June 10, 2019

Playful learning leads to celebration leads to playful learning

Sidsel N. Overgaard

Sidsel is the Senior Communications Manager at the International School of Billund and parent to two ISB primary students. She has been with PoP since we began in 2015.

As a long-serving member of the administration of the International School of Billund (ISB)--long-serving being a relative term at a six-year-old school--I know this place pretty well. I was here for the inception of the Pedagogy of Play (PoP) project and watched as the Indicators of Playful Learning evolved from a three-ring circus of choice, wonder, and delight into the lovely three-petaled flower they are today. I’ve written a small library of handbooks, know where we keep the extra ice packs, and, yes, I do have a few ideas of where you could try looking for little Emily’s lost jacket. But most importantly (no offense, lost jacket), as part of the communications team, I get to be a frequent visitor to the classroom, where I have helped to document many wonderful examples of playful learning.

And yet, each year toward the beginning of May, I am introduced to ISB all over again.

Image courtesy of ISB.

May is when we hold our annual PoP Celebration of Learning, an evening dedicated to exploring and teaching, singing and eating, silliness and seriousness. In short, the Celebration is a moment in time that embodies, on a school-wide level, a core principle of PoP, that play and playfulness thrive in supportive school cultures.

About half of ISB’s teachers participate in PoP study groups throughout the year, meeting monthly to investigate a variety of questions related to learning through play. This year, their questions included:

·      How does the use of pretense influence learning? 

·      What if we thought of Kindergarten as the R&D wing of the school? 

·      How can we use play to improve inclusiveness? 

·      What if we harnessed playful learning to make student reflections more meaningful?

(For a snappy overview of each group’s work, check out these movie trailers).

In advance of the Celebration, each study group creates a display explaining members’ questions and their resulting discoveries (or further questions). The displays may include student quotes, photos, audio interviews, or video documentation. This year, several groups synthesized their learning into tools to be pocketed by colleagues for future reference. Each group also hosts a 40-minute deep-dive into some of its questions (the only difficult part of the evening comes in having to choose which workshop to attend).

During the celebration teachers have time to browse all the displays and reading materials before choosing two workshops to attend.  Among this year’s playful workshop activities: an “escape room” challenge about inclusiveness and parent collaboration. Images courtesy of ISB.

Even for those of us who think we have a good understanding of what’s going on around here, this exhibit never ceases to amaze. Every Celebration is an evening of surprises and inspiration, both for study group members who may not always be aware of what other groups are working on, and for the rest of us who, despite working under the same roof as these teacher-researchers, may not always grasp the depth of their insights.

The MYP study group presented their “reflection wheel” intended to make student reflections more purposeful. Image courtesy of ISB.

On a personal level, not only does the Celebration provide fuel for another year of tours, articles, and posts about PoP, but as an ISB parent, it thrills me to see how deeply my children’s teachers are reflecting on their practice and striving to innovate with each new day. 

Although the Celebration is a staff-only affair, it is in recognition of the exhibition’s powerful potential energy that we have started a new tradition of hosting an open house for parents and community members on the following day. While it can be hard to break through busy family schedules, attendance has grown in the two years we’ve held the open house, and we are confident it will continue to increase as word gets out about the level of inspiration on offer.

Parents also got to have a go at the escape room the next day. Image courtesy of ISB.

We like to talk about paradoxes in PoP, and I would suggest that an energizing paradox lies hidden inside the Celebration itself. That is, that while each display aims to illustrate the pedagogical risks being taken by individual teachers in the name of playful learning, the cumulative effect is to make the whole PoP endeavour feel less risky by demonstrating the overarching care with which those risks are taken. As that feeling of security grows, our community becomes ever more supportive and, with that support, ISB teachers are free to progress even farther down the path of playful learning.