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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What is play?

I have been thinking a lot about play lately.  Today I did a conference session on play at the sensory table in Mankato, Minnesota at the Midwest Play Conference hosted by Mankato State University.   Whenever I do conferences or workshops for early education venues, I always emphasize play.   This seemed a little different because what is the value of play in a classroom and, more specifically, just in one area of the classroom?

To make sense of play at the sensory table, I have been looking at three episodes of play from the apparatus I wrote about last week: the channel board.  I am astonished with what the children come up with.  Sometimes it is so simple and sometimes it is elaborate and sometimes it warms the heart.

The first episode is a child washing out a metal measuring cup.   The cup has residual mud and she wants to clean it out. 

Washing the cup from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This is a fairly simple operation, but what does it have to do with play?  Why does she want to clean the cup in the first place?  She will just go back to scoop mud with it and then do it all over again.

The next episode shows a child directing a more complicated operation.  First, the middle channel is padded down with mud.  Once enough mud has been padded down, it is then swept down the channel.   The child directing the action takes a small piece of bark to scrape the remaining mud out of the channel.  She then uses that same piece of curved bark as a sled for a dinosaur and sends it zooming down the clean channel.

Cleaning the dinosaur slide with mud. from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

How does a child begin to create such a complete and elaborate scenario that draws in and accommodates others?  How did the child who is directing the operation ever come up with the steps for cleaning the channel with mud?  Why does one child help and the other watch? Why did the child help even though he was not sure exactly what they were doing?   How did that same child realize that the whole operation was to make the sledding dinosaur go faster?

The final episode is beguiling to say the least.  The child has made a mud birthday cake with a stick for a candle for her bear.  She sings happy birthday to it and then tells the bear to blow out the candle.  Of course, she animates the action herself by holding the bear in front of the candle and blowing.

Happy birthday from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What gave her the idea to make a birthday cake?  Was it the mud? the pot? the stick for a candle? did she just experience a birthday?  In any case, the joy she feels playing out the episode is palpable.  How can that be?

I am convinced that adults, for the most part, play differently than children.  Adults are much more linear and need external rules for play to hold together and make sense.  For children, if there are rules, they are more internal and very mercurial.  They are expansive and unpredictable.  They are highly idiosyncratic with a deftness for making connections, connections with things and others.  Play for children is not so much a thing as a production.  Through play they produce their own reality, a reality that makes sense of the worlds that surround them: the physical, the social and and the emotional worlds.

In the end, the place where children play may not be so important because they play constantly and everywhere; it is their way of being in the world.  What may be more important is creating the space, the time and the means for uninterrupted play.

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