Yesterday was harder to write: three days in and i’m feeling a weight of words building up and some pressure to keep up the momentum. On the plus side, having such an uninterrupted period to write has made me feel more connected with the subject again. I can feel the flow of ideas better and make cross links more easily. What had started to feel like a series of essays feels more like a book today.
Yesterday i wrote two key sections: one on ‘play’ and the the other on ‘exploration’. Both form part of the learning methodology where we explore and manipulate the learning as we make it our own.
Below, an excerpt from the section on ‘play’. As ever, this is first draft, i will pull in more references and proof it once the section is complete.
Space to play
The beach is a space to play. Building sites are not. Museums may have an exploration centre, an educational space to play, but art galleries do not. You cannot play with the art. School has classrooms, where you don’t play and a playground where it is positively encouraged. Lessons are serious. Play is fun. So why don’t we do more of it?
How should we define play? Action without consequences? Huizinga, Rector at the University of Leyden provides us with a neat definition from the 1930’s: “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary'” (Huizinga, ‘The cultural limits of play and the serious‘, 1938). Two key elements here: it’s ‘free’, without applied structure and is sits consciously ‘outside the ordinary’. Normal rules do not apply. It’s a safe space.
The beach is a blank canvas. It comes pre stocked with a range of items that are idea for play: sand that can be drawn upon or moved around in a bucket and shaped into castles or sculptures. Stones that can be skimmed, balanced or used to decorate aforementioned castles. Shells that can be placed against your ear to hear the sea or can be strung into necklaces or simply taken home to rest on a windowsill as memories of sandy summer days. Water can be swum in, splashed onto annoying sisters or gathered in buckets to fill moats.
There are few rules to govern what we do on the beach. It’s an unstructured play environment. Building sites offer similar potential, but are frowned upon as play areas by annoying grown ups. The presence of heavy machinery and scaffolding often prove too tempting for the young adventurer and i have the scars to prove it. Museums are not freely available play spaces, but may contain spaces designed for play. There has been an increasing recognition that just presenting a story may not be enough: that we have to allow children and adults to explore it and exploring it through play is a powerful technique.
Art galleries are odd. We encourage drawing as a creative outlet, but we treat adult art as sacrosanct. Whilst childhood scrawlings are taped to the fridge in pride of place, adult paintings are captured behind glass and framed on walls. We prefer to assume an imbued value meaning that the atmosphere of a library is more appropriate than that of the playground.
And as for schools: rarified artefacts in our society that contain spaces for study and spaces for play. Although whether that play is ‘unstructured’ i am less certain. So much of play is about developing concepts, methodologies for investigation and practicing behaviours that it’s hard to work out where the formal learning stops and the informal starts. And it’s fun. Fun in a properly wild way, like playing frisbee on the beach in the sun or riding your bike down a hill as fast as possible just to see what happens.
When we play, we experiment. In an environment without consequences, we are able to rehearse different modes of behaviour and analyse the feedback. The conscious removal of consequences is something that we have to actively consider within the exploration part of our learning methodology. It’s all very well being shown something, but being able to take it outside of the normal constraints and play with it is something else altogether. It can be argued that if you subscribe to the proposition that failure is an essential part of learning, and i do, then you have to play to be able to learn. You’re going to make the mistakes anyway, so why not create a safe space to make them in?
When children play it’s in an unashamed way, where they are happy to take on different personas and gather together in fluid groupings. We see them agreeing the rules of the games they play, some based upon time honoured tradition, passed down from generation to generation, others based on the latest children’s television programme or film. Some play has a clear parallel with reality, such as playing at ‘nurses’ or ‘making tea’, whilst other aspects of play are more abstract or unstructured, such as building castles or complex games of chase with ambiguous team structures.
Play can be a group or team based activity, but can also very much be a solo sport and it can be done using prefabricated and bought props or ‘toys’ or naturally sourced or scavenged alternatives, such as a potato.
What were your most treasured toys? I had a battered metal Land Rover that i was very fond of, but also a box that i’d made into a robot. And a raft that was built with a friend, too small to use myself, but great for games of pirates spent wading round in rock pools. Just writing that right now bought back to me the smell of wood and fish that came from the crate that formed the cabin: an olfactory memory that transcends the years with vivid clarity.
There may be little correlation between the apparent monetary value of a toy and it’s longevity or reverence. Many of us i’m sure still have teddy bears secreted in attics or drawers, no longer part of our everyday lives, but still emotionally integral to our memories of childhood. Recognised and preserved as part of a different era, but treasured secretly nonetheless to this day.