Finally I Understand: How My Opinion Of “Play” Has Changed

As many of you know, I was a Kindergarten teacher for 8 years before I moved to Grade 1, and now to a Grade 1/2 class. I loved teaching Kindergarten. When I started teaching it, I thought that I would never move out of it. There were a number of reasons that I chose to change grades, but a bit part of it was the Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten (ELK) model. As a Grade 1 teacher last year, I was part of group that offered feedback on the program expectations for the ELK Program, and I had some reservations. Yes, I had some problems with full days of “play.”

Please don’t get me wrong. I have always been a teacher that sees the value in hands-on learning. Up until this year though, my vision of hands-on learning always meant structured play. This hands-on learning was always very teacher-directed, and even though I always differentiated activities, I always did the differentiating. To me, I saw a play-based Kindergarten program as organized chaos, and I couldn’t understand how students would be academically ready for Grade 1. I knew the philosophy behind the ELK Program, but I wasn’t sure that being a part of it was right for me. Even though our school doesn’t have full-day Kindergarten yet, I knew that it was coming, so I thought that it was better to leave before it did.

And then Thursday came along. I had an epiphany on Thursday. As a culminating task for our Structures Unit in Grade 1 and our Simple Machines Unit in Grade 2, I had two different Science activities set-up for the afternoon. The Grade 1’s were working in partners to make a straw, stick, or brick house that would protect the Three Little Pigs from the Big Bad Blowdryer. The Grade 2’s were making a wind-powered car: applying what they learned about wheels and axles. (Please visit the individual student blogs for videos of these activities.) As the students went off to work, I sat back, and I started taking photographs. Then I went around, sat down with different groups of students, asked them questions about what they were doing, and helped them when necessary. The classroom was bustling! There was lots of activity, tons of talk, and all kinds of awesome teamwork. Students were being creative, they were coming up with new ways of solving problems, they were creating some of their own extensions, and they were “playing” while also learning too.

That’s when I knew: students can learn through play. Play doesn’t need to be chaotic, and it doesn’t need to just be screaming, car crashes, and knocking over blocks. Students can direct purposeful play too. They can experiment, they can explore, they can question, and while doing all of this, they can learn. Even with the activities that we did in class, the students drew diagrams of their plans (science and art), labelled their work (writing), and discussed what they would add or change the next time (oral language). They even extended their learning, like this one student, that went home that night and created a video of testing her car at home. She almost created her own advertisement for this car too (media literacy). The possibilities really are endless!

So knowing what I know now, do I want to go back to teaching Kindergarten? No, because I would love to extend the play-based learning that the students are getting in Kindergarten into the early primary grades too. I’m glad that I had this epiphany though, and that I now see things the way that I do.

What do you think about play-based learning? How does play-based learning look in your classroom? How do you want it to look? I would love to know your thoughts!


14 thoughts on “Finally I Understand: How My Opinion Of “Play” Has Changed

  1. You really are an amazing teacher! So much passion and enthusiasm for learning. You are always pushing the envelope with your little ones. Play is so important at all ages. This year our 9th graders made chairs out of newspaper. One of the ninth grade teacher tested each and they all held him. Think about the critical thinking required during that “play” session.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Ann! They really do mean a lot. What a fantastic “play” activity in a Grade 9 classroom. I can only imagine how much the students had to think to make this work.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. I think “play” is important in all grade levels. Don’t you remember labs were the best part of high school science classes? Those are the classes I remember because we allowed to talk and share ideas. It was fun! I loved seeing my kids playing with marshmallow catapults this year. They learned so much about the position of the fulcrum and force. So fun!

    • Thanks for your comment! Science lab classes always were a lot of fun, and now that you mention it, I guess that it was because of the “play.” I love your marshmallow catapult idea too! I’ll need to give this a try next year when we do Simple Machines. I’d love to hear more about it!


  3. All you need is large craft sticks, a bowl, a very small block, and mini marshmallows.The kids make a lever by using the block and stick like a see saw. They place a marshmallow on one end, place the fulcrum where they want, press the other side, and the marshmallow shoots up. They try to get five in the bowl. I let mine work in pairs. It is a room filled with laughter and conversation! Eventually they discover the right force and placement of the fulcrum. So fun!

  4. Yes, play is a way students learn. It still needs to be explicit and focused. I believe all students can learn through trial, error & exploration. Brian’s just written a blog post on how intermediate and high school classrooms would benefit from play based learning.
    Keep reflecting and growing. I know this car project had you worried. You believed in your students and let them find the way. We don’t have to always show our students how to do things. We need to facilitate their learning.

    • Thanks for the comment, Angie! I think that when I first heard the word, “play,” it sounded like it lacked this explicit, focused part that you talked about here. Now I understand that “play” can be explicit and focused and great for all students, regardless of age. I was really worried about the car experiment, as I didn’t really understand how to make one either, but after reading your tweet in the morning, I realized that I really needed to leave it up to the students to figure out and problem-solve. Thanks for giving me a different perspective! Thank you too for the post recommendation that you suggested here. I’ll need to read it now!


  5. Play is important to all of us. It allows us a freedom to problem-solve in an atmosphere that isn’t pressured. However, structure is a part of play. Whenever I introduced new manipulatives, legos etc. there was always time to play and explore but those items needed to be used appropriately.
    Thanks for another great post!

  6. Thanks for your comment, JoAnn! Please don’t get me wrong. I believe in this structure too, but I now also think it’s important for students to have time to explore, and find new ways to use tools that we might not have thought of before. It always amazes me what students of all ages can do!


    • Thanks Royan! That means so much! I really admire you too, and if it weren’t for people like you, I know that I wouldn’t be trying the kinds of things that I am today. Thank you!


  7. I taught grade 2 for the first time this year with a wonderful teaching partner. After being influenced by a kindergarten room we decided to open the wall to our rooms and integrate our two classes for the entire day. It has allowed us to have two teachers in the room and create small groups based on students needs. We’ve been able to do a great deal of group work providing critical thinking opportunities and for students to collaborate with their peers. As much success as our classroom has had this year we’ve been wanting to bring more ‘play’ into our program. I just began doing research about play beyond kindergarten and I’m so happy I stumbled on this blog. I look forward to reading more information from you. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • Thanks Jyl! I hope that you continue to find more ways to bring “play” into your classroom and that you share what you’re doing too. I’d love to hear your ideas!


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