If you’ve been following along, you’ll have found two common threads running through our Seasons of Play series: (1) play is important for childhood development; and (2) there should be no border between play and learning. The Center for Playful Inquiry’s Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlsen go even further in their commitment to play. More than just an educational endeavor, play is a reliable weapon in the fight against fascism.
This belief is rooted in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia and the teaching approach with which it shares a name. Harris MacKay and Karlsen are among the thousands of educators who have come from all over the world to absorb the methods pioneered by Loris Malaguzzi (1920-94). The experience helped the Reggio-inspired Opal School (which served children ages 3-11) and the Portland Children’s Museum to jointly emblematize the play, playful learning and playful research that engage young minds in ways that standard U.S.-based pedagogies generally miss out on. These two institutions both closed in June of 2021, falling victim to pandemic financial woes, but their spirit lives on in the Center for Playful Inquiry.
“The mission of the school,” says Harris MacKay, “was not to serve that tiny group of lucky children who won the [charter school] lottery but to become a site of research that was intended to provoke fresh ideas where creativity, imagination and the wonder of learning thrive.”
The Reggio-Emilia approach, Karlsen notes, arose in the years after World War II, when Italian society was asking itself what had happened to make Mussolini’s rise possible and what could be done to keep it from happening again. “It is an anti-fascist pedagogy,” he says, emphasizing that school and society both run on the interaction between people. Is the dynamic top-down, or is the power shared? Do members of the community fear authority, or do they respect each other and gain strength in their solidarity?
Beyond targeting what Harris MacKay calls the false dichotomy between what’s known as free play and what’s known as direct instruction, the Center for Playful Inquiry promotes a wholesale reconsideration of the way teachers are trained. “We talk about adults not walking too far ahead of children, or not following too far behind them, but really just trying to be right alongside them,” she says.
Educators visited Portland from around the country to observe and draw inspiration from the Opal School. “Being based in a school,” Karlsen says, “made things really alive, because children, families and staff were constantly part of this evolving, shifting, surprising, organic experience. We learned a lot from the adults who were visiting, about what kinds of experiences were helpful for them.”
The Opal School’s program of professional development gave rise to the Center for Playful Inquiry (which organizes presentations, and facilitates conversations, planning and reflection) as well as the Studio for Playful Inquiry (an online community for mutual mentorship; also known as the Story Workshop Studio). “As we leave the laboratory of the school behind,” says Harris MacKay, “we meet up with all kinds of people who bring their own background knowledge or expectation of what professional development is.”
Donna King of Children First in Durham, N.C., says, ”So much has been exceptionally enriching about the community and experiences Matt and Susan have created—they are brilliant facilitators, empathic listeners and incisive thinkers—visionaries with a repertoire of skills that make everyone they encounter think more deeply and feel more wholeheartedly.”
Three ways the Center for Playful Inquiry continues to draw upon Reggio:
1. Helping people pay attention to their own context. Harris MacKay and Karlsen were inspired by what they experienced in Italy, but the plan never was to establish a “franchise” of Reggio in Oregon. Their vision was always rooted in their own time and place.
“We were developing some really interesting ideas and some interesting expressions of those ideas,” Karlsen recalls. “When other people came, it wasn’t to say, ‘You should be doing what we’re doing in Portland, at this little spot in Washington Park, and in a children’s museum, in your spot.’ Instead, it was saying, ‘We think this is interesting. What might be the implications to your space?’”
3. Giving educators permission to find their own path. Just as Karlsen and Harris MacKay didn’t set out to copy Reggio, they don’t try to impose a specific method on educators. The experience contrasts starkly with the standard operating procedure for this kind of enterprise, which Karlsen derides as I’m going to show you how to use this binder. And as long as you use this binder, it’s going to work for you and the children that you’re working with.
To capture the dynamic to which they aspire, he makes two comparisons—one, in rock music, to the Velvet Underground (whose debut album came out in 1967); and two, in the culinary arts, to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse (which opened in 1971). In both cases, the influence is vast, but neither icon inspired mere replication. Instead, bands followed the Velvet Underground into sonic and lyrical experimentation, and chefs followed Waters into reimagined ways of preparing and serving fresh ingredients.
3. Drawing strength from reimagining the ways adults interact with each other. Early education isn’t all about children. Equally important is how adults work with their colleagues and with parents. Adults, whether or not they’re officially teachers or not, need to develop their capacity for listening and interpreting what children care most about, and then trying to connect there.
Harris MacKay notes that many of the adults in the profession have not been invited to see themselves as learners, which influences the way that they, then, see children as learners. “Teachers are integral to the experience that children are having,” she asserts. They’re never invisible to the children.”
Deep and long-lasting change can take time. Harris Mackay says too many teachers have the mindset that as long as they do what they’ve been trained to do just right, then the children will learn. “That’s just not the way human learning works,” she says. “It’s a slow, gentle process, playing in a lot of different ways, intellectually, with materials and with each other.”
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If you’ve been following along, you’ll have found two common threads running through our Seasons of Play series: (1) play is important for childhood development; and (2) there should be no border between play and learning. The Center for Playful Inquiry’s Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlsen go even further in their commitment to play. More than just an educational endeavor, play is a reliable weapon in the fight against fascism. This belief is rooted in the Italian city of […]
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Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.