Play is the engine that drives learning and that opens so many joyful opportunities for young children and for older children . However, for now, let’s think about children in prekindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grade. That’s what we are thinking about at the Golden Hill Elementary School in Florida, New York.
First, we can consider some of the many benefits of play that were outlined in a 2012 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) position paper along with some classroom examples.
Play helps develop self-regulation. Children take turns playing different roles at different times. One child wants to be the doctor now, but he has to wait his turn.
Play promotes the development of language. Drawing from their experiences, the children support each other in using the particular vocabulary of the doctor’s office such as fever, medicine, X-ray and medicine.
Play promotes cognition. All the children must think their way through the play in very intentional ways. I am in a doctor’s office. What should I do next?
Play promotes social competence. As children execute a play experience together, each of them is empowered by the role she or he plays in its success.
Play gives children opportunities to explore the world. In dramatic play particularly, children bring the world into their play, where they can explore it safely. Today it’s a doctor’s office, next week it might be a camping expedition or a fire station.
Play provides opportunities for children to interact. It’s difficult to play doctor’s office alone so children must interact and co-construct all the meaning and decision-making.
Play provides opportunities for children to express and control their emotions. All sorts of emotional issues can arise in play: fairness, inclusion and exclusion, a lack of understanding, varied expectations, success and failure.
Play helps children develop their symbolic and problem-solving abilities. Two chairs placed side by side make an examination table. But wait—it’s not long enough for the patient to lie down on. Let’s get more chairs!
Play gives children opportunities to practice emerging skills. The doctor writes a prescription, carefully sounding out the words, “Pills for a cold.”
Yes! Play is the engine that drives learning.
Now to return to Golden Hill Elementary School, one of three schools that are part of the Florida Union Free School District in Orange County New York. Larry Leaven is the visionary new superintendent of schools and he is determined to help the three schools soar to greater levels. I had the pleasure of working with Larry when he was the director of the Hong Kong Dalton School and when he returned to the U.S. and began working in upstate New York, he invited me to do consulting work with the early childhood grades. I was to introduce and support kindergarten, first and second grade in integrating an inquiry-based Choice Time and whole class inquiry studies into the curriculum. Unfortunately, this coincided with the Covid pandemic.
Classrooms had to be rearranged, with children sitting three feet apart. There was no room for blocks, art centers or dramatic play. It was a dismal situation. After a few months of visits, I also decided that it was safest for me to work with the teachers virtually. However, before I made this decision, I got the go-ahead to create a model Choice Time room. Teachers would be able to observe children working in centers. They would learn how to set up centers and the thinking behind why particular materials were and were not included in centers.
Linda Shute, a marvelous, friendly and inquisitive early childhood teacher, was assigned to work with me. Truly, she ended up doing all of the major organizing of the various centers since I could only work with her remotely.
We were given a budget for ordering materials and we had the use of an unused classroom. The room looked rather bleak to begin with, but we had a vision!
We began to plan for the various centers: Blocks, Dramatic Play (with hollow wooden blocks for children to create their own play enviornments), Science (Hermit crabs are on order), Take-Apart, Writing, Sand/mud, Legos, Art, Painting Easel, Math Explorations, Cozy Reading Nook, Light Table, and more will come as we discover the interests of the children.
Carpets arrived. Alas, carpets were returned after it was discovered that they didn’t meet the fire code. New, solid-colored carpets (the DO meet the fire code) are on order.
We’re getting ready for children!
Linda began taking photo portraits of all of the children who would use the room, prekindergarten through second grade, and in the art room the children drew their self-portraits. These will form a frieze around the room, so all can see who this room belongs to.
Furniture began to arrive!
Children began to arrive! Children began to play!
Chilcren are beginning to experience the joy and fulfillment of collaboration in the block center as they work together to construct a mansion!
Last week, when I met with second grade teachers to help them plan their “Egg to Chick” inquiry project, they began talking about how excited their children were when they went to the Choice Time room . The teachers pointed out the interesting ways the centers were set up. I talked with them about how they could set up their classrooms as though they are laboratories for exploration and learning. I expected some opposition to the idea but instead the teachers asked….”Do you think we can get blocks for our classrooms?”
Change is never easy. However, the teachers are interested and willing to explore new ideas.
I think that, as the song says, ” the times they are a changing” in Florida, New York! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Golden Hill Elementary School could be a model for how teachers can be catalysts for bringing play and exploration into many more elementary school classrooms?
You can read more about Choice Time in my book, “Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play (Heinemann)