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.
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.
Kindergartners 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!
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
Stuart Brown: Play Is More Than Just Fun
A Collection of Talks on Play