools. http://www.sightlines-initiative.com/in-dialogue-with-reggio-emilia.html

“If we believe that children possess their own theories, interpretations and questions, and that they are co-protagonists in their knowledge-building processes, then the most important verb in educational practice is no longer to talk, to explain, to transmit, but to listen.” 

Carlina Rinaldi (1998)

Carlina Rinaldi in the quote featured above speaks about how our image of the child affects how we teach. If we see them as empty vessels then our practice is to fill them up with facts and knowledge of our own. However if we believe that children are capable of thinking, of making hypotheses and interpretation and posing questions of their own then rather than fill up the child or transmit knowledge to them, we instead listen to them and most importantly, act upon what they say, to make a choice about what happens next by considering the multiple perspectives shared in the group.

Suzanne also reminds us that we have to agree as team of educators working together what these tricky words such as progettazione, project, topic and theme mean to each other.

“We have had many dialogues about themes and projects and what exactly these words mean for us, and how we can use them in a larger circle of educators around the world. After all this world of ours is shrinking in the sense that we can collaborate online… this means we need to have an understanding of each other. For example the word kindergarten means something quite different when I am in Jenin and Germany from when I have been in Canada and USA – so I find when starting with progettazione we also have to come to some kind of agreement on the language of the progettazione so that we have a common understanding, otherwise I think it is easy to walk away from a meeting thinking we are all in an agreement about where the project is starting from and what direction it will initially take… to discover that all the educators take completely different directions from each other.”

Progettazione therefore we could say in an approach that:

  • is co-lead by children and educators working together
  • is a flexible and open approach that is open to modification and multiple points of view
  • is a form of professional development for teachers (a research approach)
  • happens as part of a learning group collaborating together
  • where observation is used to understand the learning processes of the children as well as well as the construction of knowledge within the learning group
  • involves family engagement during the process of the progettazione
  • involves many languages of expression, to discuss and hypothesise ideas and thoughts
  • requires agreement amongst teams of educators  upon what the term means to them

For Suzanne, an example of progettazione was when she worked at a bilingual school that had at its heart a research question about language…… since they were profiling in language, to understand how children acquired and used language(s) was very important. For example how much did the children know, how did they communicate, how were they learning language and how were non-verbal children communicating, which language was the strongest, how do children learn a second or third or fourth language? She had a ”project” with the children where each of the four groups were exploring different things that each group had shown an interest in… the group she worked most closely with at the time was exploring space, which turned into an exploration of colour and size.  But it was through this space exploration that she observed the children’s language and how they communicated their ideas.  They also had regular meetings analysing their notes, films, photos etc where they not only discussed how the projects could move forward in the sense of what the children were interested in… but also what they were learning about the children’s language and how this information could enable them to be better teachers.

For Debi, who works in the Reggio Emilia tradition of a pedagogista (but also with an arts background) an example of progettazione began with children making observations of the daytime sky.  There was a certainty that the moon was in the sky at night and the sun was only in the sky during the day.  One day, the moon appeared in the sky during the daytime which provided an occasion to challenge this certainty.  What began as discussions about the description of the sun and the moon turned into a context for generating ideas about why this might happen.  Following this event, the learning group (of about 11, 3-4 year olds) seemed to be talking more about the relationship between the sun and the moon, rather than as two separate and isolated phenomena.  They talked about the power, that was held inside the sun and moon and power that emerged between the two.  What appeared to be descriptors about power were maybe, as educators hypothesised using collected traces of documentation to analyse were the genesis of thinking about gravity and energy.  It was during these year long explorations of the relationship between the sun and the moon that educators also researched how playful approaches to using digital media could be used in ways for children to co-construct and express ideas of their own thinking.

Progettazione we could then say is an approach to children’s learning, about educators learning about learning and about making that learning visible for analysis, for acting upon and deciding what to do next.  A final stage is the publication of summative documentation that  makes visible the co-research of the adults and the children.  Progettazione cannot happen without what Carlina Rinaldi calls the “Pedagogy of Listening” and does not really occur when children are working in isolation of each other.  It forms in the relationship and interaction of others; other children, other educators, other families and the community.

“Listening to children’s theories enhances the possibility of discovering how children think and how they both question and develop a relationship with reality. This possibility is magnified when it occurs within a group context that allows for the experience of others to be shared and debated.”

https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/59

Thank you for reading,

Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

Suzanne Axelsson blogs at interactionimagination.blogspot.co.uk

Debi Keyte-Hartland’s blog can be found at debikeytehartland.me

Other links
https://tecribresearch.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/progettazione-reggio-inspired-teaching-in-dialogue-with-the-learning-processes-of-children/