Purposeful Play in Primary School

CBy Amy Thomas, Junior Kindergarten Teacher

“Play isn’t the enemy of learning; it’s learning’s partner. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it.” -Stuart Brown in his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

This September, New York City implemented universal pre-kindergarten, making it the latest of many cities and states to do so. In recent years, pre-k education has gained national press as research has consistently and repeatedly demonstrated the positive impact that high-quality early childhood programs have on student success in schooling and beyond.

Langley SchoolA recent New York Times article, titled “The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K,” challenges the notion that high-quality programming is marked by a singular commitment to an academic curriculum. In fact, it argues quite the opposite – that some of students’ deepest learning occurs during play. The authors write, “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.”

This phenomenon is not new to us at The Langley School. A few summers ago, the faculty read Tony Wagner’s book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World (2012). In it, Wagner writes about the changing role of the workforce and the necessity for students to develop a sense of play, passion, and purpose. He describes preschools in which teachers are acting as guides while the students take control of their own learning through authentic play experiences that encourage innovation and collaboration. I am proud to say that play is one of the cornerstones of Langley’s Primary School curriculum.

Students in our Primary School begin each day with “choice time,” a largely unstructured play time in which students are able to make play choices based on their own interests. Students in my junior kindergarten classroom enter each morning ready to take on a day of fun and learning. Some skip over to the play kitchen and begin working on their restaurant menu. Here they practice their phonetic spelling skills as they attempt to write words like “hot dog” while also practicing number formation as they list prices.

Others head to the block bin and begin working on their latest architectural project. This past week, their work focused on designing a new parking garage for Langley. Through careful thought, they were able to create a two-level parking garage with an entrance and a floor plan that enabled them to fit all of the cars from the car bin inside. Other students may find a comfy spot in the book corner to flip through one of their favorite books with a friend. I can hear them pointing out letters or see them dragging their fingers underneath the text as they pretend to read. This is purposeful play and it is one of the most valuable learning experiences that I can give my students.

In addition to its academic benefits, play helps students develop the social and emotional skills essential to success in school and in society. Students must work together to problem-solve when conflicts arise. What will they do when two students want to be the dog in the puppet theatre production? How will they react when someone else is reading the book they want to read? These experiences help students develop the communication skills necessary to articulate their desires, while simultaneously giving them the knowledge that they may not always get what they want when they want it, and that is okay.

In an ever-changing society, students need to develop more than the traditional content-based knowledge. They must develop an understanding of how to communicate, collaborate, and think critically. These are skills that we develop each day in The Langley School’s Primary School classrooms. As children play, we provide them with rich educational experiences in which they can take risks and expand their capacity for future learning.