Tag Archives: play

Pop Up and Play Jozi holiday club

We’ve been doing adhoc Pop Up & Play sessions since I last wrote about it in March and after a session in August at David Webster Park, Troyeville we were invited by City of Johannesburg Community Development and Region F Sport and Recreation to run the school holiday club at the end of September.  We were really pleased and grateful for the invitation from local government to provide this space and experience for children.  They are greatly needed in communities where parents are under pressure to provide appropriate care for children because they cannot afford extra holiday care.  Our model also helps reclaim spaces in the city that were planned for children’s use but have been taken over by adults and used for anti-social activities such as drug abuse and prostitution.  We need to ensure an adult presence in these spaces but a presence that does not seek to control and regiment children’s play.


We had around 45 kids passing through over the week with 30 or so ‘regulars’.  Our sessions ran from 10am-2pm, staffed by myself, Siphokaze and Linda – our playworkers in training who did a fantastic job.  The idea behind these sessions is to provide a safe space and the resources for children to engage in child-directed play.  During the week we made kites (the old fashioned way), masks, swords, wands, read stories, painted,  played drums, walked the slackline and on the last day were moved and entertained by the amazing children’s dance and drama team from Buzz.


My main observation of the week is that the kids initially came with the expectation that this was another version of school or aftercare, ready for command and instruction.   We laid out materials and assumed the children would just get on and play but I initially found, too often for my liking, that I was asked ‘what should I paint?’, ‘what should I make?’, even ‘how must we play with this…”.  The kids in the group were of primary school age, older than the 2-6 cohort I usually work with.  I wondered whether the schooling environment had made them lose their innate playfulness and creativity, or whether the presence of us adults changed the way they played as they assumed some kind of pressure to perform, to be correct or felt that they were being assessed.


I soon realised our main task was letting them realise they have all the ideas and they are free to explore them, that they have the capacity and ability and just needed the confidence, encouragement and freedom to explore that.  While I spend a lot of time advocating for and explaining ‘child-directed’ play to adults it was a surprise to have to ‘explain’ (through play) the approach to children themselves.


It also took days for the children to stop asking if they could please go to the toilet, if they could go and wash their hands and to stop calling me Ma’am and Miss.  I know this was both an ingrained habit and a show of respect and I appreciated it but in a play-based environment I would like to be seen as an adult and their equal.  This is an interesting topic and one of contention for many in a culture that really holds onto the ‘respect your elders’ mantra.  I totally agree with respecting your elders, naturally, but that respect must come from a place of mutual understanding and not one of fear and blind obedience.


A week later I came across a wonderful (lengthy!) blog post by the wonderful Teacher Tom called “Why I Teach the Way I Do’ (which is inspiration for a million blog posts to come).  His ideas around  democracy, freedom and obedience in the learning environment really resonated and articulated my feelings around these issues.  I’ve pulled out and paraphrased some excerpts below:

“I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. … We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed…..we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.”

“Our society has collectively, through our Constitution, cast its lot with Locke, and in this view if we are still born needing our fellow humans, and specifically our parents, it does not mean that they are our superiors. Indeed they are more experienced and physically capable, but it doesn’t follow that we are subservient to them: we are born in a state of equality and freedom and we need our fellow humans. It is a challenging idea for some, this idea that adults can keep children safe and prepare them for citizenship without authoritarian tools because, quite obviously, the influence of Hobbes is still with us. It’s impossible for some to understand how a child can grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen without the constant anticipation of the carrot and fear of the stick.”

“Our job, then, is not to “tell” children or “instruct” children, but rather to keep them safe and informed as they explore their world through play, learning as they go everything they need to know, including values and morals.  Some still insist, however, that for their own good we must “train” children to obey our parental commands, to react without question to our words: “Stop!” “Come here!” “Sit there!” much in the way one trains a dog. (I’m sorry that this metaphor offends people, but I stand by its aptness.) If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor.  This, however, is emphatically not the world for which I’m preparing children. The habits of blind obedience, of trained reactions to the commands of others, flies in the face of our democratic experiment: they are a danger both to the child and ultimately to the rest of us who count on our fellow citizens to be equal and free. Obedience is not a democratic value.”

“Being child-directed is about creating a physical and intellectual space in which children “tell you” when they are ready to expand their experiences; not commanding them, not drilling them, not testing them, but simply narrating, filling their world with facts.”

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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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