See How They Learn

Walking Barrel

Photo –Suzanne Axelsson

I have been creating play systems for five decades. During that time, my greatest joy has come from literally watching brains grow. Increasingly I have moved away for providing fixed elements in favor of provisioning spaces that allow children to create their own play.

I have been following Ms. Cheng Xueqin from her first visit here in the States, where she introduced us to her work at AnjiPlay. While many others, such as Lady Allen, Carl Sørensen, María Montessori, and others have made significant contributions to the notion of kid powered learning, no one has been more resourceful, innovative, or a better proponent of the concept.

While the environments she and her team, including the hugely talented Cas Holman, have created are to my mind astounding, the effort placed on teacher training and pedagogy is equally essential and innovative. Her insights are both simple and profound. Here is a graphic example.

The picture above would give most early childhood teachers a heart attack. But if you look closely, you will see that the children have the situation superbly under control. Not only are they safe, but they are learning deeply and profoundly. It helps us understand this better if we deconstruct what we are seeing.

Note the pieces of wood in the barrel on which the boy in the black shirt is balanced. Why is it there, and how did it come to be placed there?  The simple story is that the wood provides ballast to the barrel, so it is much more stable than it would be otherwise. The children likely learned this piece of engineering by trying to move a barrel while another child was inside. This learning took place probably a while they were younger and exploring in a less challenging way.

Both the balancing boy and his playmate clearly know that this is an experiment that might fail, so they grasp hands. Both understand that this is only for added stability and not to catch the acrobatic partner. This assumption is supported by the fact that the spotter child is not in a position to make a catch, and they are both relaxed in the knowledge that the balancing child is skilled in making a safe landing. They also know that this game is not about rolling the barrel but rather on jumping off as the raised foot in anticipation clearly shows.  The final piece of evidence that these kids know how to take on a challenge safely is that both are aware that the amount of wood ballast is more than sufficient to provide the inertia needed to counter the force of the push off by the jumper.

All of this action is taking place in a matter of seconds. Here in the States, most preschool teachers would intervene and correct this learning moment as hazardous. During the many teacher programs at AnjiPlay attended by people from all over the world, participants are not only given background information about how such challenging play is essential to the development of competent children, but they also have the opportunity to see it in action. Seeing is believing.

While there are some colleges here that provide aspects of this approach, many do not. As we move more towards what Ms. Cheng calls “true play,” we will need to find ways and practical examples to help teachers who have not been given the education nor the direct experience with this type of programming.

I am currently working on a book called Kid Powered Learning that will be a workbook for teacher development to address this issue. My hope is to have it print later this year.

Here is the link to Suzanne Axelsson’s blog Interaction Imagination. This is one you should follow if you are a teacher, parent or play advocate.


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