An article recently published in The Atlantic described learning experiences of Finnish children in their play-based, child-centered public school kindergarten classrooms: some students took shovels outside to dig in the mud and build dams; other students staffed a pretend ice cream shop inside the classroom. There was singing, dancing, and stories. One of the kindergarten teachers explained the Finnish approach to kindergarten, saying, “Play is a very efficient way of learning for children…. And we can use [play] in a way that children will learn with joy.” (Link to the article here: Finnish Kindergarten.)
Honestly, I haven’t heard any mention of learning with joy or teaching with joy in the U.S. in close to 15 years. The rigidity of standards-based education has led many teachers in grades preK-3 to feel their first priority is to cover the academic content prescribed for their grade level, although doing this leaves them with less time to focus on ensuring all their students are truly mastering the content that was taught.
Let’s assume the Finns are right: play is an efficient way for young children to learn. Could dedicating more time and opportunity for play in American preK-3 classrooms improve our students’ learning outcomes?
We think the answer is yes. Here’s why:
The Finns are right: play is how young children learn best.
Over the course of the past 115 years, developmental psychology has made this perfectly clear: play is how young children learn best. Play—specifically self-directed play and pretend play—gives young children opportunities to manipulate materials, experiment with concrete phenomena, and theorize about “what would happen if we…”
Play also creates a scaffold or support for children as they practice newly emerging skills. For example, Ashley, a girl in my second grade class who struggled to remain quiet during our morning circle time, was invited to join a group of classmates who were playing “school.” I watched out of the corner of my eye as they began their circle time, expecting that Ashley would become restless. But she didn’t demonstrate any of her typical wiggly behaviors.
You see, Ashley knew second graders were supposed to be able to sit quietly on the carpet during circle time. And so, because she was pretending to be a second grader within the context of that particular play scenario, she did what second graders were supposed to do: she sat quietly on the carpet. Vygotsky wrote that “in play, a child becomes a head taller than himself.” And, within that pretend play scenario, Ashley was a head taller than herself—in other words, able to work above her own zone of proximal development—with the scaffolding that pretend play provided for her.
The authors of the Common Core-English Language Arts Standards recommend play as an effective strategy for teaching the Common Core to young students.
The authors of the CCSS-ELA write:
“The use of play with young children is not specified by the standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.” (italics mine, CCSS-ELA pg. 9)
This quote delivers two positive messages for teachers in grades preK-3. First, the authors of the CCSS-ELA make it clear that teacher discretion is both expected and desired when teaching the Common Core. Second, the authors foreground—and specifically single out—play as both a valuable activity AND as a legitimate means of instruction when teaching young children. This perspective points to an open doorway through which developmentally appropriate practice can re-enter young children’s classrooms. In addition to making time and space for pretend play, look for ways to carve out pockets of time for your students to have free play with loose materials– buttons, tiles, nuts and bolts, building blocks of all kinds, playing at a sand table or water table, or working with play-dough.
Here are some concrete ideas that teachers can use as they reintegrate play into the primary grade curriculum.
- Rethink your definition of “play.”
As adults, we see a clear, thick boundary between our work (planning lessons, making dinner) and our play (watching movies, playing scrabble). Young children’s understandings are different: for them, the boundary between “work” and “play” is much more permeable.
Teachers can capitalize on this blurred boundary by creating learning tasks, activities, and lessons that combine things a child might consider “work” (such as writing a retelling a story read in class) and something a child might consider “play” (performing a puppet show using that retelling).
It’s easy to see how a math center featuring an activity involving a tub filled with colorful plastic “counting bears” could easily combine both work and play for young learners. The same thing could be said for activities with pattern blocks, unifix cubes, and many other mathematics teaching materials. Encourage exploration and allow kids time to share what they noticed, what they’re wondering about, or what they’d like to explore more deeply.
Children always want to play, and they will find every opportunity to play with the materials they’re given. Reframing activities in ways that enable your students to blend “play” and “work” will keep them engaged and learning.
2. Dig up all the playful, fun lessons and activities you used in past years and amplify them by infusing standards from the Common Core.
The Common Core State Standards are different from the state standards we’ve been working with for years, but they’re not a radical departure: the Common Core frames and organizes the content in different ways, but the knowledge and skills that must be mastered at each grade level in ELA and math have many similarities to the content presented in your previous state standards.
The authors of the Common Core-ELA acknowledge that teachers should use their professional discretion when teaching, and now is the time to use that discretion liberally. If you taught in the years before the Common Core, take some time and try to recall the lessons and activities that your students enjoyed most. Do you remember specific learning experiences that left the whole class energized and smiling? Were there activities that made everyone laugh so hard that their sides began to ache? Do you recall students asking if they could do a particular activity again? Those are the learning experiences that should be brought back into your classroom NOW, enriched with appropriate content from the Common Core, and given new life.
3. Integrate surprising, mysterious, and unexpected elements into the Common Core-aligned lessons and materials adopted by your district.
Classroom routines are essential…. but doing the same things in the same ways every day can get on everyone’s nerves. Young children love to discover new ideas, see unusual things, work with special materials, and engage with unexpected opportunities.
I once watched a class of antsy, distracted kindergarteners perk up and lean in the minute their teacher pulled out an intriguing Mystery Bag. Yes, it was just a paper lunch bag…but it had colored question marks all over it! What could possibly be in that bag?!?! It was just a gimmick, but it piqued the kids’ curiosity and got them engaged with and committed to the lesson.
Changing things up can heighten students’ engagement. You can make an ordinary activity feel extra-special by doing things like
- adding dramatic flair to your delivery
- offering children choices
- creating opportunities for students to work in unexpected areas in the classroom (under a table, on the counter next to the sink)
- playing music as they work
- putting a puppet on your hand and telling the students to talk to the puppet rather than to you
- using dry-erase markers on the classroom windows to practice writing letters and numbers
These unexpected additions to your lessons heighten students’ engagement and enjoyment. And engagement and enjoyment facilitate learning.
Teaching is hard work, regardless of the circumstances in which you’re working. And teachers go all-out every day to support their students’ learning and development. Play, exploration, pretending, and building may seem superfluous in relation to the importance of mastering the Common Core. But activities that bring joy to your students’ learning also give them time and space to integrate all the academic material you’ve been teaching.