Play = Learning and Learning Should Be Playful

Originally published on Hillbrook Voices.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
– Fred Rogers

“Hi, honey! How was your day at school?”
“What did you do today?”
“Played with my friends!”
“What did you play?”
“We used blocks and builded a giant building for our city and played superheroes and made capes out of blankets!”
“Did you have math today?”
“No, we just played.”

This is quite possibly a conversation you’ve had with your child (especially if they are 4-6 years old) on the way home from school. A conversation that, quite naturally, might result in the fear that your child is missing out on learning crucial skills to prepare them for their future. Where are the worksheets? Why did they not have reading or math? If school doesn’t look like I remember it, how will my child get what they need?

These are very reasonable concerns, and at Hillbrook we’re excited to address them by shining a light into the incredible power of play and the fullness of a child’s extraordinary educational experience here. We are excited to share with you that it is possible for teachers to create such engaging and playful learning environments that children don’t yet realize they are in the math, reading, or writing component of their day. They are simply and deeply immersed in the experience of making meaning through play.

The growing body of research (I invite you to also explore the resources below) demonstrates that play is the most effective avenue through which young, developing children learn and practice skills for life and learning. Their brains are wired to practice these skills through building, exploring their environment, imaginative play, and more. As children practice skills through play, they are rewarded with joy. In playing together children practice making decisions, feeling emotions, controlling impulses, understanding the perspectives of others, negotiating differences, making friends, and maintaining or repairing relationships.

Some adults see “play” in an educational context as tantamount to the experience that, albeit a delightful one, keeps children from formal learning, wasting valuable time in their formative years. Research tells us that this is simply not the case. Play is a dynamic learning moment during which children are involved in actively creating ideas and exploring environments through interest-driven choices and formal instruction opportunities in familiar content areas.Teachers organize learning experiences that are both deeply playful and purposeful. When you step into classrooms at Hillbrook you will see flexible environments organized by caring teachers who are responsive to children’s passions and needs. Shelves are stocked with inviting materials, encouraging children to explore and take initiative to test, create, and learn collaboratively with one another. Teaching core academic skills and teaching students to be caring, playful, responsible human beings do not stand in contrast to one another. Expert educators do not need to choose between these two perspectives. Reading is not sacrificed to teach sharing or allow for dramatic play, instead there are formal moments of direct reading instruction AND reading is learned through dramatic storytelling. The practice of math skills is not relinquished to allow for block building, instead there are formal math lessons and centers AND key mathematical skills are introduced and refined in the context of construction.

JK - writing notebooks

Junior-Kindergarten students have their own writing notebooks where they record their ideas, practice letter formation, and exercise their voice as budding writers and storytellers. These skills come alive and are made playfully relevant to children and their learning in the video displaying the fruits of many days of planning a culminating project (a JK Car Wash!) that was driven by the interests of the group. As JK teacher Ms. Okano says,

“When facilitating play/project-work, I start by listening for joy. Often I hear it as a “buzzing” problem that could be solved with “group think” and the right alchemy of opportunity meeting the time to explore the problem with REAL (not toy) materials from an adult to tackle it creatively.”

This project involved brainstorming, list making, and planning. It introduced key research skills (watching a video taken by Ms. Dowty of a car going through a real car wash, asking questions, identifying names and types of materials, etc.) that the children used to make their vision a reality.

K - math lesson

K - block structureKindergartners experience formal math instruction in small groups where they practice math skills and solve problems with manipulatives and numbers. They use concrete objects to make groups of ten and practice one-to-one correspondence and adding and subtracting to solve meaningful mathematical problems. One of the exploration centers in Hillbrook’s Kindergarten classroom is the block area. When children build structures out of blocks the conceptual and concrete mathematical skills they have been practicing are put to use as they explore cause and effect, match objects in one-to-one correspondence, form data sets/groups by sorting and matching objects according to their attributes, experiment with gravity, stability, weight, and balance, and much more!

1st Grade - tower 1st Grade -paper tower plan

As students continue to grow, their ability to access reading, writing, and math skills continues to deepen. In first grade, a lesson on brainstorming, planning, collaborating, and constructing comes alive with a simple question: How might we create the tallest standing structure out of only paper and tape? Students employ their writing, mapping, planning, negotiating, compromising, and time management skills to accomplish impressive feats of engineering.

Better learning doesn’t just happen as a result of environments where children are free to play. Better learning happens WHILE they play. When we structure learning environments at Hillbrook we don’t ask “For this experience, will it be play or learning?” Instead we ask “For this experience, how will it be play AND learning?”

Resources for Further Learning

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, & Invigorates the Soul

Play: The Foundation that Supports the House of Higher Learning

Scientists Say Play Builds a Better Brain

Why Young Kids Need Less Class Time — And More Play Time — At School

Give Childhood Back to Children

Introduction to Block Building with Young Children

The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K

The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development

TED Talks
Stuart Brown: Play Is More Than Just Fun

A Collection of Talks on Play

On Connection, Devices, & Empathy

A recent New York Times article titled “Stop Googling. Lets Talk.” lays out a compelling case for greater intentionality in how and when we make use of our portable devices.

How can we purposefully create environments where children learn to make decisions about these tools and use them (or NOT!) for the good of themselves and others?

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

In schools and at home, how do we recommit ourselves to the priceless value of authentic human connection?

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

More than anything, our children and students need to know who they are and who those around them are. Without self-knowledge and awareness of others no meaningful or lasting difference can be made in the world.

Children Have Big Feelings

Children’s book author Kevin Henkes has a new book out called Waiting. This NPR article/interview with him is a beautiful window into the mind of an author who is transparent about his work, deeply aware of the human experience that children share with adults, and able to translate that experience into story and picture. This quote from the interview resonates deeply with me, and I find in my experience to be profoundly true:

Sometimes I think as adults we think of [children] as — because they’re small in size that they’re small in all ways — and they’re not. They have big feelings, and they have big eyes, they see things, they hear things, they’re living life just the way an adult does and I think sometimes as adults we forget that.

The First Six Weeks of School

Originally posted on Hillbrook Voices:

Contributed by: Head of Lower School Colleen Schilly.

As we enter into the first three weeks of school, children and adults in the Hillbrook community are beginning to find a rhythm in the routine and expectations of the new school year. For elementary age students, the first six weeks of school are a pivotal time during which we set the tone for the year to come. At Hillbrook, we believe that by investing in the following fiveIMG_1399 things children are more available to learn, meet challenges, and reach their potential during the rest of the year. We spend these weeks:

  1. Establishing a safe and caring community that is connected and joyful.
  2. Familiarizing children with all their learning environments, both indoors and outdoors.
  3. Teaching and modeling expectations for the safe, respectful, and appropriate use of materials and tools for learning, exploration, and play.
  4. Co-creating expectations for how we learn and resolve problems.

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What if we asked questions instead of setting goals?

As a faculty we’ve been exploring the idea of abandoning goal statements in favor of rephrasing them as thoughtful questions. This emphasizes the process rather than the product, invites the learning community into the conversation, and opens up the question-asker to a variety of possible answers that might otherwise have remained unexplored.

I encourage you to click through this engaging presentation that distills Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas into a digestible fifteen-minutes.

Where is there space for questions in your work/life?

“Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.”

—e.e. cummings

Lessons From The Road: For Traveling & Living

high fiveI recently had the opportunity to travel across country for 11 days. After driving over 4,000 miles, sleeping in a different place every night, camping under stars, taking hundreds of photos, and seeing our country in ways that took my breath away…I learned some things and was reminded of many more – about traveling, mostly…but also about living:

Strike a balance: Planning comes naturally to me. I like a schedule and a sense of what is coming next. Some of my best memories (from this trip and beyond) are those that were a result of spontaneity. I’m learning to hold them both and value them equally. To allow my nature to create a plan…but to leave ample room to change that plan spontaneously. We had planned to visit at least 2 spots that, because we spent the bulk of our day exploring something else or because we were exhausted from being on the road, we ended up not visiting. Would they have been beautiful? Certainly. But allowing for a change of plan meant a gentler, healthier overall 11 days. Plans & spontaneity can coexist.

Turn around if necessary: On our first real day-of-adventure we awoke in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We were up with the sun and had our campsite packed up…we were among the first in the visitors center, coffee in hand. We enjoyed a beautiful hike back through some of the formations to a spot overlooking the prairies below. Feeling energized by the physical exercise and the natural beauty surrounding us, we quickly packed up for another, longer hike through some prairie lands. Within a few tenths of a mosquito bitesmile it was clear that the mosquitoes were mustering their forces and had some serious battle plans. After a half mile or so we turned around. We did something else. You don’t have to be a hero. Go get a beer instead. :-) But seriously…when all of the warning bells are going off: listen. Backtrack. Go a different way or stop and reset. Life is too short to lose your leg to mosquito bites…or stubborn pride.

Pick the right sunscreen: Seriously. Goopy, thick sunscreen is the worst driving around with the windows down, getting sweaty, and absorbing dust. Bad sunscreen gets in your eyes (and god forbid you wear contact lenses) and stings them like hundreds of tiny needles. In my humble opinion the good sunscreen is anything Neutrogena. Consider yourself warned and wisely advised.

Eavesdrop on (and occasionally converse with) strangers: Turns out children say amazing things to their parents in National Parks.

photo bombBadlands, young boy to mother: “This is better than…better than…ANYTHING!”

Yellowstone, young girl to father (with evident disdain in her voice): “Dad! This is one of those UNCOOL geysers.”

You’ll find that asking someone to take your photo will always result in a story. The friends of a woman who took our photo at the entrance to Grand Teton National Park photo bombed our picture after deciding we weren’t looking excited enough! After offering to take a photo of two folks at Crater Lake National Park, they asked if they could return the favor and snapped some of the most amazing action shots of us jumping in to Crater Lake (the country’s deepest lake) together. I don’t know the name of the girl who took our pictures…but I’ll always remember her. Strangers aren’t always dangerous.

water jump

Appreciate and savor it: There were moments on the trip that felt like all of the stars aligned and we couldn’t have orchestrated it more beautifully even if we’d been able to control/plan it. 80-85 degree weather and sunshine every day? Check. Arrive at Old Faithful in time to get a cocktail on the deck of the hotel and see the geyser go off on the bearfirst sip? Check. Drive into Yellowstone park and see a mama grizzly and her two cubs? Check. Find an equal quality but peacefully secluded swimming hole a few hundred yards from the really crowded swimming hole? Check. Snag one of the few remaining campsites? Check. There were plenty of times that things didn’t go perfectly….but why focus on those? Effortlessly timing it right is a beautiful thing…appreciate that joy, celebrate it when it happens and let THOSE memories prevail.

Share the wealth: One of my favorite parts of chronicling our journey on a photo stream was getting to share it with friends and family instantly…and to read their comments and questions and feel like the circle of who was a part of our move was a little bit bigger, and a little more full of love and joy in our journey. Keep in mind that no photo or video will ever do justice to your experience (on the road or elsewise). That little uncapturable psunrise2iece will always be just yours. Your story. Your experience. Your memory.

Wake up early for the sunrise: You will never regret it.

Explore on, friends!

If not now…when?

It’s summer! Time to play and get outside. This article from PBS highlights why free, CMS Badlandsunstructured outdoor play is so crucial for children, their learning, and their development as people…and also reminds me why it it is equally necessary for adults to spend a little time doing the same. Put down the screens, quiet the constantly running mental to-do list, and be outdoors.

Slow down. Be still. Create something. Play.

As adults authentically model love of the outdoors and delight in playful pursuit of whatever we are passionate about…children will follow our lead. And it’s summertime…with longer days and a slightly slower pace. If not now…when?