May 3, 2019

Playing with the physical environment in teacher meetings

Katie Ertel & Idah Khan O’Neill

Today's post is co-authored by Katie Ertel (from Project Zero) and Idah Khan O’Neill, the Primary Years Programme Coordinator and a primary teacher at the International School of Billund, Denmark. Idah has been working as a teacher-researcher and study group facilitator with the Pedagogy of Play project since its inception in 2015.

On the Pedagogy of Play project, one of our beliefs about playful learning in schools is that a culture of playful learning for children requires a culture of playful learning for adults. At the International School of Billund (ISB), Denmark, educators are committed to creating and supporting an adult culture of playful learning. One of the places that the teachers have the opportunity to play is in study groups--small groups of teachers who meet regularly to explore questions around playful learning by documenting their practice. In these groups, teachers experiment with new ideas, imagine possibilities, take risks, and work through challenges.

And yet…what does that look like? How do you bring playfulness into teacher meetings when teachers are busy and adult meetings are often in the afternoon or evenings when teachers are tired? During the 2017-2018 school year, we -- Idah Khan O’Neill (from ISB) and Katie Ertel (from Project Zero) -- co-facilitated a study group of teachers at ISB, affectionately called the “Oddballs” due to the diverse range of roles they held at the school—classroom, specialist, and after school club teachers.

The Oddballs’ study group sessions met monthly from 16.00-18.00 in the afternoon in the ISB Conference Room. Several months into the school year, it seemed that study group members were learning from our time together, and that at least moments in each session were playful, but the sessions just did not have a sustained feeling of playfulness that we believed would contribute to our learning.

The Oddballs in the ISB Conference Room

How could we change this dynamic? Inspired by a playful environments planning tool made by our study group the previous year, we wondered if changing the physical environment of our study group sessions might help. We thought about how different environments set different expectations for how we act, feel, and think. Could cues in the environment engender a sense of choice, wonder, and delight [indicators of playful learning] among study group members? We contemplated where teachers might like to be in the late afternoon and considered cultural factors like hygge, a Danish word that roughly translates to having a good and cozy time with friends. The idea of a café came to mind. We associate a visit to a café with friends, deep conversations, good drinks, and agency. Just what we hoped for our study group sessions! We shared our idea to have a café with study group participants, gathering ideas and soliciting feedback.

Opening night at the Oddballs Café

For opening night at theOddballs Café, we adorned classroom tables with “table cloths” (fabric in the school’s Creator Space) and flameless candles used throughout the school. We put on music and made the agenda for the evening in the format of a menu. Over the course of the year, the café took on other forms, more and less elaborate, as the group evolved and different participants took turns bringing in snacks. One signature moment was a “wine” bar spa night, with bubbly (nonalcoholic) drinks. Another afternoon we hosted a movie night theme.

After the café’s opening night, it was clear that the changes to the physical environment had an impact on the teachers’ experiences. Liviu Sadevoac, a middle school physical education teacher, explained, “the idea of the café…it was really good for me. It was somehow, like, a mood, disconnecting from something, and trying to breathe, calm down, and express yourself from deep inside. Because if you're feeling stressed…you can miss something. So…I think it's really playful…I have learned a lot through it.” Sorina Mutu Donas, a Primary 4 teacher, commented, “I loved the set up: the music, the café, the coziness…you felt like you were just hanging out with your friends for a coffee, [like] you were just talking about how your kids are doing…It’s the state of mind.”

Scenes from the“Wine” Bar Spa Night at the Oddballs Café

We still wonder what exactly it was about the café that changed the nature of our learning, that contributed to the playful state of mind that Liviu and Sorina express. Was it that it activated feelings or memories we equate with a visit to cafés (a spa, a bar, the movies)? Or was the state of mind influenced by pretending we were somewhere else? Was it the novelty of doing something new or the novelty of being in an environment we don’t typically associate with school? Perhaps it was different for each of us.

Over time, and even into the next year, some group members remained enthusiastic about the cafés, while others seemed to grow tired of the pretense. We have learned on the Pedagogy of Play project that what is playful to one is not necessarily playful to another. Playing with learning environments is no exception. One study group member shared that the cafes were almost too relaxed, that as the year went on, she did not find that she was productive enough. Is there a point at which the playfulness can interfere with the learning? How do we find that sweet spot between play that enables us to enter a playful mindset and play that takes over our learning experience?