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

Children Want To Be Understood

notebookThis New York Times article, Helping Parents Deal With Learning and Attention Issues, gives an overview of a new ad campaign promoting the website Understood.org. The website is an incredibly useful resource for parents, and by extension educators, as we strive every day to understand children’s experience, make learning and growing accessible and engaging, and walk the balance between protecting our children/students and allowing them the valuable experiences of struggle, failure, and perseverance with an eye towards students who develop both quality intellect and excellent character. Our children and students move through a world that is largely organized, scheduled, structured, and geared towards adults. The website provides a multitude of resources in the areas of: brain research, learning & attention (executive functioning skills), friends & feelings (social emotional skills), and support systems for families. Understood.org seeks to make the experience of different kinds of learners more transparent and accessible for parents and teachers so that we might better support and inspire the next generation.

Feeling stressed?

Listen to Kelly McGonigal (a health psychologist) share research studies that are changing the way scientists think about stress, it’s impact on the body, and how our mindset about stress in our lives makes a profound physiological and pyschological difference.

“The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience…Stress gives us access to our hearts, the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others and yes, your pounding physical heart working so hard to give you strength and energy. When you choose to view stress in this way you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and you’re remembering you don’t have to face them alone.– Kelly McGonigal

Connected, but Alone

This TED talk by Sherry Turkle is worth the listen and the thought-time. As we model for our students and children how to engage meaningfully in community, navigate emotions and relationships with friends and loved ones, and balance increasing demands on our time and attention as a result of this digital age: reflecting on Sherry Turkle’s words will not be a waste.

“We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things…and the end result is we expect more from technology and less from each other…When Thoreau considered “where I live and what I live for,” he tied together location and values. Where we live doesn’t just change how we live; it informs who we become. Most recently, technology promises us lives on the screen. What values, Thoreau would ask, follow from this new location? Immersed in simulation, where do we live, and what do we live for?” – Sherry Turkle

Empathy vs. Sympathy

When somebody (of any age) shares meaningful events or emotions with you, how can you respond in a way that invites connection?

As we seek to help children become people of strong character…
As we listen to our students share pieces of their worlds with us…
As we interact daily with colleagues, families, and strangers…

…this short, beautifully animated lesson from Brene Brown on the “how” of empathy is powerful and transformative.

Hot or smart? Introverted or Extraverted?

In the interest of better understanding ourselves and others (children, families, and colleagues)…
For the sake of the students we teach who absorb our messages and who come to us with brains of all types …
Here are two though provoking articles shared with me by colleagues:

From Andrea (a mother and kindergarten teacher who is both hot and smart but values the latter over the former): How To Talk To Little Girls

From Maddie (a deliciously introverted artist coated in a talented English teacher shell):
Revenge The Introvert

In Memoriam: Teaching & Living Whole-heartedly

The Monday after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was full of uncertainty in elementary classrooms across the country. As children in mine shared their feelings during morning meeting, it became clear that (unsurprisingly) they were feeling a tremendous range of emotions – some of which they surely had difficulty even putting a name to: Sadness, fear, and confusion topped the list. There were also students who voiced a shadow of guilt as they talked about the laughter and joy they’d experienced at birthday parties or other adventures over the weekend.

This led me to think a lot about, and eventually share with them, what I believe to be one of the best ways we can truly, daily, lastingly honor the memory of the 26 lives lost that day: and that is to live and love vulnerably, whole-heartedly, and authentically…with profound gratitude, connection, and joy.

I invite you to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability and living whole-heartedly.

http://youtu.be/X4Qm9cGRub0

I pulled out some sound bytes that I intend to soak in more deeply in the coming days, weeks, and months:

  • The root of the word “courage” is the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage literally had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” 
  • Authenticity is the willingness to let go of who you think you should be to embrace who you are.
  • Vulnerability is not always comfortable or enjoyable but it is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.
  • Children don’t need to be treated as, or made, perfect. They are imperfect, wired for struggle, but are incredibly worthy of love and belonging. We can give them belief in their worthiness.
  • Let yourselves be deeply seen, love and care with your whole hearts, practice gratitude, lean into joy, and believe that you are enough.

I truly believe that if we are willing to be authentic, vulnerable, open-to-struggle-and-failure, whole-hearted teachers and people that there is hope that the children we teach will be able to create a different world. In doing so, we become kinder and gentler with ourselves, and kinder and gentler with each other and children. May such teaching, living, and caring truly honor the memory of the children and educators lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as those who struggle on without them. May such profound belief in the worthiness of each child color their future with the pursuit of whole-hearted living as well. You are each, and we together, enough to make a difference.