Reflecting on the Value of Solid Observations of Play

I was at work on the day I was invited to write this blog and a quick lunchtime glance at my inbox plunged me abruptly into a, ‘where to start’ crisis prompting a knee-jerk reaction to turn to the nearest child and ask their thoughts about differences between work and play. This is what Kayla (6:1) had to say,

‘The difference between play is when you get to do whatever you want but the difference between work is when you do what the teacher says. That’s the difference!’

Kayla, 12 October 2020

Hmmmm. So, there we have it, Kayla’s voice, just one voice, but a big voice, eloquently and powerfully communicating a big feeling that I cannot help but feel, is one shared, although not necessarily vocalised, by many. This blog looks at how the children in the Montessori setting where I work might be responding to tensions caused by feelings such as those articulated by Kayla. It wonders (and wanders) ‘out loud’, telling a tale of how a recent personal (work/play?) research project I undertook in Kayla’s classroom led me to re-direct my own gaze towards hitherto hidden spaces where I found children were combining play and their own (this bit is important!) work, successfully creatively, deeply. I suggest that it is in these places where we as practitioners might, if we look hard enough, find a wealth of resources to help us demonstrate to children like Kayla how much we care, trust and value all the choices they are making in the environment with the interests of the group in mind (Montessori, 1967).

And, so, with Kayla’s searing words ringing in my ears, accompanied by the image of her standing before me, hands on hips, legs slightly parted, defiant and glorious, as she speaks, I (re-)begin my blog post with a second question, sorry…

‘Is play being subjugated to the hidden curriculum?’ I ask. Must play, in order to survive, slip into and between the spaces overtly and crucially occupied by, ‘doing what the teacher says’? Has play gone underground?

Montessori’s perceptions on play are complex, occasionally contradictory (1972; 2012), often misunderstood and frequently misinterpreted, resulting in a somewhat antipathetic collective understanding today, shaped perhaps more so by her critics than her proponents. In an interesting article comparing Montessori with Vygotsky, Bodrova (2003), contributes to this misapprehension in my mind, by describing Montessori as not seeing play as, ‘an essential component of the classroom’ (2003:32). For Montessorians across the globe however I believe that it is strongly agreed upon that Montessori saw exactly the same potency in play as did Vygotsky, seeing it as the very foundational structure to the child’s construction of self, and as such, carefully and meticulously negotiated the antagonistic dyad of work/play, ‘By bringing together materials which unite work and play’ (Elkind, 2009:12).

Reading recently, for the first time, The Tao of Montessori, I was struck by McTamaney’s use of the term, ‘Montessori prep school’ (2005: 19). That’s where I work, I said to myself. We are fortunate in that most of the children in our little one-class school in Switzerland stay with us for all three years of the cycle. Joining at 3 years old, sometimes a little younger, and leaving at approximately 6 years to either join the state school system, or one of the many private bilingual schools where they will follow one of various different international curricula programs. Very few children who leave us continue on beyond the age of 6/7 years with Montessori education. The joy of sharing those three years with each child is bitter-sweet, however, there is trade-off, as I see with sadness, how, with each successive year that a child spends with us, the ante is upped in terms of the classroom culture’s foregrounding of ‘preparation’ for future schooling. Increasingly and implicitly at first, a hierarchical system of value is imposed upon a child’s available choices in the environment, and it is this valuing of some activities over and above others I see as undermining the integrated work/play harmony, teasing it apart and molding ‘it’ into the two discrete categories, shaping and mirrored by perceptions such as Kayla’s. the tale I tell here in this blog is how a re-directed gaze led me to see that play is still happening and what’s more, that it is still unequivocally and inextricably entangled with the child’s work.

During my research project in the classroom I increased my normal working hours by one whole day each week (unpaid). This enabled me to step back from my role as ‘teacher’ and better embrace my new role of ‘researcher’ (I was already far too ‘native’ and deeply entwined in the community for my role ever to be anything other than ‘participant observer’). I also ‘volunteered’ this extra day as a gesture to appease management, buying me both time and goodwill for the project’s duration. It was during this very special time that my observation underwent a profoundly liberating experience as this ‘un-salaried’ time enabled me to break away from curriculum-focused observational frameworks, shaped by compliance and habit, and to re-focus my lens, and see the children once again through a lens not funnelled and rendered murky through imposition of adult agenda. I focused on the spaces in-between, on the peripheries and beyond. It was here, in these in these hitherto forgotten about, places and spaces that I found play. I found it in abundance, kicking out; creatively and joyfully rebelling against control and compliance. It filled every gap. Play was flourishing, jubilant, robust, celebratory, exuberant, strategic, and serious. If I looked hard enough too I found that the play here was wonderfully and defiantly unapologetic. It was literally as if something were being shown to me for the very first time, it’s delicious secrets revealed.

Play has gone underground.

I found the places where play was hanging out and I wallowed in it.

When I re-directed my gaze, I had not been searching explicitly for play at all, but rather more led by a curiosity about notions of ‘participation’ and ‘sense of belonging’. In particular, I wondered how children with no shared ‘spoken’ language were participating and developing feelings of belonging within the community. I asked what participation might look like and what, if anything might be facilitating or obstructing participation from happening.

What I found was play and I found it deeply embroiled in the children’s serious work of constructing, and creating their own, ‘multiple ways of participating’ (Rogoff, et al.,2005:5). Here in these hidden spaces I found children incorporating humour, mime and even slapstick into their playful interactions with both human and non-human elements of their environment. I found patterns of ‘shared joy’, ‘togetherness’, and ‘happiness’ and I found a lot of ‘love’. ‘Shared Joy’ was a lovely but troublesome theme; embedded into my fieldnotes into themes of ‘messing about’. My mind is not made up as to whether or not messing about is subversive or purely the exuberance of playful love bubbling over. Whether love or subversion however, the outcomes were invariably the same: teacher intervention and children redirected (separately) to the shelves to ‘choose a work’. This brings me to mind of Wenger et al’s (2002) ‘Communities of Practice’ and how too much value placed upon, ‘individual task and performance’ risks triggering an ‘anti-learning culture’ (2002: 156).

In brief (although its perhaps already too late for that), a tentative interpretation of findings through my re-directed gaze is that children of all ages seem to be using play skilfully and strategically in a myriad of ways, through their work in participating in and in the building, establishing and sustaining of relationships within their environment and community. Children seem to be using play to access, deepen and extend their own learning opportunities.

If the in-between moments such as these remain outside (for whatever reason) the peripheries of our observational foci, these riches will continue to remain buried, and feared by the adult; seen as a barrier to learning, rather than as the key to facilitating access to the learning community, deepening bonds and sense of self-worth.

However, if we as adults use these observations not only to deepen and extend our own understanding, but to reflect upon our own practice, perhaps if only with something as simple as holding off a moment or two longer before intervening when the exuberance of love really bubbles up, or to consider ways of using resources revealed by such observations in such a way as to share back with children our own recognition and valuing of these moments.

Perhaps too if we were to use such observations to reflect again upon the extent of our trust in the choices of the children in our care, then we might be able to avoid Kayla’s hands on hips stance and deeply polarised perceptions of work and play.

Perhaps we might even be able to entice play back up from its subterranean refuge back up into the open? Although there must always remain some hidden places.

Joanna Ainsworth, October 2020


Bodrova, E. (2003) ‘Vygotsky and Montessori: One Dream, Two Visions’, Montessori Life Winter 2003: 30-33

Elkind, D. (2009), ‘Learning from Play’, Montessori International, April June, 2009: 12-13

McTamaney, C. (2005) The Tao of Montessori: Reflections on compassionate Teaching, iUniverse Star, New York

Montessori, M. (2012) The 1946 London Lectures, Montessori-Pierson Publishing: Amsterdam.

Montessori, M. (1936/1966) The Secret of Childhood, New York: Ballantine Books.

Rogoff, B. (1990), Apprenticeship in thinking: cognitive development in social contexts, New York: Oxford University Press.

Wenger et al., (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice, Harvard Business School Press: Boston Massachusetts.

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