Is It Time To Take Them Back Out?

Every Friday, retired educator and prolific blogger, Doug Peterson, publishes a “This Week In Ontario Edublogs” blog post, where he comments on some of the posts that he’s read throughout the week. I love reading and reflecting on Doug’s thinking, and he often inspires me to think differently. This week, Doug’s post included a comment about one of my weekly blog posts.

On Friday morning at 5:05, Doug’s insights caused me to stop and do some reflecting. Here’s my problem: I’m a huge advocate of play-based learning. I have seen and truly believe that students learn best when they’re passionate about the topics, immersed in them, provided with meaningful experiences to question and extend their learning, given large blocks of time to touch, feel, explore, talk, and listen, and receive direct instruction in small groups, linked with their topics of interest.

I think of the example that Doug gave in his post about how he’d likely be tempted to “spend all day at the Lego centre.” Is this a problem? With a few prompts, the careful placement of pictures, texts, writing materials, and small toy action figures or dolls, Doug’s Lego interest could easily connect to the Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program expectations from Language, Math, Science, Visual Arts, Drama, Health and Physical Activity (i.e., fine motor skills), and Personal and Social Development. Doug may not initially touch on all of these curriculum expectations, but with adult involvement, connections with peers, good questions, and various invitations to extend learning or consider other options, I feel confident that his thinking, social, and academic skills would develop through play. Might I call him to join me for a guided group or some small group direct instruction? Yes. But if Doug was a reluctant learner, and I invited him to bring his Lego creations to the table as a starting point for our small group instruction, I bet he’d come. I also bet that he’d be intrigued enough to get involved, stay focused, and learn something new during this short, purposeful instructional time.

Doug may not learn to sit on a carpet. He may not receive his lesson with the rest of the class, but neither would the other students. Do they need to? Are they all at the same level and at the same instructional point of entry? If not, what skills are really met by all being instructed together? Doug, like others, would learn to be engaged, motivated, and academically and socially “pushed,” but based on his own interests and needs. I think that matters. I think that “play,” and all of the learning that can be connected to it, has tremendous value in all classrooms, but if that’s the case, where does technology align with this play?

This is where I’m struggling. If I think it’s okay for Doug to be immersed in that Lego play — at least until something else intrigues him then is it okay for others to be immersed in a Lego app? Could I connect low-tech tools with these high-tech ones to get more from the students that might want to play these iPad games? Maybe so. I wonder though if the same thinking and problem solving skills would happen with these high-tech tools. It’s easy to build a structure on an iPad when none of the blocks fall over, but it’s much more challenging to do so with real materials, on surfaces that aren’t always flat, and surrounded by students that might also impact on the structural stability. Problem solving in these cases, allow for richer discussions and deeper thinking. In my opinion, it’s as students think and apply their learning, that facts become meaningful and skills really develop. This is what I want! 

The iPads though may have a different classroom value: capturing learningI’ve seen that even my youngest students love taking photographs and recording videos. An educator that I really respect and admire (I haven’t asked for permission to include this person’s name here, so I won’t), suggested using iPods or iPads to get students to take these photographs throughout the day. We can then see the evolution of thinking and learning through their eyes, and we can use these images as starting points for small group discussions and/or explorations. For the time being, I’m looking at removing all apps from the iPads, except for the camera, PicCollage, Explain Everything, and MyStory. The iPads won’t be used for play, but they could be used to create the “play story,” that captures the learning that happens during play. I think, given time, this could work. What do you think? Do we need to take breaks from play-based learning, or can learning just extend from play? How might iPads (or other technology) support this extension? I’d love to hear what others think and do!


8 thoughts on “Is It Time To Take Them Back Out?

  1. That *Doug* sure is a problem child but I suspected that most children are that way. Do they get off the bus with the mindset, “I’m going to have a nice balanced experience day?” I think it’s a testament to the teacher professional that you can identify all kinds of ways to address expectations from various curriculum areas with “Doug’s” desire to play at the Lego centre. My recommendation would be to approach the use of the iPad or any of the resources that you have at your disposal with the same amount of the planning. I wouldn’t give up on the concept of play; just manage it appropriately.

    • Thanks for the comment, Doug! I really didn’t intend to make this *Doug* into a problem child, and I’m very sorry if it came across that way. I think that the child that you depicted in your blog post is like any number of children that I would expect to see every single day. Kindergarten students often come eagerly into class, excited to play at the Lego, with the blocks, with the cars, with the playdough, with various art supplies, in the sand or water, or in a dramatic play centre. These are the materials/tools that excite them. Students should be excited to learn, and as educators, I think that there’s tremendous value to linking curriculum expectations and deeper thinking/learning to these areas of interest. Maybe the same is true for the iPads.

      I wonder though if students need to have certain language or math skills to really go deeper with a fun game on a tech tool. Real objects often force students to think, problem solve, and reflect before trying again. When I watch many of my students play games on an iPad, they just press randomly on buttons until they’re taken to the next screen. What’s the value in this learning? Even when I sit down and try to talk to the students about these games, they are often so drawn to the bright colours and fun sounds, that they find it hard to really engage in a meaningful conversation. Many of my Kindergarten students are still developing vocabulary and oral language skills. Maybe they could get more value from this learning later in the year, when they have developed more of these skills. Maybe then there would be some thinking before just touching. This could be another example of when what “works for one” may not “work for all.” Thanks for giving me more to think about!


  2. Wish I were back in the classroom to test out yours and “Doug’s” hypothesis. Giving kinders their choice based on readiness or just letting them get the “hang of it” on their own. Interesting dilemma. As always got me thinking.

    • Thanks for your comment, Faige! Can you expand on the two views that you shared here? I think that there is lots of value in giving students more ownership over their learning, but providing the direct instruction based on these interests/passions. Since all of our students are different, and many of their strengths/needs vary too, is there value in still embracing the play-based approach, but providing meaningful instruction as part of this “play?” I’d be curious to hear what others have tried and what they think.


  3. Whatever the “tool” I see the value of exploration before teacher input. The watching and listening gives teachers so much valuable insight. IMHO I know there is so much diversity in abilities & skills as well as kids’ approach to learning. But if we don’t once in awhile stand to the side, will they ever feel free to “go for it” without worry about failure? Just wondering.

    • Thanks for your reply, Faige! I totally agree with you. I think that this exploration time is crucial for all tools, but are all students ready to explore all tools at the same time? Since iPads hold such interest to students — I’ve found largely because of the games on them — will they give up on using other tools because they just want to play the fun games? Is this valuable learning time? I’m not sure. I think that we can take student interests/passions and couple them with targeted direct instruction to lead to academic and social gains, but can this happen with both digital (i.e., iPad games) and non-digital tools? I’m not sure. Maybe this can work well in some learning environments and not in others, or maybe at certain times of the year. I tend to see technology as a better way to capture learning instead of as the learning tool itself (in most cases), but I appreciate the various thoughts on this too.


  4. Agree! “Technology to capture the learning” Especially with our younger learners. But giving them time to have “fun” with the technology (iPad game apps) can have its merits as well. Keep me think, I love it!

    • Thanks Faige! I still vacillate on the games. I think that they can have merit if students are thinking/problem solving as they use them. When I just watch students randomly clicking on buttons though, and not really understanding what they’re doing or why, then I wonder. Maybe this requires follow-up opportunities to discuss strategies, play with others, and reflect on new learning. I tend to lean towards no iPad games, but maybe this thinking will change over the year or in different contexts. I would like to try some coding with my Kindergarten students (to develop thinking and problem solving skills), so maybe some coding games, played collaboratively, could be an iPad game option. Thanks for giving me more to think about!


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