By Anna Shiroma, Early Childhood Curricular & Instructional Specialist
“Play is the highest form of research.” -Albert Einstein
As you prepare for the winter break and some unstructured time with your kids, I wanted to share a few examples of how play comes alive in The Langley School’s Primary School classrooms. This might give you ideas not only for your children, but for you as well. The research on play is clear: when children (and adults) engage in play, it strengthens our neural pathways!
The other day, I walked into a junior kindergarten class (The Langley School’s four-year old program) during their morning Centers block and found two students exploring the ocean in a submarine. The “submarine” was a cardboard box and the sea creatures were handmade by the students, but that didn’t matter. They were engaging in thoughtful conversation around the animals they saw, while their teacher followed up with questions about what they might see next. They were in the ocean. They were explorers. This is purposeful play in action.
Every class in our Primary School has a Centers block which is intentionally positioned within our full day of literacy, math, and specials. The goal of Centers time is “purposeful play” as students freely explore materials throughout their classroom and research and investigate the world around them.
At first glance, these materials may seem random, but our teachers have intentionally chosen what students will explore each day (such as a cardboard box or a set of different building materials). As they thoughtfully plan and prepare the open-ended materials that students will explore, our teachers consider student interests and the skills students are developing in math and literacy. They reflect on the social-emotional learning in which their students are engaging and where they may need support. Purposeful play starts with ensuring we have provided the materials that will set up students for optimal learning and engagement.
Once materials are planned and set out for exploration, teachers then play an integral role in their support of students throughout the Centers block. Teachers are not sitting back during this time. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Teachers are engaging in a delicate balance of allowing students to explore, while also being one step ahead to support them with the tools or skills they might need. During Centers time, teachers are providing scaffolding and support for students to access learning goals.
After observing a block tower fall multiple times, a teacher asks, “How could we get this structure to balance? What size blocks do we need?” Open-ended questioning leads students to critical thinking and exploration, while still allowing them to discover the answer themselves. When two materials mix together in an unusual way, a teacher asks, “Why do you think that happened?” These questions allow students to use language to describe what they are seeing and experiencing.
Whether we are in an ocean, a jungle, a fire station, or a kitchen, purposeful play means students are driving their learning. We can support them by building the map, but they lead the way. And when students are in the driver’s seat, the learning is even more powerful. It sets the stage for the critical thinking in which they will engage in first and second grade. It is through this foundation in the Primary School that students are able to solve problems and work through the increase in rigor as they move into the Lower School.
As you prepare for this winter break, consider the opportunities for free choice play that your child has over the next few weeks. Think about ways to plan for uninterrupted exploration. With all those holiday gift boxes around, there may even be a submarine in your house!