Learning To Read Play

I have been reading the book Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio Inspired Practices in All Schools by Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardel, Melissa Rivard and Daniel Wilson. In an early discussion with a colleague we focused on the following quote in the forward by Deborah Meier.

I have enjoyed following the Reggio Emilia work but am sometimes put off by the amount of documentation involved. In Visible Learners I came to understand how documentation serves many different purposes, all focused on making the student and his or her learning more visible. It is this visibility that enables parents and teachers, teachers and students, and teachers and other colleagues to join together better in making the world more visible to the student. We can see with our eyes and be blind to what is in front of us far too easily in most classrooms…

Deborah Meier, Forwards to Visible Learners

This raised the question how do we use documentation to make learning visible and further, do we use documentation to see deeper, to ‘see what is in front of us’.

I thought back to four years ago when I first joined the Early Years teaching team. One of my driving questions that pushed me to make the shift to Early Years was the question of how do we learn through play. On one level it is obvious. When in a healthy, nurturing environment, children intrinsically play. This is their natural mode to engage and explore with the world. But how was I to meaningfully leverage play for learning without taking it over and turning it into something else. I think I was focused on the rhetoric of play for identity. To teach through play, I decided I needed to learn how to read play.

The people I reached out to with the question, where do I go to learn to read play, kept coming back to me with the same answer, check out Fairy Dust Teaching. I signed up for their Deep Play: The Architect of the Brain workshop. In that I found this graphic depicting the stages of play.

On the left it lays out stages of play. On the right it provides provocations to engage and scaffold the play, and if done right, without taking over the play. In the centre is described the cognitive actions that are being activated in the different stages. This is what I was looking for. But how do I utilize this knowledge other than in a passive, reflective way? How do I make the implicit explicit. For that I created the following document.

click here to view

On the left are the stages of play. On the right are prompts to the teacher pointing to provocation I can put forth. This became my training wheels as I began to intentionally learn to both read a child’s play and to engage in play with them – scaffolding without taking over. It gave me a tool to engage in the learning moving it forward. In this way the documentation became truly formative, using the documentation to inform the next step. It was also a tool to develop shared understandings, I could share the documentation with co-teachers and parents. Starting with this document we began to create a shared language to discuss play in our reflections and planning.

A Play Story

Here is a narrative of one play journey we were a part of as we learned to read and scaffold play.

Assessment phase: Looking at what is there to do?

There was a student who was new to the school and new to India. This was her first time out of her home country. She spent a long time in the Assessment phase, looking at what is there to do. She would roam around the play spaces moving between the blocks to the dolls to the water table, to the books.

Fascination stage: what can I do with it?

One day she became fascinated with a pair of scissors. These were the colourful plastic kind that cut zig zags and wavy lines. She cut designs, and patterns. She cut strips of paper just to cut strips of paper. She cut card paper, she cut tissue paper. She tried to cut cardboard. It didn’t work.

Occupation stage: how can this fit my plans?

Then, a few days later, the scissors became a hairdresser’s scissors, and she began sitting her peers down, interviewing them as to how they wanted their hair cut as other peers started lining up for their turn, as you would do at a hairdresser. The discussions, the rich vocabulary and the connections she was now making with her peers were beautiful and enriching. I remember one conversation where a student of African origin noted how her hair was “scrunchy and bouncy” like her mom’s and her sister’s hair was but her friend, who was of European origins, hair was straight and “not scrunchy.” This student noted that her hair was like her mom’s and her sister’s. This student driven inquiry into ethnicity and similarities and differences was beautiful and honest.

Articulation Stage: how can this be transformed?

This began to spur on grade level wide projects. The hairdresser was so busy, she now needed a cashier. Money was starting to be cut out and labeled. She was so busy she needed an assistant who would counsel customers on the hair styles they wanted so when they got to the hairdresser they already knew what they wanted. The play dough pizza shop was starting next door exchanging the same money. Then, the lockdown started and it all stopped. I wish I had been wise enough then and comfortable enough in the Zoom classroom to help create the space for this to continue. This is the current nature of my challenge. Any ideas are welcome.

The continuation of the quote above reads,

…But the careful and shared documentation that is described on these pages makes it harder to maintain the view that such documentation is a luxury—a time-consuming form of public relations. In fact, such documentation can, in the long run, be a time-saver when learner and teacher get a clearer picture of what is going on.

Deborah Meier, Forwards to Visible Learners

The form I created was not for reporting, though I do outline the child’s journeys in their play on their report cards. It was a tool to see, to make the implicit explicit. And it helped me develop my literacy of play.

Fairy Dust Teaching, Retrieved: 25/10/20, (https://io156.infusionsoft.app/app/orderForms/Deep-Play?cookieUUID=d584936f-b62c-4831-99d5-7eb399b0a329).

The International Baccalaureate Organization (2018) The Learner, Cardiff, The International Baccalaureate Organization.

Krechevsky, M., Mardel, B., Rivard, M., Wilson, D., (2013) Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio Inspired Practices in All Schools, Project Zero, Harvard School of Education.

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