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Latest blog: Reflecting on Gopnik's play being "an act of spontaneous exuberance"

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Friday, 28 April, 2017

I am at work with a copy of Alison Gopnik's new publication "The Gardener and the Carpenter" and a little blue, plastic pony.

The book is a treat in anticipation of hearing Gopnik speak at our Early Education conference in May. I thought that I would read her words before hearing her speak and I am glad I made that decision because of the richness I am finding within. The little pony on the other hand is a handed down, well loved, quite grubby, plastic, duck egg blue pony with matted hair. It was put in my hand today, instructing me to take it to work, as if perhaps I would find time to play.

So I have been reading Alison Gopnik and I glance at the little pony, whilst reflecting and pondering on the brain food that is written by Gopnik, a scientist, philosopher, parent and grandmother. I love having food for thought from something new and this paragraph really struck a chord with me

It's a truism that children learn though play. But how do they do it, and why? By definition, play is an act of spontaneous exuberance that isn't designed to accomplish much of anything in particular. And yet the ubiquity of play in childhood suggests that it must be serving some special function...

In fact, just about everybody thinks that children should have time to play. But playtime is one of the first things to go when we start legislating children's lives...

(Gopnik, page 13)

Already a thought-provoking read from this wise scientific philosopher and mother. 

Motherhood, teaching and writing is a combination that I love. I am forever intrigued and fascinated at the many connections, playful moments and learning experiences a child will discover. I find myself, when I can, reflecting upon these moments. For instance, when farm animals are placed on the floor, how does a child decide which one to pick up and engage in play with, how will their play twist and turn, what will occur and what new discoveries and brain connections will they make?

At home, I am surprised by the moments found between the regular routines like dressing, brushing teeth and going to bed, for example. There have been moments spent discovering how to put pegs on a plastic egg (left over from Easter) to make a hedgehog. Yesterday there was a moment singing and making up new words about current experiences to a familiar tune. I am fascinated at how every possible opportunity for exploring and discovering is maximised. I think that this playfulness is inspirational. It is exuberant. It is spontaneous. 

At home and at school I often think about how I might (or should) respond (or not) in that moment to make the most of these moments of opportunity. My brain becomes a jumble of pedagogical thoughts and questions, with theories and ideas whirring around all at once, whilst I simultaneously decide whether to step in and respond, or not. Some questions in my head might include

  • do I stop them walking over that really wobbly tower of blocks?
  • should I ask them to play more quietly?
  • is it ok that they wave those sticks around?
  • will those toys get lost if I let them transport them?
  • what if they hurt someone?

How I respond will affect the exuberance and spontaneity these children demonstrate. Young children seem to love discovering novel ideas and new ways of doing things when playing (in that "act of spontaneous exuberance"). They enthuse and energise me as an adult learner to keep finding out and improving my practice. How is it that children approach things with fresh eyes and excitement? How is it that they enter a new environment (and even new worlds) with glee and anticipation? Gopnik says

Childhood is designed to be a period of variabilty and possibilty, exploration and innovation, learning and imagination. (Gopnik, page 15)

My mind is full of 'wonderings' as I think and reflect on how I really helped children explore, innovate and take their play to further possibilities. I wonder about if I had helped a child to make a wild animal land where they could roar at their hearts’ content following their spontaneous play idea. I wonder about if I had found more toy dragons that could fight each other, would it have helped to further extend their dramatic, exuberant play. I wonder about if I had been able to find more balls that I could roll back to the child who was fully immersed in hitting them everywhere.

I shall end with this quote from the book

Just as we should give children the resources and space to play, and do so without insisting that play will have immediate payoffs, we should do the same for scientists and artists and all the others who explore human possibilities. (Gopnik, page 251)

Which of course includes us, do you think?


Further reading and information

The ways in which the child engages with other people and their environment – playing and exploring, active learning, and creating and thinking critically – underpin learning and development across all areas and support the child to remain an effective and motivated learner. (Page 4, Development Matters)

  • Find out more about coming to our Community of practice twilights where you have opportunity to reflect and talk about teaching

Cathy Gunning is the Pedagogic Lead for Early Education. She is an accredited coach mentor with the Centre for Educational Leadership at the University of Hertfordshire. She works part time for Early Education as well as being a part time nursery teacher and mum. She has previously been a primary teacher, early years coordinator and day nursery manager. Most recently she was a nursery school headteacher where she developed and led an integrated centre - including all year daycare and a children's centre - with an inspiring team for over 10 years. Her pedagogy was nurtured and inspired particularly during her years as an advisory teacher and whilst studying for a masters degree in early years education with care. As a reflective practitioner and leader she enjoys continually learning about effective pedagogy in early education and refining her approaches through research, practice, reflection and collaborative conversation. As she grows in age and practice, she is aware of the many more questions yet to ask and discover.