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?”
“Good!”
“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

Books
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

Articles
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.

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?

The Innovation School

I had the opportunity to visit NuVu Studio: The Innovation School last week in Cambridge, MA. NuVu is doing a number of remarkable things in partnership with Beaver Country Day School, which sends approximately 30 high school students each trimester to the NuVu campus to spend 8 weeks deeply engaged in the innovation & design thinking process.

design thinkingEach session has a theme. The theme for this past winter session was “health”. Students engaged in 2-week-long projects that explored different problematic prompts. I had the opportunity to speak with Laurel and hear her share about an incredibly innovative product designed to promote health by servicing a need that people face when they are on the brink of death. backcountryIVLaurel and her group engaged in the complete design thinking process (as depicted in the above graphic) multiple times over to ultimately produce a functional and portable IV kit that attaches to a nalgene bottle and is able to filter, sterilize, and heat a water solution for combating hypothermia in backcountry or high altitude circumstances when emergency responders may be a long way off. I invite you to learn, through text and images, more about her group’s project by viewing their online portfolio.

While the product itself was captivating to me given my love of the outdoors and penchant for mountaineering, what was even more riveting was unique and transferable skill set these high school students had gained in a few short weeks (and those heavily interrupted by winter weather at that!). The NuVu students learned and practiced the skills of:

  • Asking thought provoking questions of each other and relevant experts.
  • Collaboratively approaching a problem, learning to leverage the strengths of each group member for the success of the team and the project.
  • Navigating obstacles, whether they be challenges in design, technology, group dynamics, or thought…persevering through the iterative process of design thinking to the resultant end of a workable prototype.
  • Increasing facility with a wide variety of different tools and skills that traditionally take full high school or college courses to master. Students did not enter the doors of NuVu with the ability to use 3D printers and its associated software, wield laser cutters, examine swaths of computer code for errors, complete wiring and electrical circuits, discuss medical diagnoses, and more. However they left with confidence and competence to use their resources to get the answers they need to continue moving the design thinking process forward.
  • Confidently advocating for their perspective and approach.
  • Communicating their thinking verbally, via a variety of multimedia tools, and in articulate text to convey process, possibilities, and product.

When given the time, the freedom, and the tools to focus on a single problem the ideas nuvugenerated by these young minds were unbelievably impressive. These students used high-level skills in all curriculum areas (mathematics, programming, writing, reading, science, history, communications, etc.) throughout their work.  It begs the question, how can we make this incredibly valuable, transformative, and applicable-to-the-future experience more broadly available in independent schools? What creativity is lost by requiring completion of a set course of study before students are presented with real-world dilemmas? What lives could be saved or bettered if children, who are often deep wells of empathy, were given meaningfully structured opportunities in their education to truly unleash the power of their intellect and creativity? What lessons does the NuVu Studio have for us that we can apply to ensure that our children are prepared for THEIR future…and not our past?

Do you Doodle?

Visual-NotetakingOne of the speakers at the NAIS Annual Conference was Sunni Brown, champion of doodling as a valued form of thinking – both process thinking and representative thinking. She spoke about visual literacy.  As a long-time doodler myself (literally decades of fostering…and sometimes hiding or resisting…this habit) I wanted to scream and jump and applaud her for shedding light on how important visual representation is. Think about your students who doodle and consider thinking innovatively about how to channel their need to put pen to paper and produce a picture towards learning…instead of trying to shut them down. Can joy around visual representation produce greater focus, investment, and engagement in learning? I believe it can! Enjoy these thought-provoking resources from Sunni:

Sunni Brown’s Website

New York Times: Uncovering an Enigma Wrapped in a Doodle

TED Talk: Doodlers, Unite!

Book: The Doodle Revolution: Unlocking the Power to Think Differently

Book: Gamestorming: A Playbook For Innovators, Rule Breakers, & Game Changers

For THEIR Future

“We need to prepare students for their future, not our past.” – Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink’s oft-repeated words serve as a constant reminder of our work as educators and parents. This video states:

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

It is our role to provide children with skill sets that go beyond information – skill sets that are transferable and can be relied on for whatever challenges, problems, and careers lie ahead in their future. As parents and educators partner in this quest – here are a couple useful resources. The first is a small booklet titled 101.3 Ways to Build Creativity. Within you’ll find numerous creativity, construction-based, collaboration-requiring activities that may prove useful in your work with students. Some samples:

  • Place a yardstick across six people’s index fingers parallel to the floor. Try and lower the stick to the floor, you will be surprised how difficult it is!
  • Create a tabletop game for two people using a pin pong ball, paper clips, and tape. Define the rules and scoring and how to wine the game.
  • Make a device that can place a penny in a cup without allowing any team member to be within 30 inches of the cup. You may use popsicle sticks, paper cups, string, tape, straws, spaghetti, and marshmallows in your solution. See how many pennies can be put in the cup in two minutes.
  • And 98.3 more!

The second resource is an article from the latest issue of Independent School magazine titled Education for Innovation: Teaching Children How to Change the World. The authors write,

“Students need to feel empowered to go out into the world and solve its problems. In essence, we want to figure out how to produce future innovators.”

The article highlights some key qualities that characterize innovation. Qualities of innovation are nurtured not just through STEAM activities, but throughout the large and small moments of children’s days and in many of the things you do with your students/children. Innovation is a habit of mind, not a discrete set of facts that can be memorized. It is a muscle, and as such must be worked and practiced to be strengthened and honed for the work that lies in both the near and long term. The article references Google Vice President Susan Wojciciki’s eight pillars of innovation, the conditions which need to be present for innovation to flourish and thrive:
Have a mission that matters: “If we want our students to not only have big ideas but also to learn how to run with those ideas, we need to start talking about things that matter.”
Think big, but start small: “By seeking volunteers and not issuing a top-down mandate, we assembled a team who were not only interested in integrating creative problem solving into their lesson plans, but who also wanted to re-envision our campus culture.”
Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection: “If we want our students to become innovators, we have to inspire them to continuously improve upon their work. That’s hard to do when so many young people are programmed to work for the highest grade possible, achieve it, and move on to the next assignment.”
Look for ideas everywhere: “If we really believe that good ideas can come from anywhere, we’ve got to be open to listening to even the smallest voices.”
Share everything: “Our goal is for the way we teach innovation to affect our entire community.”
Spark with imagination, fuel with data: “We want our students to learn to listen to their hearts and their heads in equal measure.”
Be an open platform: “Rather than protect our intellectual property, let’s layer our ideas on top of each other and see if we can produce a generation of innovators who make breakthroughs that matter.”

 

Looking for Inspiration?

The “inter-web” is rife with resources, insight, and inspiration and it can be hard to sift through the selections for what is worth delving into. Here are five blogs, along with a noteworthy post for each, that are geared towards both educators & parents that may inspire as the summer draws to a close.

Wonder of Children – by Lisa Dewey Wells, elementary educator & member of the professional design team for Responsive Classroom

Noteworthy post: 6 Hard Truths – highlights some hard realities of life and living that, while no amount of schooling or training can fix, quality character education & social-emotional learning can endow children with a wealth of tools to cope, persevere, and overcome.


The Science of Learning Blog – by The Scientific Learning Corporation, has a wealth of articles on learning, the brain, and teaching strategies for engaging all types of learners.

Noteworthy post: Smarten up! Three Facts About the Learning Brain – three interesting facts about how dreams, diet, and even summer routines heavily impact your brain’s elasticity and acuity.


It’s About Learning – by Bo Adams, Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, his blog examines critical questions related to 21st Century Learning skills and tools and what our children need to be prepared for their future and not our past.

Noteworthy post: “Fallor ergo sum” – St. Augustine 1200 years prior to Descartes, this post examines the critical notion of “failing forward” – or the importance of the experience of being wrong, of failing and moving forward as an intrinsically necessary part of meaningful, lasting learning.


The Positive Classroom – by Muriel Rand, Professor of Early Childhood Education at New Jersey City University

Noteworthy post: 10 Wonderful Multicultural Children’s Books – briefly discusses the importance of actively developing anti-bias children and some literature selections that can be used as conversation starters.

 


 

Dane’s Education Blog – by Dane Peters, Head of Brooklyn Heights Montessori School

Noteworthy post: Play – how research shows that play of all kinds, even the rough-and-tumble sort – can be healthy and even prevent violent behavior.