The Power of Play
Think back to your favorite elementary classroom. What do you recall in the room? What do you remember doing there? What was your favorite thing to do when not in a lesson? Let me guess… Play!
When I was an elementary school teacher in the 1990s, one of my favorite things to do each week was to set up the classroom environment for the students, essentially to set up the room for play and inquiry. I can still recall what was in my classroom: a dress-up area, child-size home furniture, building blocks and Legos, a reading corner, painting/clay area, book making materials, water/sand tables (depending on the season), outdoor play area, and easy access to board/card games. There were also math manipulatives that lined a whole wall thanks in part to donations sent in from parents.
Students had designated time in the daily schedule for play, some structured play, and some open-ended. Designed to be integrated into the learning day and alongside the core subjects taught, students saw play as part of their learning experiences at school. Fast forward to when I taught Grade 5, I would schedule time for students to choose an activity of interest. These moments of “play” encouraged students to pursue their own interests and inquiries and oftentimes led to student-initiated projects and collaborations.
Play has always been a driving force for me as an educator. Sadly when education entered the early 2000s, the focus on student play, creativity, and inquiry was replaced with high stakes testing and weeks of test prep lessons (yes, true story!). It was then that I saw many educators (including myself) quietly mourn the loss of play-based learning as part of a child’s learning experience at school.
Recently there has been a renewed interest for play in elementary classrooms. This is an exciting topic to consider again especially with the pandemic and changes needing to be made to classroom learning environments. Incorporating play into learning is to provide students with an opportunity to foster their own curiosity and inquiry, thus developing a strong sense of self-worth and confidence. Consider the following characteristics of play according to the Aistear Early Childhood Curriculum Framework.
Active: When children are active, they are moving their bodies, their minds and interacting with their environment. This is essential especially with enhanced uses of technology starting with our very youngest learners.
Adventurous and Risky: Play helps children to explore the unknown. The pretend element of play offers a safety net that encourages children to take risks.
Communicative: When children play, language has an opportunity to be used in different contexts. One of my favorite memories of this characteristic was watching 3 boys playing together an invented game. The amazing thing was each boy spoke a different first language (Romanian, Turkish and Italian) but through non-verbal cues and body language, they understood the game and each other perfectly.
Enjoyable: You know the saying, “Enjoy it while you’re young”? Well play is supposed to be fun! When play is no longer fun and enjoyable, it’s probably time to try something new. This goes for adults too!
Involved: When a child becomes involved in their play, they are working at play. This means they are thinking about what they are doing or creating. Just as adults need to concentrate at work, when children are engrossed in play, they develop the necessary skills to stay focused and involved.
Meaningful: When play is meaningful, connections are made and deepened from across the curriculum. Children have the opportunity to try out theories and ideas and connect play to the real world.
Symbolic: Symbolic play may look like they are “pretending” but in reality, they are trying out roles, behaviors, and feelings. It is in this type of play children are making sense of the world and their place in it. Essentially, they reenact the past and rehearse for the future.
Therapeutic: When play is fun, engaging, and meaningful, it can also be therapeutic. Therapeutic play can help with stress and sorting out emotions and experiences.
Voluntary: Play needs to be in the hands of the children so they can change, alternate or manipulate it freely. When play is voluntary, children develop agency for their own choices and their own learning.
The power of play is that it provides children with the opportunity to develop important life skills they will use the rest of their lives such as problem-solving, collaboration, and cooperation to name just a few. Combine play with creativity and inquiry and we have a winning combination for this future generation to approach real world problems and to have the skill sets and confidence to go into the world with courage and compassion.
Gávea Lower School Principal