Monthly Archives: September 2013

discovering ‘play arcs’ – Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School

I wish I was 4 again and that I went to the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School (based in the US).  I found them on facebook through various play advocacy networks and have been captivated ever since at the way the teachers capture their work, the children at play but more so the magic and fun of childhood…working with children can be tiring and hard work but it’s also fun(ny)!

My favourite element of their Play365 series are the ‘#overheards’ where teachers document (with accompanying pictures) hilarious overheard snippets of children deep in play.   Some highlights…

“Go tell Spiderman we need her help!”

“I need one of you cheetah people to be human.”

“I am building a castle all the way to God so I can get my red balloon back and She better give it back to me!”

Source: Facebook – Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School

Source: Facebook – Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School

It is the staff’s sensitivity to the humorous but serious and deep narratives and storylines that run though children’s play that makes the School so enticing.  A term I have not heard before that is kind of synonymous with narrative or storyline is a ‘play arc’ – “basically the story line from a dramatic play scenario shaped by children, but it is so much more than just that”. I’ve copied below their latest blog post where they explain this concept further in such a beautiful framework of metaphors… This is educational observation at its best.

“If you watch how children move around and through a play space, in singles, pairs, or groups, you will see that they move with purpose and direction. Their play scenarios form a total immersion-bubble around them. This is why I call play scenarios, “play arcs.” I imagine the scenarios radiating around the children in circles that move with them. The circles overlapping with other circles, enveloping or bouncing off each other.

In the beginning stages of developing play arcs, children can thoroughly inhabit an imagined environment, but they cannot really embrace the subtleties of either the individual involvement of others or how the presence of others participating a different, but intersecting play arc.

They need time to play together in large groups to develop these skills. The social interaction and connections are part of what makes them truly ready for school. THIS IS WHAT WE HELP GROW. If adults misinterpret and then interrupt the interactions and connections that are formed by these overlapping arcs, then children are not able to practice and develop social play skills.

On this particular day, there were small and large play arcs.   A few children were digging together in the sandpit. Another set was at the campsite organizing a party. A third was on our loose parts climbing structure pretending to be soldier-spies on a ship. And a fourth set was in the Teahouse cleaning and cooking up a storm. There were a couple of independent players, each finding little moments and pursuits to occupy their time. These were the little play arcs and were pretty stationary as they were site specific.   Then there were some play arcs that involved movement. Two children were playing “Come on, let’s run!”. The only rule was to run, back and forth, the whole length of the yard and another, larger group were playing superheroes.

Source: Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School - play-arcs

Source: Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School – play-arcs

These moving play arcs bounced in and out of the stationary play arcs causing all of them to ripple and shimmer which required the children to respond to each other — exactly what we want to happen!   The shimmering is accompanied — at this point in their play development — by sparks. Again, they inhabit their imaginary worlds so thoroughly that they do not notice the details of each other’s play arcs and are not always able to fold in the play of others seamlessly, or on the other hand to disregard the intersection of other play arcs. The sparks fly out and around in comments like, “they won’t let us play” or “they are being mean to us,” which may set off alarm bells in an adult’s ears, but the children are often just simply working through the electric buzz and shimmer of their play arcs intersecting.

Children need time and space to make the all-important connections for play. Adults need to take the time to watch the flow and the radiating and intersecting lines of the children’s play arcs to establish how these may interact from moment to moment. Through observation, and with an understanding of how play skills develop over time, adults are able to carefully draw conclusions without overstepping. They can assist, when needed, in effective and specific conflict resolutions, without interrupting the natural flow of play.

Thank you to Takoma Park for giving us a new way of seeing and valuing our children at play.

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** Pinning Hopes **

I am a bit of a Luddite and find it hard to keep up with the numerous social media platforms and portals out there.  That said I’ve become a huge fan of Pinterest as a learning/teaching resource.   It is a really user-friendly digital scrapbook, perfect for pulling together ideas for play and projects….I’ve selected some of our favourite pins below and you can check out our page at hummingbird-childrens-centre














FOR MORE SEEhummingbird-childrens-centre


Loose parts – a teacher’s reflections

It is so great to hear feedback on our posts and see the impact knowledge sharing has in our ‘community of learning’.  I thought I should share this reflection from our reference group member Daniel Hutchinson – father of two young girls and a primary school and music teacher pursuing inventiveness in education…..

I was looking around the school for a place for my Grade 5 class to situate a gardening project, taking photos as I went along.  The search took me to neglected corners of the school grounds, including this area behind the kitchen. At the time, I assumed that these tyres had been strewn around or discarded and gave them no second thought, apart from perhaps observing that if we chose this site for our class garden, we would need to clear them all up. 


Later, and after reading the Just Playing blog on portables, pop-ups and loose parts, I saw this photo and these tyres differently. There is clearly evidence here of children at play. The tyres no longer appear random, and their meaning is plain: one can imagine stepping stones or a bridge, a pattern and a form. This game would possibly have had rules and a narrative all of its own, and the fact that it was played out of sight of teachers and other children, tucked around a corner in an unsanctioned space, gave it all the more allure and enhanced considerably the aura of fun and privacy.

While the tyres remain as a witness to the activity that took place, it takes an educator alert to the creative, transformational ability of children to see the value of what occurred here and to reconstruct the potential meanings of what may have happened. Not only the value of the “loose parts” that were selected and managed (note the large pile of tyres to the left that is left unused), but also the meaning to the child of encompassing an empty, marginal space.

As an educator, it is not necessary to direct, observe and document every moment of the child’s school experience, and it is good to leave space for other things to happen outside of the ambit of the classroom or the curriculum. To pick up clues of how children have remade and reinterpreted their school environment from traces left behind freely at play adds perspective to everything that we are trying to instil in our learners and all that we are trying to achieve in education. Providing undeveloped and unformed spaces to children for their undisturbed use and incorporating the creative potential of “loose parts” (by accident or design) makes for a potent learning environment, despite what the traditional playground or sports facility may have taught us to present to children. 

In this case, it may not be a garden behind the kitchen, but it has already been cultivated into something in the mind of the child.