Reconsidering “Play”

Since the beginning of the school year, I’ve seen a number of newspaper articles and television news recordings on extending play-based learning into Grade 1 and beyond. I totally understand the thinking behind these reports.

  • I know that students learn by doing.
  • I know that meaningful play can help develop critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving skills.
  • I know that students benefit the most when learning is meaningful to them. I know that play helps with this.
  • I know that Full-Day Kindergarten has given students more school experience, and that this will impact on future grades.
  • I know that if students have learned in a play-based environment in Kindergarten, it’s hard to adjust to a more traditional Grade 1 program. 

But I also wonder what happens when we only focus on the “play.”

  • How do we know when and how to best use direct instruction?
  • How do we support students that don’t have the schema to engage in more creative play?
  • How do we use this play environment to build oral language skills in our youngest learners, and later develop reading and writing skills?
  • How do we explore student interests and curriculum expectations? Do these intersect? What if they don‘t?
  • What support networks are in place for teachers as they navigate through this new approach?
  • If the play-based program is moving up in the grades, are we also re-looking at marks versus descriptive feedback? (There are no marks in Kindergarten, but there are in the other grades. How do we evaluate play? What opportunities are in place to converse with others about what they do?)

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Here’s what I do know though: I wanted play-based learning to work in our Grade 1 classroom. I thought that students could drive their own learning, and we could have large blocks of time to inquire. Language, Math, Science, Social Studies, and The Arts would weave themselves fluidly throughout our day, and I could structure my mini-lessons and small groups based on current inquiries. This was my dream, but it wasn’t my realityStudents needed more support than I anticipated, and I needed to make changes to my original plans to help meet these student needs. I’m still making changes. Some students can handle more flexibility in learning. Some students need more support. Play’s happening, but in different ways for different students.

And while, overall, I’m really happy with our new classroom structure, I know that student needs vary from school to school. Maybe my initial vision would work somewhere else. Maybe it could work with just a few minor changes. This is why I worry when I hear about the play-based program moving up in the grades. It’s not because I don’t believe in this model: I do. But I also know that people tend to interpret “play” in a certain way, and what if this way doesn’t work for studentsHow do we adjust one model to meet the needs of all of our learners? How do we avoid swinging a pendulum between the extremes of “play” and “worksheets?” I think that with a student-centred model, we must be able to find something in between. What do you think?


28 thoughts on “Reconsidering “Play”

  1. I think one of the greatest things we can do for our students is give them choice and voice over their learning. Far too often our students are so controlled that the learning they are doing has little relevance to them and is something the teacher expects of them. Play is meaningful learning for children. It is how they learn, how they explore, and how they make sense of the world. As an adult I also play when I find a new website or tool. That’s how I learn too.

    But I also realize it is my responsibility to teach my students how to read and write in grade one and I take that job very seriously. I do my best though to keep them at the centre of that learning. It may not always be through play, but more often than not it is about them making choices about which books they want to read, or what they want to write about. I am still the teacher, with big ideas that need to be taught, but the students are guiding their learning.

    As for letter grades , it makes me so sad to know that in Ontario they are required starting in grade one. Here in BC they do not begin until grade four, and many schools are now exploring not having any letter grades until the end of the year (if at all) in a K-7 schools.

    • Thanks for your comment, Karen! I totally agree with you about choice and voice, and I wonder if this is how we can avoid the pendulum swing in the different grades. “Play” may not be “play” exactly, but may be more meaningful exploration with students at least sharing the driver’s seat. Thanks for giving me more to think about.

      I must say, I do like the BC approach to grades, but Kristi Keery-Bishop made an interesting point in her latest blog post about grades that still has me thinking. I still prefer feedback, but like Kristi’s thinking too.


  2. Aviva,

    These are great questions but I think that what you have to remember is that just because it’s play does not mean that the teacher doesn’t teach.

    This is the same with inquiry, some feel that they (the students) are just exploring but that is a wrong assumption.

    The teachers role is even more important in play because without it the learning cannot be accelerated or brought to the fore front.

    We need to do this through critical questioning, purposeful play and careful planning. As you said you need balance and as teachers have to critically think what is best for our students. I don’t have a lot of answers but just had to say that.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan! I think you make a great point, and one that I totally agree with, but do we all share the same feelings on this? I wonder if “play” will just be seen as “playing,” without the need for this instruction, these purposeful questions, and this guidance (when needed). These are often the criticisms that I hear of the FDK program, and while I know that there’s so much more to playing than this, I wonder how we have these important conversations to help ensure that “classroom playing” is consistently responsive to varied student needs.

      Thanks for helping me clarify my thinking!

  3. One of the very few things that I haven’t approved of in the FDK rollout in Ontario is the use of the phrase “play-based learning”. It bothers me for several reasons. 1) by it’s connotations, it devalues the work of learning going on in a good FDK classroom 2) it undervalues and under represents the experience of learning through exploration, experimentation and inquiry already occurring in grade 1-12 (and up), 3) makes the public believe it is just learning by osmosis and educators are there just to benignly smile and look on while their charges play.
    Play based learning is already in grade one…and in grade eight art…and in grade twelve chemistry…and at NASA, and in medical schools, and in architecture firms. Play encompasses many different techniques – including, when needed, direct teaching, feedback and redirection. Sit with any three year old when invited to a tea party and they will direct you when you are doing it wrong. Engage in a bey blade battle with eight year olds and you will recieve feedback and evaluation of your efforts, progress and next steps.
    I don’t think the problem is in the structure (or lack of it) in your classroom, but in our use of the word play when the general public has a rather rigid schema (with biases) about that term.
    Teachers know that play doesn’t fit in any nice little box. Perhaps we need to expand our definition of it to reflect the reality of this important teaching concept.

    • Thanks for the comment, Kristi! You make so many important points here. I wonder if educators also see “play” in a certain way. It’s hard not to. I know that in the FDK Program Document, play is almost synonymous with inquiry, but it seems to have a different connotation. Maybe some good discussions with various stakeholders in education about the “changing definition of play” will help as play-based learning continues to have an important presence in different grades. I know a topic I’d like to discuss at EdCamp Hamilton now … 🙂

      Thank you for giving me more to think about!

  4. I’ve been puzzling over and playing with your comments all evening, Aviva. Like you, I have found myself needing to revise the organization of our day and also how play is incorporated into learning through the school day. At the start of the year, my grade 1 students looked for large chunks of free play time as this seems to have been the norm in their KG experience. For many students this translated into time when they did not have to engage in ‘work’ or ‘learning’, a dichotomy which really bothered me! So, in activities I have intentionally used the phrases , “play to learn”, and. “thinking play” and some students have begun to associate the one with the other. I agree with Kristi that the use of the term “play” and public perception of what play comprises is tricky. I’m still searching for a continuum that shows how play for learning, or playful learning develops in response to specific intellectual challenges (e.g. in mathematics and science inquiries) later in the elementary years. I know there are descriptions of different kinds of play for early years contexts. If “play” or whatever else we want to call it, is essential for children to learn, then I’m hoping there are indicators of what increasingly developed / effective play looks like. Does the inquiry model come close to describing what students do when their learning is play based? In some ways, I would prefer not to dilute the value of authentic play, or of rigorous intellectual endeavours, by using a term like play-based learning.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ruth! I can’t help but wonder if this students also need to gain this new understanding of “play.” While I can see why you don’t want to “dilute the value of play” by calling it other things, I wonder if this does help students see that play is learning. I wonder what would happen if you asked students what “play” means. I wonder how their answers would compare to adult answers. I can’t help but infer what aspects would be included and what ones would not. How can we change this definition? I think with an updated definition of “play” — that does include learning, questioning, and instruction — I’d think differently about the government’s plan. What about you?


      • Thanks for the insights, and also the pointers to seeking a fuller definition of play, both from the children and myself. Perhaps too, the curriculum itself needs aligning with this vision. A focus on literacy and mathematics, with topic suggestions for social studies, science, and the arts so that they are not treated as separate lists of expectations to be accomplished.

        • Thanks for the comment, Ruth! I think this is a very important point. I wonder how our teaching would change if there was actual integration within the curriculum expectations themselves. If this doesn’t happen, maybe we need to take the time as teachers to sit down and discuss with each other how we do this. I really do believe that large blocks of time for learning are key for both play-based and inquiry learning. How do we make this happen? How can we work with rotary teachers to help with this too?


  5. I struggle with this alot! I think that a the heart of the matter is student voice and student ownership over their learning. That is what makes learning meaningful and authentic. There are certain things that require direct instruction and to not do so is being neglectful. However, space and time to create and make is powerful! I have seen tremendous learning in my kindies through play, but I still flash the letter sounds and meet with them for reading conferences. This gives them the tools to document their learning when they are “playing”.

    • Thanks Rachel! I love your balance between play and direct instruction. Often I think that we see the need for direct instruction to be to the full class, and you show the power of this small group interaction. You also explain how this instruction helps students during playtime, which I think is so important.

      Thank you for adding to this conversation!

  6. I also have pondered the differences between free choise play time /play-based learning/inquiry based learning/independent learning (genius hour?) in the primary classroom. My grade one students this year certainly like the chance for independence (albeit very structured) offered by our rounds of Daily 5 (last year it was a bomb and I packed it in by Christmas), however it has been my experience for the most part after 6 years in Grade 1 that, similar to you Aviva, much front loading and ongoing support is required for students to extend their learning or challenge themselves in new ways when offered the freedom to choose their learning path. This does not diminish the value of practising a skill, going to an “old favourite” activity, or just doing something because it’s fun- but how much and how often? I can see that the materials/resources we we are able to provide students with in our classroom are a huge factor (ie: access to technology, and a Montessori or Reggio style class full of constantly changing curriculum-inspired things to explore) in inspiring what play/inquiry/independent research might look like. I can visualize a class like this…

    • Thanks for the comment! I can’t help but wonder if student experiences play a role in this too. Maybe “play” would look different at different schools, depending on where students are at with regards to collaboration, critical and creative thinking, and problem solving. I do believe that developing independence in students and giving students more control over their learning are key. We still play an important role as teachers, but maybe we facilitate, inspire, and guide, more than just instruct. There’s still value in direct instruction, but does it need to be for the full class all the time? I think that continuing to discuss “play” in the classroom is important, as maybe this helps us build a new definition of it and create a better shared understanding.


  7. Had to leave a separate comment after reading all of the thoughtful comments. It’s funny that you wrote this post at the exact same time that Stephan Hurley, Jim Cash, Neil Lyons and myself were talking about creativity. During this conversation we brought up the words play and work. We were discussing why we were able to be creative and the thoughts around that we were able to muddle through things or play before applying it to work. Neil then mentioned that the muddling or play was actually the learning and working and when we bring it to the classroom or apply it is just the outcome. The question then was why is play not considered work? What is work?

    As many off stated above our definition of play is very rigid. We see play as leisure but need to see it as learning. I like to call it exploration or as Neil said inovation versus play. It is just semantics but it brings different meanings because of our scehma.

    I think that if we honestly sit back and reflect on our learning, no matter what walk of life, we can say that the best learning came when we could experiment, ‘play’, muddle through, and make mistakes. This is the learning that we want in our students. We want them to be innovators, experiementers, and learners. This can only be accomplish through well crafted ‘play based’ approach to learning. Which involves the teacher as the critical mechanism to a child’s development because we know that a question or statement at the right moment in our learning g is all we need unlock it’s full potential.

    • Thanks for contributing again to the discussion, Jonathan! I think that you make such an important point here. I actually discussed this point a little bit in my reply to Beate. In the past, I think that we’ve always seen play as separate from work: play is something that we do when the work is done. But it’s during the “play” that we’re thinking, collaborating, and problem solving … and it’s during this play that we’re learning. So how do we help adults — both in and outside of the education field — come to a new understanding of what “play” means and what it looks like in the different grades? In Kindergarten, play seems like such a natural part of the program. How do we make this the case in the other grades? What might be holding people back from doing so? How do we address these concerns? How do we make “play” work for all students: balancing scaffolding and direct instruction when necessary?

      You’ve definitely given me so much more to think about!

      • I think part of the problem is the feeling of meeting expectations. You and I are comfortable in the knowledge that learning is far more important then just teaching curriculum but many do not. Many feel that things must get done and play just takes too long.

        I like to argue that yes even though exploration and play takes time it is way more meaningful and impactful on student learning and development. How many hours do we waste in review or going backwards before moving forwards. With exploration this just doesn’t happen because students enter at their level and develop at their own pace, they also cover all expectations of not more.

        As for getting changing perspectives I think we just have too invite and change as the time goes. It will take time as wide scoping change does.

        • Thanks for the reply, Jonathan! I feel a little uncomfortable with your second sentence. I think that learning is more important than “covering expectations,” but not “meeting them.” When we give students a chance to play, inquiry, collaborate, and think, we’re also often leading to a much richer understanding of the overall expectations and addressing so many of the specific ones. This is where our provocations are key. The curriculum is not a checklist, but I do think it should help guide instruction. It needs to be about more than just “covering content” though.

          I totally agree with you about the benefits of “play.” I also think though that as teachers, we need to be receptive to when play is not working, when students are lacking some of the background knowledge, and when they may need more of our support. This is why we need to be watching the play, and involved in it at just the right time to help move the learning forward.

          Thanks again for always giving me so much to think about!

          • I may have not stated my thoughts clearly. I was suggesting exactly what you were saying. I think that many feel ‘play’ does not work because they have to Check off expectations instead of focusing on the big ideas and the learning. I was suggesting that for you and I(and I may be speaking for you hear) it is about the learning. We know that through inquiry our students will meet expectations if not exceed them. There is no fear to let them play and explore because we know that learning is the ultimate goal, not just checking off a list.

          • Thanks for clarifying, Jonathan! We’re definitely on the same page here. And yes, through the playing and the inquiry, the students are meeting all of the required expectations, and often, so much more. Our guidance throughout helps those that struggle move to the next level. It really is a delicate balance, and one where all of us are continually learning — both students and teachers!


  8. What a rich conversation! Aviva, I think our focus has to be that we balance exploration with direction and purposeful play. Students need time, choice and voice to explore, wonder and experience. However, Purposeful play is important work. We create the conditions for their exploration and control the scaffolds and interventions. We assess prior knowledge and determine when “just in time “teaching is needed. Direct instruction at the right time helps students take leaps forward. Observing students is a really important part of our assessment work and feedback and conversation is the other great “instructor”. I know from your writing you are a reflective and intuitive teacher. I will bet you jump in to help kids move forward. Students are fortunate to be in your class!
    Best wishes,

    • Thank you so much, Beate, for adding to the discussion as well as for the kind words. I think that the hard part is that we used to see “play” as the fun part after the work was done. Now the play is the work. And as educators, we’re not sitting aside and doing something else during this play, but observing it, questioning when necessary, and looking at how to move the thinking and learning forward. I think that play and direct instruction can co-exist … it’s just a matter of how we make it work best for every child!


  9. Aviva, I just got around to reading your post. I too agree with Kristi, am not at all fond of the term ‘play based’. Last week for my kindergarten coverage, I had a group of learners who were building a race track with wooden blocks. Their track included ramps. We realised that our cars kept going off the ramps. The kinders decided to create some guard rails to stop the cars from veering off the track. The were able to explain to me in clear terms why they had done things. After I posted the picture you tweeted back to say that they could have created an instructional picture (or we could have done a short video) to show others what they had done. Maybe we could also have surfed the internet that looked at some roads that use guard rails and talk about how they are built. Talk about purposeful play for these kids. They even went on to build a cover (overpass) for their race track. This play was definitely worth it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jo-Ann! I love the example you shared. Maybe it comes down to how we define “play.” I blogged today on this very topic, and already, there’s some interesting information shared on the Padlet Wall in the post. I hope that we can continue to talk about what “play” means. If we’re sticking with the word, I hope we can update the meaning of it.


  10. Hi Aviva,

    I thought you would be interested in a webcast by Jo Boaler on regarding assessment and growth mindset, particularly as it relates to feedback and providing students with letter grades ( What do letter grades mean to my grade 1 students? Do letter grades help the parents of my students know how to move their forward in their learning? I would like my students to become independent learners and I believe providing students with feedback, rather than letter grades throughout the school year will help them do so.

    • Thanks for the comment and the link, Valerie! I totally agree regarding letter grades and Grade 1 students. We need to put letter grades on our report cards though. With this requirement, should we be using letter grades before this so that students and parents are not surprised by them? This is something I’m still contemplating. What do you think?


  11. Hi Aviva,

    Wow! Such great reflections! I think that play is possible in all grades and giving students the time to explore concepts using play is very important for our children. It will look different based upon the needs of your students, perhaps even your grade. Like you, I have experimented with our day and the idea of a more open schedule, where students are engaging in large blocks of play and I am using documentation to respond, extend and challenge. I have learned that we need to rethink our curriculum- not the “what” but the “how”. By providing invitations to learning we are opening up the possiblities for where student thinking will take us. Even though students are given lots of time to explore, investigate, create and play, I am still explicitly teaching based upon the needs of my students. This instruction can occur within group learning, small group, individual, during learning spaces etc… I really feel it is a dance where sometimes u lead and sometimes students lead. Knowing your curriculum is key. Reflecting on documentation and thinking about your response is essential. What are your students showing you? How can you move that thinking forward? Does it mean new materials, explicit teaching, providing a new experience? Reading and writing is just beginning in grade one- it is an area that students need a lot of modelling, instruction and practice. I start with a prescribed language block to get the kids going, then I open it up as they start applying more of what they know. At this point in the year, I am confident that my students are achieving the expectations and can open up learning spaces more throughout the day. Then through the learning spaces I see the children applying what they have learned and I see the curriculum in action in an authentic way. It has taken me 3 years to get to this place and I am confident that it works. It just takes time to “muddle” through and keep learning from our students, our colleagues and from our reflections. I love your post because it is showing that we too are in a learning stance and with learning, we ask questions, we experiment and we try to find answers/solutions.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Tracey! I find myself nodding along to so much of what you’ve written. It’s really nice to know that I’m not alone here. I think that we all need these changes to share, to question, and to find connections with others that are working through many of these same issues/topics. Thanks for being one of these people!


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