August 9, 2019

Project Zero Classroom 2019 - A playful adventure of stepping into the unknown

Steph Nowack & Kgopotso Khumalo

Today's post comes from Steph Nowack and Kgopotso Khumalo. They are based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and are researchers at Care for Education, a non profit organization focusing on early childhood development and learning through play. Since October 2017 they have been active partners of Project Zero, working on the Pedagogy of Play project in South Africa.

Steph and Kgopotso in Cambridge for the Project Zero Classroom 2019

In 2017 an exciting project started in South Africa. The Pedagogy of Play team began a quest to find out what playful learning looks and feels like in three South African schools. Steph (a psychologist from Pretoria) and Kgopotso (a sociologist from Soweto) started working together two years ago as local researchers to explore wonderful playful learning moments in classrooms filled with Ubuntu. Interestingly, despite the different backgrounds, our work as researchers, our shared values as scholars and as life-long learners, were aligned to those held by Project Zero. So, when we heard about the opportunity to spend a week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be Fellows at the Project Zero Classroom 2019 (PZC 2019), we were curious to see how we ourselves would dive into a playful learning experience and feel a sense of ownership, curiosity and enjoyment.

Never having travelled to USA before, we found ourselves mentally preparing for this trip for a long time. We were excited and felt a sense of anticipation. We celebrated that we would be experiencing this adventure together. And yet, we felt a simultaneous hint of nervousness and anxiety as the date of departure crept closer. What if we would not understand concepts as fast as others? What if we felt uncomfortable in the unknown? Is this how students feel when stepping into a classroom, not knowing what to expect? We think that this concoction of emotion is what many students must encounter in school when trying to learn new concepts or being tasked with something that they do not understand. PZC 2019 had a great way to meet this unknown -- with play that enabled us to learn deeply and significantly. Perhaps we can use some of the PZC 2019 ideas to model how we engage with younger learners in the classroom.

Apart from the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of stepping into the unknown, we also expected the usual ‘pretend to listen to the presenter while jotting down some notes which you know you’ll never come back to’ or worse, listening to experts prescribing solutions to problems they have little knowledge of. Yet, we soon discovered that the PZC 2019 was quite different from the typical conference. From the first day we were reminded to think of this workshop as an ‘excursion to the beach, to comb through all the information and only take home things that apply to your specific context.' This not only became a theme for us throughout the week, but also a realization that this was a different kind of gathering of educators, practitioners and administrators. Apart from being able to listen to plenaries and attend mini-courses, we also had a chance to meet with our study groups where we engaged in thinking routines and reflected on how to apply what we had learned to our specific context. Are you kidding me - a classroom that values our thoughts? Now that’s refreshing!

We noticed that the mini-courses had a unique kind of facilitation. When tasked to build an airplane out of paper that had to travel a certain amount of distance with weights attached to it, we were given enough papers to try and test out our ideas without feeling scared to ‘mess up’ our first attempt. The facilitators did not try to convince us learners of a specific concept. Rather, we were encouraged to experience the concept ourselves. We were reminded of the importance of working in small groups and paying attention to group dynamics and having an individual document this process. We noticed how we, just like younger learners, looked to each other for help, learned together, experimented with our imagination, tried and tested out new ideas. We had opportunities to pause and reflect on our process.

In August, we are facilitating a workshop on the playful learning indicators developed with teachers at three South African schools. We have held this workshop before, and it was well received but we are thinking of how we can make it even more playful. Our heads are fizzing and buzzing with all the information we have learned at PZC. Yet, we have a direction on how to break all these ideas down into practical ideas. This is critical, as one can easily end up feeling so overwhelmed with everything one has soaked up, that one ends up doing nothing. Thankfully, we are already thinking of incorporating thinking routines and playful facilitation techniques into our workshops. We can make our workshops more playful and engaging. We used to think that our workshop was playful just because the content was playful. Now we think that we can push our participants even further. Make them think even harder and play with wild ideas.

What elements need to be at play to not only create such a safe learning zone but also a platform to think practically about the application in one’s own context? How was it possible that the gap between the anxious/unknown was filled so quickly with feelings of safety and believing in one’s capabilities? We think that the PZC 2019 was a deeply playful experience.  We experienced the learning as an inherently communal effort in which we felt encouraged to lead our learning, explore our wild ideas and support each other in the process. We had a platform to voice our own opinions and make the learning process significant for our personal contexts.

We hope to mirror this learning process in our own workshops. We anticipate creating a space that will be filled with curiosity and wonder. Not only do we want to introduce the indicators and practices of playful learning, but we hope that from this workshop, educators will aspire to nurture critical thinking and creativity in their own school and work environments. Arguably the most important lesson we learned at PZC 2019 is that for our young learners to be playful, we as adults need to have a wild and playful mind first.