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?


10 thoughts on “Contemplating The “Play” and “Academics” Divide

  1. Aviva it’s like you read my mind. This post reflects the many conversations over the past few weeks. Frustrating ones at times. I firmly believe that we can develop academics through play skills. In fact, you get a deeper learning because in most cases kids have to apply their knowledge. The question I always ask myself “Is it developmently appropriate”. It saddens me that play gets such a bad rap. I spend a long time on knowing how to learn. If we don’t do it…who will? I am starting to see my efforts paying off. The deeper applications are happening. The scaffolding of friends to solve problems.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Kendra! I completely understand where you’re coming from, and I definitely think that learning is richer/deeper because knowledge is being applied. This is sometimes hard to explain to others though. Is it because people worry about meeting benchmarks, and wonder if this can happen through play? Is it because a play-based approach is so contrary to what we’ve done in the past? Is it something else altogether? I think that understanding this “why” may be necessary for more systemic change to happen.


      P.S. I’m starting to see these “deeper applications” too. It’s wonderful … isn’t it?

  2. Hi Aviva!

    Yet another great post and this one is so close to myself and my context : )

    I teach English to all ages. In my children’s classes, who are from 2 years old to 12, I always combine play into their learning. I see that the kids learn more easily, are more stress-free and uninhibited to produce the language. It has worked really well almost 19 years now, but there is always, every year, the moment when a parent, caregiver or even other educator: “Are you just playing in your classes? Are you learning anything?” And every time, me heart just sinks. Not because I doubt my teaching (if it didn’t work, I would have changed it years ago and not have continued it to the detriment of my kids), but because play is many times disassociated from learning.

    I then explain and even invite them into the classroom to see with their own eyes what we are doing, and how many things the kids have learned, through playing. Most of the times, they see that we are learning to a very great extent.

    If I ever see that the kids are missing something academically, I try to find a way to incorporate it into the whole learning process, in a fun way, once again.

    It even drove me to create a presentation for workshops and conferences I present at, called Are You Playing or Learning? – Both!

    Well done, Aviva!

    • Thanks for your comment, Vicky, and for sharing your own experiences. I love the sound of your workshop (and would love to attend it)! I think that inviting parents into the classroom is a great way for them to see the learning that happens through play, and for you to also point out to them the connection. I think about our class blog, and how we can use photographs, videos, and descriptions highlighting the connection between play and learning, to help show others that this divide doesn’t need to exist. I love how you also look at skills that might be missing and how you can address them. Again, you’re focused on the child and what he/she needs at that moment in time. This is so important! Finally, it really resonated with me that you use this approach for 2 to 12 year olds. Often play is used the most in younger grades, but less in older grades. I’d love to hear how others use “play” in the junior and intermediate grades.


      • Aviva,
        Yes, I think your blog and tweets do an excellent job of showing the learning that comes from play. Unfortunately, parents and a lot of educators feel that academics has to be serious stuff all the time as we work towards checking off those outcomes getting children ready for the next grade. It is important that we remind our school community that playing is a child’s learning and that learning is fun.

        Thanks for a thought-provoking read!

        • Thanks for the comment, Stephanie! I will say that I’ve gotten a lot of support for our play-based program from parents and administrators. I think that sharing what we do and why we do it, helps. Play does look different than more typical “academic work.” It doesn’t mean that students aren’t learning though — in fact, quite the contrary. I think that if we share the learning with parents, educators, and administrators, thinking will start to change. I’m curious to hear what others have to say about this!


      • Hi again Aviva!

        Yes, we see how important it is for bigger kids to have a dose of fun and play in their schedule – they may be doing material for exams or according to the school curriculum, and we want them to be learning that in a fun way as well – it is unbelievable how many things they learn through this approach!

        That being said, there are often occasions when my adult students, tired of their everyday routine and working on computers, ask me: can we do something fun today? And I pull out something for them too – be it a role playing activity, Boggle, wordsearches, anything!

        • It’s interesting to hear how adults want “play” as well. I wonder what play might look like at different ages. I’ve seen this a bit through Twitter and my own experiences in JK-Grade 6, but I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences with play. Thanks for the continued conversation, Vicky!


          • That is a good question, Aviva…what DOES play look like as children get older? Typically, we see older kids involved in “playing” iPad/computer games but I don’t necessarily think that these activities constitute play. I prefer to think that play is social, communicative and collaborative as opposed to just a solitary activity. As children age, could play be engagement in creative activities that require design thinking and possibly engineering skills. Important to keep this discussion going, I think!

          • I totally agree with you about the value of this discussion. I wonder, if for older children, play aligns wiry the idea of a “maker culture.” I see this kind of play happening in many of our Junior classrooms. I’d be curious to hear what others say.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *