Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Am I Allowed to Be Who I Am?

"I'm painting out of my mouth"

In the world of play-based learning, when we think about young children making art, we generally say "process over product." Like a mantra.

In fact, for many of us, this statement – process over product – is the gateway through which we enter play-based learning. 

The idea is that when preschoolers make art, the creative process is where the learning happens. "Process over product," is a reaction to the all-too-common practice of marching kids obediently through step-by-step craft projects that produce cookie cutter results. If we want children to be creative, critical thinkers instead of rote rule followers, we must value their process over all else, we say. When you see a preschool wall full of matching teddy bear art, we tell parents, run like the wind.

On the most recent episode of Teacher Tom's Podcast, I talk with pedagogical consultant Suzanne Axelsson, the author of the book The Original Learning Approach and the blog Interaction Imagination. Over the years, Suzanne and I have had dozens of deep, wide-ranging, and often profound conversations, both online and in person.

A couple years ago, for instance, she called into question this bedrock idea of “process over product.” I was at first dumbfounded. I mean “process over product” is central to the play-based approach! But Suzanne asserted that product is every bit as important as process. 

“Children are often very proud of their products,” she said. “They are often deeply connected to them.” It was this perspective, as simple as that, that allowed me to realize that “process over product” was an oversimplification that can lead us to be unintentionally dismissive of what children produce. The final product – be it art or anything – is as important as the child deems it.

And when working with young children it’s important that we steer clear of the temptation to oversimplify things just because they’re young.

Indeed, when it comes to preschool art – or anything preschoolers do, in fact – we must consider not just play, not just process , and not just product, but, as Suzanne and I discuss on the podcast, we can’t neglect the fourth P: permission.

Just at it took me a while to accept the notion that a child’s product can be as important as their process, I was at first taken aback by the idea of permission. I mean, after all, children shouldn’t need my permission to play, it’s their right to play. Who am I to give permission?

But the truth is that whether we like it or not, there are hierarchies in this world, which makes permission necessary, especially when adults and children are together. As I’ve come to understand it, permission is an experience between two people, or between two aspects of one's self, characterized by allowing, accepting, and belonging. We ask ourselves, "Am I allowed to be who I am? If the answer is 'yes,' that’s permission." 

It doesn’t have to be a formal thing. In fact, it is usually as simple as a facial expression. In our conversation, Suzanne talks about her own experience as a child playing on the slide and how an adult’s frown let her know she definitely didn't have permission.

To give another example, imagine a toddler who discovers a beetle. If she turns to smile at her grandfather and he smiles back at the child, even without saying anything, this is permission for her to be who she is. The toddler now knows that they are in an environment of permission. Not only that, but it is a place where the child is also giving permission to the adult.

It is only within the environment of permission, a place where we know we are welcome to be ourselves, that we can fully and honestly engage in the playful process of producing art . . . Or anything else that is personally meaningful. It is in this context that we can share our unique individual potential with society. “You can't truly be yourself without community," Suzanne once told me, "You can only try to be your unique self together with others." This is why permission is essential.

This conversation about permission is part of a wider discussion about what Suzanne calls “the original learning approach.” Essential to her approach is a thoughtful adult, one who does not oversimplify, but rather embraces all the beautiful complexity of human relationships. It means understanding that we serve multiple roles in the lives of young children. It means being open to change. And it means listening with our whole selves.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! My interview with Suzanne Axelsson has just dropped. Please give us a listen. And while there, you might also want to listen to my conversations with other early childhood and parenting thought-leaders like director of Defending the Early Years Dr. Denisha Jones, "Queen of Common Sense" Maggie Dent, and founder of Free Range Kids Lenore Skenazy. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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