Product, Process, Play and Permission

by Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci

It feels like we have come full circle – the three of us, Suzanne, Nona and Roberta had been speakers at Teacher Tom’s 2021 Summer Summit and afterwards started the Grammar of Drawing as a way to keep the momentum of the energy we experienced there going. In late spring we met to talk about what we would talk about in our interview with Tom for the 2022 Summer Play Summit. We started with what felt the most important with the Grammar of Drawing project.
As we talked Suzanne took notes, jotting down words to help us remember our discussion and to see what would surface. Towards the end of the dialogue as Suzanne went through the notes there were four words that we had focussed the most on. 

  • Product
  • Process
  • Permission
  • Play

And this is what our dialogue with Tom ended up being about as we feel these four words breathe life into this project of ours, and in how we interact with children.

In English all these words begin with P, which appeals to our sense of play, but it is not so much the play on how the words begin, but the very essence of these words that oxygenates our approach.The product-process dichotomy is not just two sides of a coin where it is either one or the other, they are both a part of the same experience (and a coin does not only have two sides, but also an edge, and mass between them). We all agree that creating the actual product is important, but we also acknowledge that the process is of equal value. The balance between these two words is constantly dancing, both taking turns to lead the direction of the aesthetic experience.

”Natural Diary” by Roberta Pucci – playing with wind, paper and blades of grass

Problems (another word beginning with P!) arise when one or the other is given more power by outside forces. For example, that the school system prioritises the product rather than the process, in other words, that the learning process is less important than the product/proof (that is often a test score, or, in art subjects, a specific artwork made in a specific way to prove a specific ability or knowledge). This is a kind of art that kills creativity, joy and playfulness. Children and students do not have permission to explore their own interests and own possibilities with the materials and techniques shared with them.

Equally, when all the focus is on the process and not creating products then it can feel aimless, or maybe that sense of pride in one’s own achievements is lost. Products can be individual and collective, and both have an important role. We think it is vital to consider that the process can also be standardised, limited and controlled and not just for the sake of a specific product, but also because of time, fear of mess, or expectation of what “process” is (including misconceptions) and that just because a teacher is focussing on the process does not necessarily mean the child has freedom to explore.

We are not at all keen on the whole process vs product art discourse that is rampant in social media. We think that Play and Permission are much more important words than product and process and we think we should all be shifting our thinking more in this direction.

Interacting with the forest – by Suzanne Axelsson

How can children play with materials to understand their processes, to see the multiple products they can create and what permission are they given to play freely? As Nona says, where is the threshold? Where adults begin to say no, where their instincts retract the permission and children experience a new word beginning with P – prevention! They are prevented from certain experiences, certain opportunities, from making certain stuff. There can be good, well-reflected reasons for some of these threshold stops, but quite often they are based in bias, fear and a lack of time for educators to reflect deeply about the three I’s that Suzanne talks about – Interaction, Intervention and Interference.

These three words will help us find a balance in product, process, play and permission:

  • we interact with the child with an attitude of permission
  • we intervene only to support the flow of the play and the process, and 
  • we interfere as little as humanly possible so the product of the play/process is not destroyed or negatively disturbed. 

The product might be a physical item the child was intending to make, or would accidentally create/discover through their play, or can be knowledge or meaning/sense-making, and our interference would result in the child never discovering or creating it.Play and Permission are about freedom. The freedom to explore. The freedom to discover. The freedom to create. The freedom to act. Permission is an act of love, as we must fully understand the abilities, capabilities, interests and well-being of a child to know how to keep them safe as necessary (by not permitting dangerous actions, tools, experiences that the child is not ready for) while offering space for a child to make mistakes they can learn from.

Cover image by Arianna, 5 years old

More about play, permission, process and product: 

This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawing by Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.
It has been translated in four languages: