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

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 Dastardly Winter of 2015

Though snow days and delays are stacking up – the reality is that missed school days don’t have to be a lost opportunity for your children/students to continue learning and growing. They don’t have to all become lazy, purposeless 10947279_928295667180645_6322206310509400710_ndays (though research shows that boredom and slowing down are both healthy triggers for innovation and happiness). With the right mindset and perspective, the unexpected gift of time can be a chance to create, learn, rest, and connect….with the outdoors, with books, with your creative side, and with each other. Play is just as pivotal for adults as it is for children. Here are some helpful resources to spark ideas for days when Mother Nature says “Nope!”:

Washington Post: Four Ways to Combat the Winter Blahs

NPR: 8 Picture Books That Make Us Wish We Were Kids Again and Picture Books You Don’t Have to Be a Kid to Love

Snow Day Boredom Busters: 40 Indoor Activities When the Kids are Stuck at Home

Play Minute-to-Win-It Style Games with easy materials and guaranteed laughs.

50 Ways to Keep Kids Busy Indoors

Play or Learning? It’s Not Either/Or.

IMG_0019I recently recommended the book Free To Learn, by Peter Gray. The New York Times recently published an article, The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K, that further highlights the fallacy that learning and play are mutually exclusive experiences.

“While grown-ups recognize that pretending helps children find their way into the world, many adults think of play as separate from formal learning. The reality is quite different. As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.

What does purposeful play look like? When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.”

– Shael Polakow-Suranksy & Nancy Nager

Better learning doesn’t just happen as a result of environments where children are free to play. Better learning happens WHILE they play.

Play Hard. Learn Better.

In his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, author Peter Gray, an evolutionary developmental psychologist, examines the nature of play and the scientific research associated with it’s powerful educational benefits. It is simultaneously a very engaging and highly informative read. It’s worth buying a hard copy, it’s worth reading, and it’s worth taking seriously as we work as parents and educators to create environments, learning experiences, and opportunities for our children to become smart of mind and good of heart. Some quotes to highlight:

“Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other young mammals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like ‘self-motivated practice of life skills’…”

“Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends. In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.”

“In play…children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them.”

 

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.