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Can We Play Now?

by Sam Williams
 | Jan 07, 2014

When I meet up with a group of teachers it is difficult to get us off the topic of teaching in today’s classroom. There are so many opinions about new standards, testing, teacher evaluations…the list goes on. We have a hard time talking about anything else because we are so consumed by the changes we see in our work lives. Many of my colleagues believe we have lost sight of what is most important in our schools—the children.

Having taught pre-K and kindergarten for many years I can’t lie, I am definitely concerned about the push for more direct instruction and testing in our classes. I find it is harder every year to infuse play into my lessons. In many school districts teachers are given the exact amount of minutes per day to teach each subject. Which content area wants the teacher to include the housekeeping center? Which content area should be used for play with blocks?

p: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc

As educators we can make an argument for most social centers and how they fit into our day. But we also see the list of standards, the curriculum and supplements that are supplied to us, the curriculum calendars, and the testing schedules and we may second-guess ourselves and whether we should include those social centers into our day. But I do feel it is our job as early childhood educators to continue to incorporate play-based learning into every content area.

Why is it so important?

In early childhood we have a responsibility to help continue, or in many cases, start that love of learning and school that is so important for our youngsters to have. I fear, as do many of my colleagues, if we push direct instruction all day and every day in early childhood we will hinder the enjoyment of learning. Many of us have also seen an increase in behavior issues in our classrooms. There are a multitude of reasons that we are seeing an increase in negative behaviors. I believe one of the biggest reasons is that our students are pushed too hard and do not have an opportunity to learn to self-regulate through play and social interaction.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states that children learn in a variety of ways, play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation, and promoting language, cognition, and social competence. It also states that children’s experiences shape their motivation and approaches to learning (NAEYC, 2013).

Play-based learning helps children to learn from their peers. Children learn to take turns, be flexible in their interactions, solve problems, negotiate conflict, create common goals, delay gratification and build stronger oral language skills. In the play-based classroom a science lesson on the life cycle of a butterfly may first involve reading many books on the topic and then allowing children to explore this topic in small groups. Let the students decide how they want to explore this topic further. It might mean a group project creating a model of the life cycle, and/or creating a poster about the topic. This type of exploration will not only reach many subject areas (math, science, reading, and writing) but will also reinforce strong social skills. Students will learn through interactions with peers how to work together, create goals, and create a shared project.

Compare these activities with a more teacher-directed approach where a student will listen to information about the life cycle, write about it, and finish a sequencing worksheet on the different parts of the life cycle of the butterfly. It isn’t difficult to see which one will engage students in multiple disciplines and build stronger social skills.

What can we do?

The first step, and probably the most difficult, is to be vocal about our concerns about the lack of play in our classrooms. We, as teachers, need to talk about why play is important. We need to let our administrators, school boards, unions, evaluators, and even those in the department of education hear from us about this topic. We also must be able to articulate the key points to our arguments. We can’t just say “it is important for kids to play.” We have to be able to cite the research, know the stages of development, and supply the statistics. Being well-versed and educated on this topic will make our argument more viable and will get the attention of the decision makers.

Now it is our job to start putting our words into action. Let’s start putting play into action in our classrooms. A few simple suggestions to get more play-based learning in our classrooms:

  • Centers with a multitude of manipulatives (tiles, cubes, blocks, counters, beans, bottle caps, etc.)—allow the students completely free choice in manipulatives. Once you have used manipulatives in whole group instruction allow children to use free exploration with them. It is amazing how often they will choose to do math in their centers. Modeling of how to record their math in journals and allowing them to use their journals freely during centers will provide open play time as well.
  • Math tool time—give students access to scales, weights, chart paper, manipulatives, measuring cups, measuring spoons, beakers, graduated cylinders and allow students to freely explore. Again once you have modeled recording data students are so interested and willing to do this on their own.
  • Measuring time—let students measure anything they want with anything they choose. They love this exploration and they learn so much about length and comparison when they get to choose what they want to measure and what tools they want to use.
  • Dramatic play—we have done dramatic play for years and unfortunately we use it less and less now. Provide students with costumes, masks, paper, markers, and crayons to make their own scenes, props, and masks. My students love nursery rhymes because they are something they can read on their own after I have introduced them in whole group instruction many times. They love to act out the nursery rhymes. I never asked them to act out nursery rhymes; they just decided one day that it would be a fun thing to do. They make the decisions on which rhyme they want to do and who will play each part.  
  • Co-author a book—I love giving students chart paper, construction paper, and a collection of writing tools and allowing them to work in groups and write in any way they want. They come up with many more creative stories and purposes for writing then if I tell them what to write.
  • Open literacy centers—allowing students to use lots of manipulatives and different mediums to explore literacy. Give children play-dough, craft sticks, wikki stix, chenille stems, paint, etc. to explore the alphabet and make words. When you allow students to use these tools freely they will be more open to explore inventive spelling and making words in their own way.
  • Open science investigations or experiments—once you have done a science investigation or experiment in the class, allow the students access to the science tools and let them choose their own investigation. My students wanted to record their own investigations in their science journals and several of them followed up with their investigations over several days.
  • Outside play—after we have played several games together as a group I allow my students to choose their own games. I am always amazed as they set up their own system of rules: who is going to play, who will be “it” first, and even how to win the game. I constantly hear them working through problems on the playground when they set up their own games.

Obviously there are many more ways to incorporate play into our classrooms. We need to give ourselves permission to let free play happen in our classes. Read more about developmentally appropriate play and be able to answer “why are the students using blocks during math time?”

When I started teaching more than 15 years ago early childhood was more about preparing students with the social skills they need to succeed. Today, it seems that we are spending the majority of our time preparing students for academic life. I believe we can successfully do both. I believe with more play-based learning in our classrooms we can instill a love of learning that will last a lifetime and still reach every single standard. I want my students to be prepared for academic success but as they are leaving my class I also want to hear “I had fun today!”

Sam Williams on Reading Today OnlineSam Williams is a kindergarten teacher in Tampa, Florida. He is also a published author, and is a professional development writer and trainer. He owns an educational resource company that supplies resources and professional development for teachers around the country.  You can find Sam at www.sharpenyoungminds.org.

© 2014 Sam Williams. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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