Play as spiritual practice

I was, when it first launched, not a fan of the Hungry Little Minds campaign: its wording reminded me to the point of embarrassment of the platitudes I have spouted at Parents’ Evenings, and the refrain of every little thing you do together will help set them up nicely for the day they start school suggested that none of the aspirations of the 1980s and 90s about Early Years not being a preparation for later schooling had been heeded. This link, for example, takes you to ECF, the Early Chidlhood Forum, or at least to an overview of its history, and this takes you to its 2016 charter.

However, there are two things I see on the two posters I pass regularly: two wonderful smiling children. In this first one, Is there a tiger under the flap? the child is focussed, excited, showing (it seems to me) a real enjoyment at the experience of sharing a book. Resolutely Early Years in its focus, this sums up, for me, some key elements in these stages of learning to read: enjoying their own expectations, engaged with a book the image at least suggests they found engrossing and funny.

And in this one, I’m so glad we had this chat, the happiness is accompanied by what looks to me to be a smile of recognition: along with the excitement of entertainment is the absolutely vital element of relationship. So I am revising my feelings about these posters and the Hungry Little Minds project in total, and seeing them, as we stumble through the treacle of guidance – and lack of it, and mendacity, and goodness knows what – as a real contribution to recognising some of the wonderful work that relating to children does at home and in settings.

In the light of some very odd interventions – the SoS suggesting children should face the front, plans from serving teachers being given some prominence (and cash for the project, extending into next year), and rhetoric from both major parties about children losing out and catching up, not to mention sight of the new EYFS for the “early adopters” (a helpful comparison is in this blog post) – it seems to me that these posters show an important element in young children’s communication: delight.*

A long time back in my blogging history I did some thinking about spirituality and proposed writing about Play as spiritual practice for young children and I return (as I have in lectures; as I did time and again as a practitioner with 3-5 year olds) to Tina Bruce’s idea of play having a strong theme of wallowing in ideas and feelings.

In control of their ideas yet sending sparks with their imagination (a far cry from the new Goals, where imagination is apparently subordinate to cultural replication), a child at play is a learner alive with possibilities. Interesting to note, I think, how many metaphors I felt I needed for that one sentence: to be more straightforward, play is complex, dynamic – and I am sent back again to the post I wrote about teaching spirituality. I have asked before (in my old blog, linked here) about whether the idea of “dizzy” play and Roger Caillois’ model of the whirlpool are referring to the same phenomemon; whether play is in the ownership of the child because the child is wallowing out of the reach of the controlling adult. More metaphors; and they don’t hold together. Some steps back, then…

…and I come back to this notion of delight. When I wrote (about four years ago) that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities perhaps what I might now add is that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its potential to delight. Why might this be important?

I suppose “delight” seems better than “fun.” Is this just a deep-seated Puritanism in me? Perhaps – but it also has an idea of irresistible attraction (St Augustine cites Vergil with the line Trahit sua quemque voluptas, everyone is drawn by their own delight although the context for the original [the dementia of hopeless love] is not especially apt). Lost in the magic of play, rather than giggling at the comic exploit.

Tina Bruce’s ideas come in here very well, and the final of her twelve features of free-flow play is of especial relevance:

Children at play co-ordinate their ideas and feelings and make sense of relationships with family, friends and culture. Play is an integrating mechanism which allows flexible, adaptive, imaginative, innovative behaviour. Play makes children into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

Tina Bruce (2004) Developing Learning in Early Childhood – this itself is an expansion of ideas in, for example, her 1991 book Time to Play.

Interiorised, relational sense-making, holistic formation of the human, seems an important part of most recent definitions of spirituality – and helping, by this, to create a way of balance. Very close to the notion of the spiritual I have explored before where Tony Eaude writes of personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose.

Jerome Bruner’s (complex, lengthy) essay on Why Play Evolved in Animals and Man in his (et al) compilation Play (Penguin 1976) discusses Bentham’s use of the phrase Deep Play:

Deep play is playing with fire. It is the kind of serious play that tidy and even permissive institutions for educating the young cannot live with happily, for their mandate from the society requires them to cary out their work with due regard for minimizing chagrin concerning outcomes achieved. And deep play is a poor vehicle for that.

Serious play. A vehicle for teaching the nature of a society’s convention and a contest between troubled human culture (“degrading the biosphere, failing to cope with population, permitting technology to degrade individuality, and failing to plan” [Yes this was written in 1972]) and modelling new lifestyles. This is a window into children’s play and adolescent play that looks at play as sociological formation and interpretation. The links to spiritual development seem to me to be about the kind of relational aspects I have garnered sources for recently. Where do I fit in? What is the world I am working to shape, and which is shaping me? These are much like Helen Hedges’ questions in her chapter Whose Goals and Interests? in Engaging Play (Brooker and Edwards 2010):

  • What will I do when I’m bigger?
  • What do intelligent, responsible and caring adults do?
  • How can I make special communications with people I know?
  • How can I make and communicate meaning?
  • How can I understand the world I live in?
  • How can I develop my physical and emotional well-being?
  • What is special about my identity in the place I live in?

These are not a million miles from the concerns that run through a lot of books – from, say, Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, and one of the problems about such a broad spread of notions around spirituality is that everything can be seen as having a spiritual aspect, and we run the risk of nothing being particularly spiritual. It’s a real risk: when everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody, as Gilbert’s Grand Inquisitor puts it. But play (according to Bruce) is an integrating mechanism with intrinsic motivation and deep concentration that allows a child to be immersed in their activity, an activity arising from their own agenda. Intensely personal, rather than a space for a child to conform to an adult need. While “adult agenda” often suggests to Early Years practitioners the more formal, teacher-led aspects of school experience, there is also a danger in describing play in terms of a forum for children to ask big questions. Eaude, cited above, has a warning when he talks of fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose. His idea that this exploration and development is conscious or otherwise means, for me, that we do not have to squeeze our theoretical expectations out of children like this.

I am reminded of my first class, a Reception class suffering the visitation from a local Secondary Head (incidentally my first experience of secondary mansplaining in that he told us all [including my own headteacher] that he was in charge of all our curricula), where he bent over one child and asked “So what have you been learning today?” to which the child replied “That’s a very difficult question to ask someone who’s only four.” For children engaged in play the answer at the end of a nursery day might be “I went in the garden with Sam,” or “I got paint on my shirt.”

So let’s look again at these charming and photogenic children. They are shown engrossed and delighted in their activities: sharing a book, having a chat. Similar expressions are well known by anyone who even looks at a child gazing out of the window on a bus. The adult response – the serve and return of communication is crucial, and in the best cases, returns the same delight. When in the observations culled from being with my grandchildren I see something delightful – something that gives me joy – I hope I respond well enough. I often remember with a pang a child who came up to me to ask me something, took one look at me and said

Is this a “in a minute” minute?

Sue Waite’s 2011 article in Education 3-13 looks specifically at a pedagogy founded in a reawakening of joy in learning…the positive emotions encoraged by a rich sensory environment. She is outdoors of course: this is Sue Waite – but she makes a point applicable throughout Early Years pedagogy when she warns, in the tradition of Bruce and others that,

Contributing to, without commandeering, play situations for learning is a delicate skill and may run counter to practitioner’s expectations…The values expressed by practitioners included freedom, fun, authenticity, autonomy and physicality and were reflected in examples of child-led, real-life experiential pedagogies engaging the enthusiasm of children and adults. Nevertheless, these examples were framed by an acute awareness of external requirements and at times conflict was reported between personal aspirations and practice, the ideal and the real.

Teaching and learning outside the classroom: personal values, alternative pedagogies and standards (Education 3-13 Volume 39, 2011)

Neither the child glad to have had this chat nor the one looking a for the tiger under the flap could, I believe, have shown that delight without an element of shared enthusiasm. Our awareness of external requirements should not be allowed to chip away at what is the core of education for me: the spiritual aspect of working with children helping them grow into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

But maybe this isn’t just the mission of the Early Years educator: maybe this is how we should look at our lives, in our families, in the shop queue, when we tun to social media. And we are back to my friend and colleague Jon Reid’s examen I have mentioned before: three ways I have shown myself some care; three ways I have cared for others; three ways I have experienced some care from others. Back to the compassion at the heart of ethical practice…

***

*It is worth noting that Alison Peacock – who contributed to the new EYFS and welcomes the changes to the curriculum – writes of the task of Reception as “joyful,” in part, I think, because of the restored primacy of teachers’ freedom to use their knowledge of the children and their expert judgement to offer a wonderful Early Years experience for all.

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