Worksheets, never! Well, almost never….

402D6198-28FE-46FB-BB72-0E87F64F8887“As Peter Gray talks about, true play must always be voluntary, and the child must always be free to leave (Gray, 2013). But what happens when, as they grow older, their play looks more like classroom work? What if they get curious about worksheets? What if they want to challenge themselves to write down the answers to math questions? What if they want to read and follow the instructions?”

Exclusionary Play

I find the ECE world there are concepts, questions and ideas that come up a lot in the world of the littles. One of those concepts is exclusionary play. I have had a lot of questions recently about exclusionary play. I am one that does not agree with “just” letting kids work it out, nor do I agree with giving a blanket rule of we don’t do that and redirecting the play. But not for reasons that some think. I don’t see it as play that needs to be squashed or redirected but instead explored. I think it is one of those key concepts that tells me the kids are learning something. One of those windows into the child’s mind.
I find that exclusionary play is a symptom that  something needs to be learned, not a problem. What I do is figure out what is the child is trying to learn and figure out what my role is in dealing with that.

We have the rule of no exclusionary play in our school in the same way we have the rule of no aggression or teasing. The rule can be broken if the kids involved agree but if one kid doesn’t agree it is time to go deeper.

Sometimes kids are working on a concept and my role as a facilitator is to step back and watch how they are handling tthe situation and watch if they need me, or they don’t need me. Sometimes my role is to step forward and scaffold or facilitate something they are struggling with.

The following are examples of some reasons for exclusionary behaviour that I have seen and some ways that I have facilitated or scaffolded the learning when the children needed it.

Sometimes kids exclude because they are wanting to control the play. Our rule is no one tells anyone else what to do at our school (leaving out safety I as a teacher also follow that rule). So in this case I let the children know that they can’t tell other kids what to do which includes what to play or what not to play. This takes out the factor of control so a child has to be responsible for the only thing they can truely control – their own behaviour. One of my favourite mantras is have the serenity to deal with what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can and the wisdom to understand the difference.

Some kids exclude to bully. In this case I would deal directly with the bully as they have to work on social skills or emotional skills and usually emotional issues such as anger, fear, anxiety so I tackle that with the child when they are excluding. If it is something I can’t deal with I would seek outside support, if it is something I could I would provide what this child needs to feel supported enough to be vulnerable.

Sometimes they are excluding because they don’t have the skills to change the play to make everyone happy so I scaffold those skills and we take the time to work it out – they do as much as they are capable of and I scaffold any skills needed. This one can take two minutes to an hour or longer depending on the complexity of play and what they are trying to learn from the experience.

Some children exclude because of self regulation – they find it hard to deal with changes in the environment or in play – so I would tackle self reg for the child and work on that. Sometimes it would be independent self regulation, sometimes regulation within the group but in either case I would facilitate the process. When they are better able to regulate to a change in play they will better be able to adapt.

Some children exclude because of fear from the other child so I would deal with that with both children so each can express how they feel and why they are acting that way (excluding or acting in a way that would cause another fear). In this case I work to empower the victim and to allow the aggressor a voice to express how they are feeling and why they feel bad. Usually if it has gotten to the point where a child feels they need to exclude to feel safe there needs to be some major relationship repair and major repair in my environment so that it is a safe place for all. Again, if I was not able to deal with this breach of safety I would reach out for supports because every child deserves to feel safe (and in most cases both children do not feel safe).

These are just the ones off the top of my head but I am sure there are other reasons as well.

Excluding is not a simple behaviour but more of a window into the thought processes, the emotional processes, learning processes that are going on.

For me excluding is just another form of roughousing (aggression if done without consent) or bantering (teasing or arguing if done without consent). If one child does not agree to it and the other child continues the behaviour it is signalling that there is something else that is going on or something else the kids are trying to learn. Excluding for me means a signal that they kids are ready to learn something. Figuring out if I need to have a watchful eye, or if they struggling with how to learn it is where my job begins.

Do you have time for deep play?

Welcome to my first blog post follow up to our new Podcast –

Dirty Playologist! I will be blogging on the ideas we talked about more in depth, talking about aspects that I want to dig deeper into or related ideas to help you put the ideas in perspective in your classroom or homeschool. I look forward to Kisha adding in her voice sometimes as well!

Our first two episodes were on play schemas and how to support them in your play. I wanted to get a little into how to allow that play in your environment. We talked a lot about the schemas and the repetition and allowing kids to explore the schemas as well as allow the learning that branches out from schemas – math concepts, social concepts science concepts etc. 

As early childhood educators we need to provide materials but being in the forest there are days that they will request no materials or when they ignore materials that are provided. Yet everyday the children seek out and explore schemas to learn from. So materials are not essential for exploration of play schemas and learning that results from the play schemas. 

The one thing that I see as being essential is time. Having large chunks of time to really explore, repeat and learn. I am not talking about 30-40 minutes that free time in structured schools allow for. Why is that not enough?

It can take a significant amount of time to get deep into play, anywhere from 10-30 minutes. How long depends on 3 factors. 

1. Familiarity of a place – if a place is new or different it will take longer to get deep into play. The more familiar a place is, when they know where the materials are, where they remember a game, exploration or play scenario they have set up that they want to revisit the faster they will get into deep play.

2. Familiarity of others – in much the same a way place is a factor other children are a factor as well. Trying to negotiate with a child for the second or third time takes a lot more effort and concentration than negotiating with a child after knowing them for a year. Also familiar games and roles lessen the amount of set up time so they can get deeper in the play faster. 

3. Familiarity of yes environments – this means yes environments for exploration, for choices and for play with almost no rules or constraints. A child who is not used to having environment where they are in control of their play may check in with adults or other children to make sure their decisions are ok. This can be all the way from stopping to ask “can I do this?” to even just stopping their play to look at an adult. But the result is the same the play is stopped, interrupted and must begin again. Every new beginning means it takes longer to get back into the play. 

The longer kids are allowed to play the better and faster they get at getting deeper into play. Kids who are routinely given 30-40 minutes spend all of, or almost all of their time trying to get deep into learning play without ever really reaching it. To really reach that deep learning play children must be given large chucks of time of more than an hour to play with the schemas, to play with the concepts the schemas naturally transition to and to just be able to have fun.
If you would like to listen to the podcast you can listen to the first one 


Or the second one 


Or download from iTunes – just search dirty playologists!

For information on Schemas click here

Peter Gray – How he plays

I have been on the path of self directed education since I started working with kids. I did educational plans that were specific for the child, their interest and their strengths. I quickly became disillusioned by the public school system as my children would enter school and start to decline. I could see solutions to the problems but even basic interventions were met with a battle in most cases. 

I knew I did not want a top down education model for my children but I did not know what I wanted short of creating an education plan for them and hiring someone to fulfill it. After my son was born we became involved in alternative education, Waldorf, Montessori, but none of it was a right fit. In my journeys a book called Free To Learn by Peter Gray was recommended to me so I picked it up and started to read it. It would change the journey with my children forever. It gave voice to all my concerns and talked about all the things that I had seen when working with children and families. It also talked about a different way to view education, one that I had instinctively followed but without a real sense of plan just a knowing. The book talked in depth about the theory and how it applied to unschooling or Sudbury school models. 

When I was given an assignment to interview an innovative educator my mind immediately went to Peter Gray and I feel privileged that I was able to interview him for this assignment. It was interesting that he has followed a very similar path as myself in his discovery of natural learning and the resistances that he has faced. It has strengthened my resolve to continue on my journey and keep striving because I know I am not the only one to face these obstacles. 

I would classify the problem that Peter Gray is trying to solve as complex as looked at in “Getting to Maybe”. Peter Gray is advocating to a return to a system of children being in control of their own learning. Of looking at learning as wholly an intrinsic process in which children, even adults, are free to explore, and be creative and innovative (Gray, 2013).  His problem is complex because there is no recipe to follow, instead you follow the child and adapt to their needs. There are formulas such as trusting the child, free age mixing and play (amongst children not adults) but they are not rigid protocols (Gray, 2013). Expertise is also needed but it has to be balanced with the responsiveness to the child. The education system he proposes is based on the idea that every child is unique and therefore the current one size fits all model of education is inappropriate (Gray, 2013). The final premise is that children learn from each other so the education model is based solely, in essence, on different factors in their life from the people to the places to what they were exposed to. All of these factors make it into a complex problem. 

Peter Gray was motivated to learn and start advocating for self directed Education when his own 9 year old son was involved in the teacher directed model of education. In Free to Learn he talks very indepth about his experience of being in the principles office and his son, fed up with the system saying “Go To Hell” (Gray, 2013).  He knew right then and there that it wasn’t working. He was able to pull him out and put him in a Sudbury school where his son thrived and it changed the direction of his work.  He started looking at learning and how it naturally is an intrinsic process and this process is supported in a hunter gather society, or pre teacher directed model, and how teacher directed schooling goes against this model. 

The resistance that he faced was mainly to do with indirect resistance or other professionals ignoring his work. For a long time others in both the psychology and especially those studying education completely ignored the research that he was doing in self directed learning. 

He says what overcame this is essentially when he became a net contributer. As he wrote books, appeared on tv and radio and continued on to be a net contributer through blogging people started paying attention and only then did academicians start listening and reading his work. I find this very interesting because the Ted talk given by Chris Anderson (Anderson, 2010) , a curator of Ted talks, speaks talks of how whe people become net contributer the group will shine an light on them because of their skills and knowledge. Looking at the body of work that is attributed to Peter Gray you can see the desire to push through and keep going has raised him to the level of innovator. I was curious as to what motivates him, especially when having to push through the barriers of ignorance. 

Peter Gray talks about how children learn through self directed learning which is mostly play. That children learn through intrinsic motivation and that extrinsic motivation actually kills a desire to learn and contribute (Grey, 2013). As such instead of asking him what motivates him, as it is fairly obvious that intrinsic learning motivates him, I asked him about play in his work. He does confirm that his work in his subjective estimation is about eighty percent play. It carries over to all his work, writing, researching and speaking. It is fairly refreshing to hear that it is his own sense of play that motivates him. 

He sees his efforts, along with others who are promoting self directed learning, contributing in the immediate sense in that people are now starting to recognize that a child has a need for free play. He also sees a shift in people understanding unschooling and democratic schooling and are no longer just dismissing these ideas as crazy. He also thinks there may also be a shift that people are seeing coercive schools as harming children. He hopes that in his lifetime there will be no top-coercive schools but instead they will be replaced with conditions that enrich opportunities for self directed learning. 

I asked him for any advice to give to me as I embark on this journey of fostering creativity in myself and other educators. He reiterated that creativity can’t be forced and that everything that young children do is creative. Right now we drill that out of them. But if instead we provided them with the materials they need and lots of children as playmates and stay out of their way except to facilitate we can help them maintain their creativity. He also mentioned that praise can be almost as harmful as criticism as children will begin to do things for praise instead of satisfaction and creativity will fade. If we can create the environment where both the children and adults who are learning are intrinsically motivate or doing what they want to do without doing it for a reward, when they feel they are not being judged and have a playful state of mind then we can create an environment where creativity will grow.


Anderson, Chris (2010). How Web Video Powers Global Innovatiom. Retrieved From

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York, NY: Basic Books.


This last week at Barrie Forest Kindergarten…..
Exploration was definitely the theme of the week. Exploring the creek, exploring parts of plants, exploring new areas of our camp with climbing and wading and finding good “fishing” spots. And don’t forget exploring for dragons!!
We met 92 goals of the Ontario Kindergarten Curriculum and all 15 areas of play.  


International Mud Day

This last week at Forest Kindergarten we celebrated International Mud Day having fun in the mud. Relaxed about in the trees after a good climb and Friday we built up our den, played quietly in the water and spied a turtle. 
We covered 97 Kindergarten goals and 12 levels of play.