Today, I had the pleasure of visiting Nancy and Debra‘s Kindergarten Class at Earl Kitchener School. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m thrilled to be going back to Kindergarten next year, and I was really glad that I could visit this classroom today with my amazing partner. Nancy and Debra run an incredible program that truly honours the developmental needs, the learning needs, and the voice of the child. Today’s visit, followed up by the conversation with my partner, really has me thinking tonight.
Here’s my thinking and learning after today:
- Students need large blocks of time to learn. This is not the first time that I’ve thought this, and this is something that I’ve tried to work on even in Grade 1 this year. But this time needs to come with less “teacher talk time” and more “kid talk time.” This morning, the Kindergarten students came into the classroom around 9:00. They were playing and interacting with each other until almost 10:30. There was a 2 minute instruction given at the beginning of the day, and the students came together for about 3 minutes to read and talk about a note at the end. Something amazing happened when the students did meet though: all 30 of them were quiet, focused, engaged, ready to contribute, and ready to learn. Maybe the open-ended “play time” helps with self-regulation.
- The classroom environment needs to change to meet the needs of the students. Today, we saw students beginning their day with writing their “play plans” and then going off to play. Nancy mentioned though that at the beginning of the year, students started by meeting on the carpet, talking, engaging with puzzles, books, or other materials, and then starting to play. The play plans started when students were ready to write them. I never asked today, but I wonder if this starting time may have been different for different students. Then again though, I saw students completing their plans with sentences only, pictures and sentences, and pictures and individual words. That’s differentiation.
- We can all learn something from Kindergarten. Over the years, there are many things that I’ve learned from watching and listening to Kindergarten teachers. Today’s “play plan” has me thinking of something that I’d like to try in Grade 1 as well. I really like the idea of students planning out their time and committing to something that they want to do. This would also allow them to think about what they’d like to learn. A play plan is an authentic reason to write and/or communicate ideas. Why wait until next year to give this a try? Look out for my modified version coming next week.
- School can, and should, feel like home. Maybe it was the colour choices in the room. Maybe it was the furnishings. Maybe it was the excited buzz of discussion in the air. Maybe it was the pieces of home (from dolls to small toys) that made it into the classroom. Whatever it was, the room felt warm, cozy, safe, and like a place that I would want to be … and want to stay. I appreciate this as an adult. I can only imagine how the children feel.
- Students benefit from authentic reasons to learn. Sometimes these are bigger real world reasons, and sometimes they’re reasons that are important to their world. All learning that happens in Nancy and Debra’s class has a purpose. The students understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re learning important skills (e.g., subtraction), but in a context (e.g., figuring out the number of students in the class today). Students are constantly challenged to think, to communicate, to problem solve, and to move beyond the, “I don’t know,” to the “I can try.”
- Oral language has to come first. Students need talking time. They need opportunities to play with language. They need to have the vocabulary to understand words, to predict words, and to read words. Reading and writing are important, but the skills won’t develop without this oral language time first. Depending on students, this may mean that some students are ready to read and write before others. I think students need to be immersed in language. I think they need to see print wherever they go. I think that a paper and a pencil — even at the blocks or with the dolls — can maybe invite writing, but we can’t force writing. We don’t want to cause frustration. We don’t want students to shut down. We want to build success.
- Academics don’t need to be separate from play. Play time is learning time. I was only in Nancy and Debra’s class for a couple of hours this morning, but here’s just some of what I saw (all of which are curriculum expectations): listening to and communicating with others, using resources to help write, writing simple messages, understanding of letter-names and sounds, one-to-one correspondence, counting (and subitizing), non-standard units of measure, understanding of two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional figures, knowledge of living things, exploring tools (e.g., dolls) to create drama, using different tools (e.g., paint, paper, clay) to create works of art, and more social language skills than I can list. To plan for our students, we don’t need a program guide. We don’t need blackline masters or photocopied sheets. We need to know our students, know the expectations, invite learning, and listen enough to move kids forward. All of this can happen through play.
- Assessment is valuable. Documenting student learning, and using this documentation to plan ahead, is even more valuable. Today, I saw Nancy and Debra talking to students. I saw them writing down what students shared. I even noticed that they tweeted out a PicCollage sharing one of the discussions. I also saw Nancy doing a more formalized assessment: DRA. I think there’s value in collecting all of this data, and using it to help plan for students. At our school, we use Dibels as well, and I actually think it has some overlapping purposes. Just like DRA, Dibels can be an assessment tool. Yes, there are blackline masters that can be used to review the skills, but do we need to use them? Why not teach these skills in context? Oral language does not require a printed paper follow-up activity. Reading does not always mean a book: poems, songs, maps, Pokemon cards, comic strips, and posters can all be read. Writing doesn’t need to happen on photocopied lines, separate from play time: students can write lists, write reminder notes, create signs, write plans, and write stories, all while playing. I’m convinced that all of this integrated, meaningful learning will help students develop their skills, whether seen through observation and documentation or standardized assessments.
I don’t know what awaits me next year. Just like this year, maybe our initial plans will have to change based on our students. But also, just like this year, as the students grow and their skills change, our program can adapt to meet their needs. Our visit today showed me what play-based learning can look like. I love the possibilities, and I certainly learned a lot from the opportunity to see a program in action. Regardless of grade, how do you make play-based learning work in your classroom? What have you learned from this approach to teaching and learning? I’d love to hear about your experiences.