Contemplating The “Play” and “Academics” Divide

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about “play” and “academics.” Over the years, both online and offline, I’ve engaged in conversations on both of these topics. Many times, “play” and “academics” are seen in terms of two extremes. Not long ago, I was asked if I have more of a “play and social skills classroom program” or if I have more of an “academic one.” I didn’t know how to answer. I still don’t. Can’t we develop academic skills through play?

When I taught Kindergarten six years ago, here were the list of things that I wanted students to learn by the end of Senior Kindergarten:

  • All of the letter-names and sounds.
  • How to read the “popcorn words” (sight words) and use them in their writing.
  • How to read different examples of environmental print.
  • How to write a simple sentence (e.g., I see the cat.) using appropriate spacing, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization.
  • How to read a Level 4 DRA text, which means reading beyond a pattern book and using various decoding strategies to read different words.
  • How to recognize the numerals from 1-10 and create sets of these numbers.
  • How to sort objects.
  • How to create and extend patterns (preferably beyond AB patterns).
  • How to count by 1’s and 10’s to at least 50 (and hopefully 100).

In many ways there’s probably nothing wrong with this list (even now), but I can’t help but look at it and think about what’s missing. 

  • What about developing oral language skills?
  • What about learning how to problem solve independently?
  • What about learning how to collaborate with others?
  • What about developing self-regulation skills and learning how to truly handle stress?
  • Where are the thinking skills? How many items on this list focus only focus on “rote learning?”
  • What about learning how to ask questions and explore answers on their own?
  • What about the understanding of important concepts/big ideas? (e.g., It’s great that students can count to 10, but why is this important? When will students need to count in their lives? How do we help them develop a good number sense?)
  • What about the missing subject areas? How can we use Physical Education, Science, and The Arts to help address different topics of interest and areas of the curriculum?
  • How do we explore student passions and interests? What’s the value in doing so?

I still believe in the importance of academics. I know the curriculum expectations, and our planning aligns with and addresses these expectations (from all subject areas). But I also think that academics can be addressed through play, and in meaningful ways that will help students apply and extend their learning. Also, as I look at my students this year and I think about my plan, I wonder if academic needs can be truly met without addressing some social needs/areas first. Why is it that “play” often seems to have a negative connotation? How might we narrow the “play” and “academics” divide? What do you think?


Questioning Carpet Time And Other Routines

Last year, I wrote a blog post where I reconsidered some school and classroom rules. After almost three months in Kindergarten and lots of reflection time, I have another list to share. This isn’t necessarily about school or classroom rules, but more “routines” in general.

    • The carpet is the best place to learn as a group. A carpet can be really uncomfortable. Some students don’t have enough space to move. There are often distractions around the carpet. I also wonder how often all students need to learn the same thing at the same time. Are they really all at the same point in their learning? What if direct instruction was given in small groups at comfortable gathering spots around the room? 
    • We need to start the day with direct instruction. Why is that? What if students explored first, generated thoughts and questions, and then we instructed from there? I have a confession to make (something I never thought that I’d say): we rarely pull our class together as a full group before 2:30 in the afternoon. From the time when the students walk in at 8:50 until we connect together at 2:30, the children are exploring, creating, communicating, problem solving, and connecting with each other and with us independently or in small groups. We put out provocations. We give more support/scaffolding to those students that need it, but most students, move freely around the classroom and we provide the direct instruction/support at the different areas, and with different students, throughout the day.
    • Pencil/paper work is the goal. Please don’t get me wrong here. I have nothing against a pencil or paper, and I think that both tools can be used in wonderful ways to share thinking and learning. And while I question if pencil/paper work is the goal, I also question if iPad or computer work is the goal. I just wonder sometimes if we feel that students are really only sharing their thinking and learning if they’ve written about it. Today, I had a JK student that created a slide out of two tires. Not only did she test the slide out, but she encouraged others to give it a try. This creation of hers, not to mention the explanation, connected with Science and Oral Language expectations. The game that she created also helped many students self-regulate. The creation of this design included problem solving and perseverance. Could she have drawn and written about her design plans? Absolutely! But even the recording of the video (shared below) shows me her thinking and learning. Sometimes it’s the manipulation of real objects in creative ways that allows students to demonstrate the most learning of all. 

  • Play-based learning only works in Kindergarten. As students get older, I know that the curriculum expectations change. “Playing” would likely become more sophisticated. Maybe it would even be more like “tinkering” … or truly “inquiring.” But no matter what we call it, I can’t imagine why all students can’t learn through hands-on, meaningful learning, that involves asking questions, collaborating and communicating with others, and sharing thinking in various ways. Why does “growing up” mean the cessation of play?
  • A period-by-period switch in activity (or subject) is the best way for children to learn.  I know that with schedules and prep coverage, this happens a lot, but frequent transitions are hard for many students. Even if they aren’t hard for yours, I can’t help but wonder what learning is lost during each transitional time. Maybe by integrating subjects, we could at least cut down on some of the transitions. Would learning be “deeper” if we really gave the time to explore/examine topics of interest?
  • We need to prepare our students for the future. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve heard this statement. I often wonder why this future must be so bleak, and if maybe, by teaching students to be engaged and self-regulated learners, problem solvers, and critical thinkers, we’re preparing them best of all! Can’t the future involve growing up to do what we love? Can’t it involve choosing the tools that work the best for us? I think about my goal for this year, and I’m guessing that if we focus on these areas, all will be well in the future.

What do you think? What else would you add to this list? While I feel strongly about the points shared here, I know that there are other perspectives. Please feel free to question these thoughts. I think it’s when we have these conversations that we learn most of all. Let’s converse!


How do you find “peace” in recess?

This year, I enrolled in the Foundations In Self-Regulation Course through The Mehrit Centre. The incredible discussions that are part of this course have me seeing almost everything through a self-regulation lens. It was actually with this course in mind that I’ve been thinking a lot about recess lately. As a Kindergarten teacher this year, all of my duties are outside in the Kindergarten “pen.” Depending on the time, there are two or three Kindergarten classes outside in this shared space, and usually this area is also full of bicycles, scooters, balls, Hula Hoops, a play structure, and multiple types of tag games. I realized today just how stressed I feel during this duty time. It’s almost like I’m on sensory overload.

  • There’s lots of bright-coloured equipment.
  • There’s tons of noise.
  • Space is restricted.
  • There’s lots of movement, but all in a confined area.

I know that outdoor areas and physical activities can help many students and adults self-regulate. I see the value in this movement for so many of my students, and many of them love recess for this very reason. But for me, recess time is a very dysregulating activity.

  • I don’t know where to look. 
  • I become overwhelmed in deciding what to listen to.
  • I find myself searching for a small space away from the action, so that I can really see and process everything.
  • I take a lot of deep breaths because breathing helps calm me.

I’m an adult. I’m an educator. At this moment in time though, I feel like the struggling student, and I wonder, am I alone? I look for the child that might be acting out. I look for the child that might be seeking out the same quiet area that I am. I search for the child that is struggling. I think, how can we help this child? I’d love to hear what you do. I can’t help but wonder if the answers to this question might help make for a more peaceful recess for everyone. What do you think


What will they remember?

The other day as I was leaving the school, two of my former students came running up to me. They were eagerly chatting to me about Grade 2, and then they started talking about some of their favourite memories of Grade 1. One child said, “Remember Miss Dunsiger when we made the dinosaur world.” Another child replied, “Oh, you mean Jurassic World?” Then they went on and on about what they learned.

  • They spoke about how the environment helped the dinosaurs get food and stay safe. “I remember how we made caves for the dinosaurs to hide in, and high and low areas, for those that could fly and those that couldn’t.”
  • They spoke about their math and science learning. “Remember when we figured out that the sun had to be bigger than everything else, and we worked together to make the sun stay in the sky? Mr. Smith even helped us out!”
  • They spoke about the different types of dinosaurs. “Remember when we learned about that dinosaur that was even bigger than the T-Rex? We read and wrote so much about dinosaurs. We even taught the Kindergarteners about them!”
  • They spoke about the Grade 7 student that came in to teach us about dinosaurs. “I remember when he made those slideshows, and even asked us trivia questions. He also taught us how to make plasticine dinosaurs. He was so good! The next day, we made so many of our own.”


It was incredible just listening to their excited chatter! I couldn’t believe how much they remembered, even so many months later. This discussion reminded me of these important points.

  • Learning has to be meaningful for students. Jurassic World evolved from student interest, and still connected, meaningfully, with curriculum expectations.
  • Relationships matter. The students remembered the connections that they made with people as well as the content learned. Maybe these connections even helped them remember the content more.
  • There’s value in “enjoyable learning.” I have yet to have a child remember a worksheet or a textbook question. These inquiry-based, student-initiated projects, are often what they remember. Is this something that we should think about more?
  • Thinking matters. This dinosaur project had the students thinking a lot. They were constantly solving problems, modifying plans, researching more, reflecting on the information they learned, and making connections to other classroom learning. The more they thought, the more they seemed to remember … and it’s clear now, that this was not just remembered at the time, but also into the future.

These students made me wonder, what will my students from this year remember? What would I hope that they do? Maybe doing some thinking about the answers to these questions has value for us as we plan ahead. What do you think?


Eek! Going Public With My Plan!

This is a blog post that I’ve been thinking about writing for a very long time. I think it’s a scary post for me to publish because once I share my plan, I’m truly committed to it, and what if I’m wrong? I know that I’ve been wrong before, but this is a very public way of possibly making a big mistake, but then again, it’s also a way of having the support to hopefully meet with success. 

Contrary to how things might usually be done, I’m going to share a bit about myself before I share my plan. 

  • This is my fifteenth year teaching for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School BoardI’ve wanted to teach since I was a little girl, and I worked hard to meet this goal.
  • I’m definitely a “curriculum geek.” I read curriculum documents every summer, and I know the expectations well. I look for overlaps between expectations, and when I plan, I do so with the expectations in mind.
  • I love data! I pay attention to numbers. I track student growth, and when students are not progressing well, I ask a lot of questions, try different strategies, and attempt to find ones that help them meet with success.
  • More than anything else, I care about kids! I may not have my own biological children, but I have 23 children that I care about just as much. When they struggle, I struggle, and when they succeed, I couldn’t be happier. 

It’s for this last reason, that I’ve considered this new plan of mine. This year, social skills, problem solving skills, and self-regulation are going to be the three big areas that I focus on first. This doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring the academic areas. As students play, we find lots of opportunities to develop oral language skills (and phonemic awareness skills), provide meaningful reasons to read and write (for those students that are ready to do so), introduce and reinforce math concepts, explore science areas, develop fine motor and gross motor skills, and learn and share through The Arts. But, many of the conversations that my partner and I have with the children first, involve …

  • learning how to take turns.
  • learning words we can use to express our feelings.
  • persevering through difficult tasks.
  • taking responsibility (in numerous ways).
  • learning how to safely take risks, and if/when to ask for help.
  • finding ways to up- or down-regulate, so that we can be “calm” enough to learn.
  • learning how to soothe ourselves when we feel upset.
  • learning how to recognize important signals in our body (from hunger to the need to go to the bathroom), and how we can respond to each of them.
  • learning that what works for one person, may not work for everyone, and that’s okay.
  • learning what works best for us, and using these strategies independently to meet with success.

All of this, leads to my big wonder. I wonder, if by putting social skills, problem solving skills, and self-regulation, before academics, if I will ultimately see greater gains in these academic areas, as students will develop the skills necessary to be independent learners. Our play-based learning environment, also provides many opportunities for developing oral language skills, including phonemic awareness and vocabulary skills, and both of these impact on reading success. Will this plan work? I really hope that by meeting students where they’re at, targeting the instruction to all of the different students based on their strengths and needs, modelling and instructing primarily in small groups, and continuing to track progress, re-evaluate needs, and make changes, the data will show significant growth. So often reading, writing, and/or math benchmarks drive instruction, but maybe to see progress in these areas, we first have to look even more closely at the learning skills that actually have the biggest section for comments on all of our report cards. What do you think?