Why Pop Up Play for Grown Ups?

Adobe Spark-2

My friend Vivian and I are hosting a “Pop Up Play Session for Grown Ups” next month.  I think you should join us.  Why, you might ask?

Because it will be fun!

Adults as a whole can’t be bothered to play much and it can be a bit silly to many suggest otherwise.  We have jobs, children to raise, bills to pay, chores to do, ailments to deal with, parents to take care of and everything else under the sun to do instead.  We have to-do lists and of course they have to be taken care of.

There is a lack of appreciation and understanding of what play is among the majority of the adult world.  Most people see play as something childish, and fair enough, it is primarily the domain of children.  To over-simplify things, children are process oriented and adults are more product oriented.  Take some purple paint: the three year olds I teach want to explore every facet of this substance.  What happens when it’s on paper? On the table?  On the side of the shelf?  What happens when the paint pot is filled with water? In truth, “childish” investigations are never ending and the primary way young children build their brains and further their development.

Adults on the other hand might not touch the paint at all.  Many would tell themselves they are no good at art and laugh off any activity involving the purple paint.  If the end product would not be “good,” what is the point of doing it at all?

I don’t think we will have any paint at this pop-up session but we maintain play is necessary for us as we grow into adults as well.

When you come join as at the lovely HEART Cafe Courtyard we are going to have stuff for you to play with (mainly recycled loose parts from SCRAP), a few choice quotes posted around, and most importantly permission for you to simply play – alone or with others.  You might not know how to start.  You might feel awkward because you don’t want to look silly in front of complete strangers or you genuinely won’t get the point of it all.

We are confident though that if you give yourself the time and permission to just get lost in just messing around with the junk, you will  enjoy the process in and of itself.  Your ever present and stressful to-do list might even float out of the foreground of  your mind for a while.  Your guard might come down for a bit and you will let yourself enjoy the company of people you don’t yet know.  There is connection, mindfulness and fun to be found when we start to value the means of a chosen activity just as much as the ends. Our lives are meant to be enjoyed!




Should Chocolate Be Delicious?

I don’t know if it’s virtuous or masochistic of me to bother at all but this is a response a blog post I found entitled “Should Young Children Learn Through Play?”  It is kind of sad that this is how I spend a good chunk of a day of my Easter holidays but I own it.

The blogger, Anthony Radice is a proud traditionalist teacher with some opinions abut Early Years practice.  He quickly falls flat in the first paragraph saying: “teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists.”  Quality EY practitioners and teachers should be and are specialists in early childhood development, a subject that has developed immensely in the last thirty years.  Though it has confirmed what quality nursery and preschool teachers have known intuitively for much longer, the rest of society has yet to catch on to these findings.  Working with young kids is easy “women’s work” after all, so why should we be listened to?

Anthony tries to get up but trips again:

But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.

Many EY practitioners do indeed instruct kids how to share in all sorts of ways, but the effectiveness of different techniques is out of the scope of this post.

For young children, play is as natural as breathing and eating, and just as necessary for healthy growth and development.  Young children are at a distinct stage of development, for a reason.  Even a basic background in early childhood development would help others see the danger of trying to rush young children through it.

We’re all entitled to our opinions and Anthony goes on with the rest of the blog post with simplistic remarks about the difficulties of kids not sharing, toilet training and “Lord of the Flies” scenarios to justify his.  Many EY practitioners and teachers will agree with him on these points to varying degrees and that is fine.  Where he simply fails is using these quips as justification for his “traditional/academic/earlier-is-better” approach to EY.  The points just don’t connect.

Don’t like to go here but Anthony begs the question if he has ever working or setting foot in an Early Years setting when he goes on to say:

Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.

Any setting where children aren’t listening to stories, learning songs or “first attempts at drawing” would be shoddy.  Anthony would probably be horrified by my practice but my key children regularly engage in these activities (and much more of their choosing).

Anthony’s closing paragraph is an event in itself.

Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.

I am even perfectly fine with direct instruction and even engage in lots of it myself, as long as the young child is actively choosing to be there.  When they have their inevitable conflicts over toys or play, I am there to guide them through them solving their problems as much as possible.  I am absolutely an authority figure but my goal is to give them social and emotional skills to increasingly handle their problems without me, which they are.

(The truth is children can and do handle many conflicts themselves without adults barking rules at them, but we train them to expect us to solve their problems.  Adults of all ideological stripes make moral problems out of simple developmental ones all too often.)

I accept that some people like to have circular, insular edutwitter debates (like myself apparently).  I accept there are going to be people within and outside of Early Years who favour “academics” over play in nursery & Reception settings.  I fully recognise that this blog is not going to change any of their minds.

What I don’t accept, or respect is the fact that none of these people – who love to talk about evidence and research in terms of education for older children – do not and possibly cannot point to anything evidence-based to justify their opinions and feelings in terms of Early Years practice.  They complain about it being dominated by “child-centered progressivism” and as far as I can tell never engage with the stone-cold evidence that quality practice is based on.  I, and others, in Early Years can, and do get tired of this.

Quality EY practice is frustrating for these types because it isn’t about their narrow views of learning but rather about what literally builds young children’s brains and fosters their overall development.  I think many like “academic” Early Years practice because it makes primary school teacher’s jobs easier in many ways.  Children are used to sitting still and looking to adults as the sole source of knowledge and bestower of approval.

Primary school teachers have incredibly hard jobs and more is being expected of them and their students than ever before.  I can see why most teachers (who wisely never set foot in edutwitter land, or more likely have never heard of it) appreciate it when they have compliant and “easy” students.  I empathise with their situation but the fact that over-testing, lack of recess and worship of SAT scores has warped and twisted education into what it is today does not change young children’s basic biological and physiological hard-wiring. If anything, Early Years principles need to be pushed up into the rest of education.  I can already hear the same usual objections from Radice and others, and I’ll give the same “look at the Scandinavian countries” response.  The edutwitter carousel will continue to turn.

Nobody has to agree with me about anything at all, and of course we are all going to keep our favourite ideological teddy bears but I do ask Anthony Radice and others to study some basic early childhood development before going on about Early Years in the future.

Suggested Reading List for Anthony Radice or anyone else:

Power & Freedom #4: Throwing the Blocks



I call these posts “power & freedom” because I believe more than ever that they are two things children need and deserve to feel in their lives.  These are also two things that can be hard for most adults, myself included, to accept, much less encourage or appreciate.  Doing so means we have to give up our own control over the children and their play in a variety of ways.

In Early Years settings, where we can have so many kids and so many absolutely real issues such as staff views, scheduling, logistics, Health & Safety concerns, manager or SLT expectations and honestly our own patience, we can’t recreate mini-Adventure Playgrounds (no matter how hard I dream).  Finding that balance of giving children at least some experiences with feeling powerful and free in the context of a large nursery setting is a fascinating challenge.  It requires me to bite my tongue a lot and to observe and reflect on the children in my care.  I truly think their play gets deeper and more dynamic when I step back and let them feel more powerful and free than I would have a few years ago.  This letting go of control and respecting children’s play in a new light has been at the core of my new love for this work.  I look forward to the day when I can childmind or open a setting of my own where I can fully make children’s power and freedom a priority in my practice.


There is one boy in my key group who has been settling in for a while.  He only comes for short visits with his Mum until earlier this week he would not play or engage with anybody or anything in the room.    He is from a poor, “challenged” (or any other euphemism you like) background  Today was the first time his mom left for an hour.  He was upset at first but was willing to go outside with me where he actually got to some great play.  I showed and explained the things for him to do.  I showed our big wooden blocks and that we could make something with it, stacking a few of them.  He thought this looked great but turned out he just wanted to throw them around!

I tried building a few things but he just took more blocks and tossed them.  At one point he made them into a pile.  He really enjoyed this, (as well as the slide and trying on different pairs of wellies) and I am glad I let him go for it.  I think in settling into a new environment children should feel their natural curiosity and urges are allowed and even valued. I want Early Years settings to be places where children feel free and allowed to explore their world in the ways they liked.  These are supposed to be places for their growth and development, and I think we should let children own more of this process.  It is their growth and development after all.

I won’t act like my first instinct wasn’t to wish he would build normally with the blocks.  It would have been easier for me of course.  I couldn’t help but try suggesting to/redirecting him a few times into building with the blocks but I quickly saw that is not where he was at in his play, interest or development.  I consciously chose to stop trying to move him towards a more adult-acceptable use of the blocks and let enjoy the blocks in his own way.  Who is to say building traditionally with the blocks is better in terms of morals, learning or neural pathways being built?  If we know “behaviour is communication” what was this boy who does not speak any English trying to tell me about his interests and needs?

Allowing behaviour like this still does not feel natural to me.  I’m sure he could pick up on my body language and tone as I let slip a few “be carefuls.”  But by the time his Mum came to pick him up he was coming periodically to me with smiles, cuddles and to point out other things he found outside.  This was a much more comfortable and confident boy than I saw just earlier this week who did not feel safe enough to play much at all even by his Mum’s side.  I can’t say for sure but I like to think it’s partially because I provided the space for him to follow his natural curiosity.

Let’s talk about safety.  Obviously I would have redirected his aim (and did once or twice) somewhere else if children were getting in the trajectory of his blocks.Not even two years ago I would have “nicely” stopped this right away, saying that “these blocks could hurt people but I can help you find a ball to throw.”   This isn’t the worst thing to do to a child’s play but my heart is not in enforcing unnecessary blanket rules anymore.  The only big NO’s for me are hurting people or property.  I think it’s my job to be there to help them navigate everything else.



(The Rules posted at Roseville Community Preschool)



Power & Freedom #3: Climbing Shelves and the “Other Adults Factor”

For a while I have been letting children climb (sturdy & stable) shelves inside while I stay close by.  I haven’t helped them get up or down, but stayed close to communicate with them so they can make informed, safe decisions.  Nobody’s been hurt and the fun, play, growth and communication that’s happened through the climbing has been immense.  It’s made me a little anxious trying to monitor them but I’ve truly enjoyed the process.

I’ve purposefully done this because at the moment my nursery does not have any climber for the children in or outside.  In my view, their absolutely literal need to climb should take precedence over adult standards in this environment.  They are capable of learning they are allowed to do certain things at nursery which aren’t allowed at home.  If we had a place for them to climb, I would be more okay with keeping the shelves off limits (though I honestly don’t care about the sanctity of shelves that much.  What is the worst that could happen if we let children climb and play on stable, sturdy shelves?).

I love seeing children assess and take risks in their play.  I have an increasingly high tolerance for mess.  As the title of these series of posts states, I think children need real power and freedom over their play, growth and learning.  I’d like for more adults in Early Years and education in general to take these principles seriously.  My love for working with children has only been ignited recently as I’ve learned to let go of my power in the room, and un- and relearn much of what I took for granted about early learning.

The truth is that two days ago I have chosen to compromise on these ideals.  Other staff think this shelf climbing is unsafe, unnecessary and should not be  allowed.  I disagree but I have made the decision to go along with in terms of “team unity.”  Like many Early Years teams we’ve all been part of, there are “splits” and different views on so much, including risky play and mess of course.  As a new TA, I am only beginning to understand the fault lines and history of the divide among staff.   I’ve decided that I cannot and should not push too many changes in the Nursery at once. I know I am pushing their comfort zones in other ways and I will choose my battles a few at a time.  At the moment it’s allowing messier play and allowing block towers to be built way higher then they were in the past.  After a while I hope they will see that these aren’t so bad or hard to handle and will just become a norm in the room.  Hopefully their tolerance for messy, risky play and the appreciation for the growth that can occur through it will increase over time.

The idea that “no significant learning happens without a significant relationship” is just as true between adults as between children and adults.  Though I openly, honestly and respectfully disagree with my fellow TAs on this topic, there are real issues with my fellow TAs not feeling respected or listened to.  Why should they be expected to be open to considering alternative points of views when their views are not being considered or respected?

I know in this instance I am selling out the children’s rights here but I think changes towards child-led early learning simply have to be taken a few steps at a time and with a team of adults who learn to operate from a similar page.

Am I handling this right?  Could this be a first step towards just going along with what’s expected, easy and “normal” in early learning?  If any other sympathetic TAs, Teachers or other EY staff are reading this, how do you navigate pushing for what you believe amongst your coworkers?


More Men In Early Years? Meh.

I suppose I am real blogger now, asked to write something original for another blog!

Anybody in the Early Years blogosphere, or really anyone paying attention knows that men remain practically non-existent in the field of childcare and education. Looking after babies and young children is still considered to be and in many ways remains “women’ work.” The flipside of this sexist cliché is that us men who do care for and educate babies and young children are out of the ordinary, questionable and to many people’s eyes weirdos who are possible threats to their children. I have my stories of not being allowed to change nappies, ignorant comments and weird looks from others but they’ve been repeated by others plenty of times and it is not the scope of this blog post…

(rest of article at The Male Montessorian).

Power & Freedom #2: Throwing Sh*t off a Ledge

The outdoor area for the Nursery at my school is much bigger than my original 2 year old program.  My favourite thing about it is that part of it is on relatively substantial hill that the children can go up, and look down on the play area, the rest of the school and neighbourhood.  As I am getting to know all the children in the nursery, a group of them have repeatedly wanted me to go up with them on one part of the hill.  There’s a walled off ledge here, and a path under and along side it.

Up on this part of the hill we’ve spent time just sitting and watching the action below, making pretend sneezes to laugh about, playing with ropes I tied to tall tree branches and more.  It’s a great place to get away from the commotion and fluorescent lights inside.  I do my best to not hog the spotlight of the play but since I am new to the nursery, and I want to build good relationships with the kids  I am leaning more into my funny, entertaining new-adult-in-the-room mode.  As the relationships get in place I will increasingly pull back from the center of the action and let them get on with their play more and more.

Yesterday one boy suddenly decided to start to throw everything he could off find of this area and off the ledge.  A small dug up dead bush, plastic cups and plates, two logs almost as big as him and two big plastic crates.  It was getting on the path below and it looked messy.  He was having a really good time!  I wish I was able to take a picture of all this so you could see what I am talking about.

This is notable to me because I distinctly remember when I would’ve stopped this sort of play straight away.  I would have thought it looked destructive, messy and if allowed to continue, might lead to Lord of the Flies situation.  “Children need to learn to obey us and to not make needless messes.”  I don’t say this only to pat myself on the back for my supposed enlightenment but more to be honest about the path I’ve been on working in early learning.

Learning to trust children more and tolerate more mess, I observed as I let him continue with the chucking everything in site off the ledge (there were no children below and if any were coming I would’ve asked him to wait until they passed).   Since I do not yet know this boy, and our setting is in a working-class, immigrant area where many of the children aren’t given many opportunities for messy, risky, big body play my assumptions about his play started off honestly pretty paternalistic.  He hasn’t had opportunities to explore the trajectory schema (good on me for letting him do so).  Not that I think I was wrong at all here, but it puts his supposed setbacks in the foreground of the situation.  After a few minutes I think I looked at it more positively.  This boy is developing full body strength as he actively explores weight, gravity, trajectory.  He is feeling powerful, something every human needs, using his body to send this stuff through the air, and most of all he is really enjoying throwing sh*t off the ledge!  Allowed power and freedom to play how he liked, this boy was engaged in most every single Characteristic of Effective Learning and his Laevers Scales were strong fives

Do you remember how much fun it was to throw things as a child?

Many of our assumptions about, and rules and expectations for children needlessly interfere with children’s hardwired plans for their healthy growth and development.  I won’t delude myself into thinking anybody reading this isn’t already part of the choir but what would be gained from stopping this boy from enjoying this activity?  I think the only real answers are concerns over safety (besides getting to know the kids I was up there to make sure nobody would get hit), “respect for the toys” (nothing was broken),  but if we are really being honest, it is about breaking the child’s will.

I don’t think many would be happy to look at this way but again, I remember how I used to look at children.  I remember what I felt and thought when I first started working with kids in the US without any understanding of early childhood development.  I simply did not understand the biological and psychological reasons behind much of their behaviour.  I started working in a preschool because I “liked kids,” but I now know I was completely ignorant about them.  I saw a large part of my job as providing consistent limits, expectations and consequences so they would eventually, somehow follow adult expectations of behaviour.  This was how they would be socialised into well-functioning adults.

I saw children through what I call the all-pervasive “cute, empty-headed beasts” lens of childhood.  If we don’t know about children’s development so much of their behaviour will then be inscrutable and maddening.  It is something to be managed, corralled, punished, praised, bribed and manipulated until they eventually live up to adult expectations of behaviour.  If I remember correctly, I would have worried “how else will children know how to behave?”  If this boy thinks it’s okay to throw the toys off this ledge now, how is he going to learn to delay his gratification enough to get through the hardships of adult life that are to come later?

The answer to this very legitimate concern is that children in stable loving environments full of secure relationships with adults and other children will naturally grow into stable, loving adults who are secure in themselves.  It is not complicated but it does require faith, trust and respect for children in a culture that thinks these are outlandish ideas.  Babies and young children learn how to be decent adults by the example of being treated decently by adults.  As Magda Gerber put it, “Personality characteristics such as generosity, empathy, caring and sharing cannot be taught, they can only be modeled.”

I  put sh*t in the title of this piece because I think much of the reality of children’s play can be a bit distasteful or controversial to our adult senses.  Children’s play is not always respectful or part of polite, adult society.  We can get trained on and read books about schemas and understand it all intellectually, but genuinely being okay with things getting thrown through the air is and the path getting messy is an entirely different ball game.

If our settings are supposed to be for children’s growth and development, I am going to let this boy and and any other child throw sh*t off the ledge and engage in other behaviours that might challenge some of our adult hang-ups around mess, risk, and safety.  To be clear I am not saying I have the monoply on “best practice” here.  I am not arguing anybody needs to go to work and to pretend they are okay with behaviours that they are not (it won’t be sincere and you will drive yourself nuts), nor is this saying children don’t need age appropriate expectations and limits, but I am advocating people engage in some serious yet gentle reflection and find their growing edge of comfort with these topics.

Who are our settings for?  What is the worst that could happen if you let that child follow their urge to put the sand in the water table?  Stand on a chair to make their block tower higher? Not come to your mandatory circle time and instead carry on with their play?  Take the play dough outside?  Roll a tire down the slide?  And of course, what is the best that could happen if we let our children have more power and freedom in how they play?

Power & Freedom #1: Pencil Sharpener

Our 2 year old program has fully merged with our Nursery next door.  This week I’ve been transitioning out of our original 2 year old program and into a key person role with most of the new 2 year olds, which I will start in full after this break.  There’s been a few rough days as I get used to a new routine but overall I’ve really been enjoying it.

One experience sticks out from this week and it make me think about children’s need to feel power and freedom in their lives.

0985709099Pencil Sharpener

A lot of our coloured pencils were getting dull so I dug out an automatic, battery operated pencil sharpener a coworker has in her cupboard.  When I sat down on the floor to start sharpening, I quickly had a small crowd of six 2 & 3 year olds around me to see what I was up to.  Of course they all wanted to have a go at using this exciting contraption and of course, this soon turned into bickering, pulling and attempted snatching between each other.

Five years, maybe even three years ago, I would’ve gone out of sight to sharpen the pencils, avoiding the need to referee such an unnecessary conflict.  I would’ve said it was better for all parties involved to avoid drama like this.  I’d get it done quicker by myself anyways and I’d save my valuable patience for other parts of the day.

Anyways I’ve been moving away from that line of thinking and I decided to this right on the floor.  To make this pencil sharpener work the kids had to put it in the right sized hole, set the switch on the right setting and hold it in with just the right amount of pressure.  Most didn’t seem to get the fact that it was sharpening the pencils, they seemed mostly interested in making the pencil spin around and the noise the motor made. I’m not sure but I would most all of them have never used such a contraption.  It must have been a fascinating object for them to investigate and figure out.

I’ve been learning to look at situations like this as valuable life practice for the children and myself as well.  Not just practicing sharing a pencil sharpener but how to practice dealing with emotions when having to share space with all these pesky other people.  When the bickering and pulling started, I instinctively put on my benevolent enforcer/”sportscaster” hat: “You all want to use this pencil sharpener.  Since we only have one, you’re going to have to take turns.  How about N has a turn now and in a bit it can be A’s turn?”  I didn’t have a timer and I was arbitrarily deciding when each child’s turn was over, “you really like using the pencil sharpener but now it’s A’s turn.  Please give it to them and I promise you’ll get a turn again in a bit.”  Some kids were better at complying with my order than others.  I ended up snatching it out of a few kid’s hands because they weren’t listening and I felt silly and hypocritical then as I snatched the sharpener out of their hands.  The truth is I have not fully grown out of the authoritarian mindset that most all of us have been born into (I very well might never, but I write blogs like this to help me reflect and grow more).

I’m not sure exactly when or how the situation calmed down but I think it was a combination of the initial “new thing!” excitement wearing off, my repeated refrains of “I know it’s hard to wait but I promise you will get another turn,” and them getting the system of the turns going in a circle around the table.  Once this initial clamor for the sharpener died down, I felt more at ease and was less a “benevolent enforcer” at the table.  At some point I started replacing my arbitrarily-timed orders to fork it over to the next kid with something along the lines of  “when you’re finished, please give it to H” and so on.  The responded to this so much better and I am going to return to this point in a bit.

It is worth repeating how into this sharpener they were.  It makes sounds!  It spins the pencil around – but only if held with the right amount of pressure!  Some of them started to notice the pencil shavings coming out into the clear case!  There’s two different sized holes and a switch that changes how it operates!  There is so, so much to investigate, manipulate and figure out

As adults we should try to put ourselves in children’s shoes as much as possible.  What if I were in the middle of an utterly fascinating activity – let’s say a good book – and somebody came in and said “my turn” was finished and they had the physical power to enforce this order?  On top of this, what if my brain is still in the process of developing and I think the world revolves around me and literally can’t control my impulses?  Does somebody admonishing me with single word orders to “share!” mean anything at all to me?  What do I learn from this person snatching the book out of my hands as I did to these children at first?

So as the kids and I calmed down, a working harmony developed and they all took turns and started to willingly pass it to each other.  One young three year old boy who is known for being veryquick to hit and push began to explain “it’ll be A’s turn, then my turn, then H’s turn, then E’s turn.”  The turns lasted longer and my reminders to “please pass it to so-and-so when you’re finished” became less frequent.

I am not beating myself up for my benevolent enforcer role at first.  We only had one pencil sharpener, they all wanted to use it and I absolutely agree that part of life is learning that the world does not revolve around us.  That said, the way we help younger people come to learn this hard lesson for themselves is by letting have more power and freedom in their lives and giving their interests more respect as well.  There is a world of difference between “it’s A’s turn now,” (and if you don’t hand it over now I am going to snatch it from you) and “when you’re finished, please give it to A.”  They are both essentially directions, but one respects the  child’s interest in the pencil sharpener as something worthwhile and not just “childish behaviour” that needs to be managed and controlled by us to minimise behaviour that’s annoying to us.

On another note, I am more convinced than ever by arguments by Peter Gray and others that children learn best in multi-age groups of children with few, if any adults present.  I wonder what would happen if I did not intervene at all in the use of the pencil sharpener?  The obvious answer here, that I only to by reflecting on all this, is to work towards having  an automatic pencil sharpener always being available in the room so they can investigate and use as needed.  Maybe our only adult role would be sure it doesn’t get lost or broken?  In my dream setting I will open one day, the only rule would be “it’s okay unless you’re about to hurt someone or break something.”

Children’s interests, emotions and lives are not a commodity for us to tinker with or manage to avoid being annoyed by.  To learn to live life well, children need to be allowed power and freedom to actually live it for themselves.

EDIT: Somebody commenting on facebook rightly questioned why I was making them share it at all.  Normally I all about not forcing sharing of any toys.  The interest and the clamor I found myself reverting back to an older, ingrained adult “share police” role that I am still unlearning.

My next piece in this series is going to be on kids throwing sh*t off a ledge!