Playfulness in Schools
by Kristy Wood
Children are naturally playful, so working with children should be enjoyable and fun. Many teachers that I know joined the profession because of a love they had for children. Yet once in the job, this enjoyment and playfulness isn’t necessarily part of their daily experience. So the question does need to be asked, why?
I am not going to try and present the answer for this question. It is just something worth us pondering on.
As children we have a very natural curiosity and sense of playfulness. We are learning about the world, about people and about ourselves. We view the world as a place of discovery and we learn by engaging, trying different things, observing, making mistakes and learning from these. In my experience children have a natural openness, empathy and understanding towards others, if they haven’t experienced excessive trauma or abuse. A lot is learnt through their interactions with others, as it is our human nature to want to connect with others.
If we consider schooling from the perspective of a child, where there is a natural curiosity and lightness towards life, do we embrace this essence of the child in the way we educate them? Is there a sense of fun, discovery, laughter, joy and connectedness in the interactions we have in our classrooms each day?
Do we continue to do this beyond the play based early childhood years? Or in our systems that are focused on outcomes, assessment and teachers constantly having to prove the achievement of results, do we lose touch with the joy children bring and override the importance of this by getting through the curriculum? What is the real quality of that learning process? Do we have the time to sit with children and allow them the space to share their understandings, observations and discoveries? Or has it become about managing behaviour and trying to get the children to retain information?
In my experience many children are expressing that they feel parents and teachers just don’t have the time to listen to them, they are too busy doing the ‘other stuff’. This is a reflection of our times that impacts on many families and communities from all walks of life. It is not endemic to one group alone.
Today the role of a teacher has become very demanding and quite intense at times. Many teachers express that they are trying to do too many things at once. In this it can become quite easy to fall into a pattern of just getting through the day and going through the motions in an attempt to cope with it all. It is also reported that the teaching profession has alarmingly high rates of stress, depression and teacher burnout.
Jo Earp in her article, A breeding ground for stress and burnout, states that “Teachers are overloaded with paperwork, time that’s required to prepare classes, the reports for assessments and parent-teacher interviews, and deadlines for submitting grades and the constant marking of assessments and similar tasks. Then the other stresses of actually being in a classroom with little teacher assistance; having diverse classrooms with lots of students that have very special needs, and the teacher being expected to cater for all these diverse needs. The teachers who are really committed and dedicated work too long, too hard and too intensely and are then vulnerable to burnout”.
She then goes on to describe “burn out is the point at which all your normal coping mechanisms have been exceeded. In other words, there is emotional exhaustion and nothing left to give. Another component of burn out is depersonalization, when a person starts to distance themselves from the job. A teacher becomes less sympathetic towards their students, they have less tolerance for any classroom disruptions, and they don’t prepare their lessons as well and are not committed to their work”.
At a recent workshop, I was talking about burnont and exhaustion with a group of teachers. Each individual teacher could relate to having experienced this at some point in their teaching career. Then a feeling of just going in there and getting through the grindstone of the day, which was very different to their initial impulse to become a teacher. Many of the teachers shared that they initially went into teaching because they had a love for children and really enjoyed being with kids. On reflection of this they noted that this was not how they were operating on a daily basis, that we had lost sight of the joy children bring and this was not being embraced as part of their classroom practice or in the general way things are done in schools.
On reflecting on their own childhood experiences, they shared stories of having learnt about life through experiences of trial and error, making mistakes, trying new things. They all shared experiences of trying things out of intrigue- some to good consequences and some to not so good consequences. It is important for us to stay connected to our own experiences as children and how we learnt. What our intentions were in doing things and how this could be perceived differently and reacted to by the adults around us, especially if the adults didn’t have the time to see what was really going on.
On reflecting on their own experiences as children the teachers started to comment that in the ‘busyness’ of their day, they too didn’t have the time to listen too or understand what was really going on for the children in their classrooms. This point is not made for teachers to then give themselves a hard time or put extra pressure on them to ‘be' or 'do’ more. Quite the opposite actually, teachers do have a demanding job so it is important that we create moments to stop and appreciate ourselves first and foremost. To create moments in our days, where practical, to do things that will support us in our day. This can be in the simple things like stopping to have lunch if you are hungry or not waiting until after 3pm to stop and go to the toilet.
When we start to create stops and moments for ourselves then we are more refreshed to go back in and deal with the demands of the classroom. It can also be beneficial to create these ‘moments’ in your day with the children. The impact of this on the level of intensity and dynamics in the classroom can be great. It is important that you find what works for you and your students, it may be sitting in a circle each day and just talking, giving the children a time to share their stories and enjoy being with each other.
It is a wonderful thing to bring a sense of joy, fun and playfulness back into our classrooms and schools, as this is a very natural expression and way of being for children. This sense of lightness, enjoyment, openess and fun is also something we need more of as adults. The ability to not take life so seriously but to really enjoy the moments we have with people and see life as a continuous learning process and something to be enjoyed.
It is possible in our current context to claim the momentum of our classrooms and the way in which we engage with children. Playfulness does not mean having a class party on the last day of term and letting kids do as they please and letting down the boundaries. Playfulness is something that can be brought into our everyday classroom practice. It is in the simple things, the way we greet the kids in the morning, the way we talk to them, the ability to see the humour in things that happen (though never at the expense of anyone), allowing moments for spontaneous learning and the creating of opportunities to talk and connect and expressing the joy of being with each other. It is in the way we look at a child and the way we engage with them. Do we really see them when we hand them a book or give them an instruction or are we busy, not quite present and already in the next thing, in the next moment?
As teachers we may not have the freedom to determine what it is that we need to address each day but we do have the freedom to determine the quality in which we will do it and the quality in which we will engage with the children in our class. Is it possible that if we started to bring more focus and importance to the quality of the interactions in our classrooms and started to express more joy and allowed ourselves to have fun, there would be more presence and a greater quality to our interactions with children, that most would respond too, and we would have to spend less time managing behaviours?
I understand there will still be challenging elements to the job and this will never cease. However, we can start to change how we look after ourselves and then bring this quality to the classroom and make the choice to have moments to connect and enjoy the day. This also then supports us to respond to these challenges we are faced with and be more able to deal with them.
Working and being with children is an amazing and joyful experience, this can be the essence of our classrooms if we choose to allow our own enjoyment and playfulness to be expressed.