Can We Let Them ALL Play?

I’m a part of our school’s new Kindergarten/Grade 1 Calm, Alert, and Learning Book Club. As I’ve blogged about many times before, Stuart Shanker‘s book has transformed my teaching practices probably more than any other professional resource. I just started Foundations 4 through The MEHRIT Centre, and coupled with Calm, Alert, and Learning, I think that these self-regulation courses are giving me a better understanding of Self-Reg and the importance for overall student success. I share all of this because while I was eager to participate in our Book Club, I wasn’t sure how much value I’d get re-reading the book (I’m not a person that usually likes to re-read books anyway). I was wrong though. I realize now how much I missed the first time, and how my new learning helps me better understand Shanker’s book.

This morning, I was reading Chapter 3 on The Cognitive Domain, and I re-read the spotlight article on The Cognitive Value of Play (pages 49-50). When I last read Shanker’s book, I was teaching Grade 5, and while “play” had its place in the classroom, I think that we were more focused on inquiry-based learning versus play-based learning. Now I’m a Kindergarten teacher that runs a very play-based program, and I really connected with this article. I don’t think that I ever realized what role self-regulation plays in “play.” As children socialize and collaborate with each other (as they do during authentic play), they really need to self-regulate in order to maintain this play (page 49).

But what about those students that struggle with self-regulation and with this open-ended play? I always thought that scaffolding was the solution. Reading this article again today though, makes me wonder. As Shanker mentions, it’s often these students that struggle the most that need, and would benefit from, this play the most (page 50). Maybe then, instead of restricting where the children can play and what they can do, we — as the adults — need to be there to step in, ask the questions that can help the students think of ways to down regulate, and when needed, model some problem solving options that children can later use independently.

I keep thinking about what this looks like in a classroom environment. With many students, and possibly many needs, sometimes it’s easier to provide the options for the children. Sometimes it’s easier to work in the scaffolding even before problems occur to help avoid them in the first place. Sometimes it’s easier to punish (i.e., This child is grabbing away all of the action figures and throwing them around the carpet, so he/she needs to move to another area to play alone.). Is easier always better? In the long run, will the easier method result in a growing level of independence? Will the easier method result in positive changes for the child? I’m not so sure that it will … and this is kind of an “uncomfortable” discovery, as it’s making me re-think how I’ve approached play in the classroom.

  • I am the teacher that has a child move when there is a problem.
  • I am the teacher that provides options for children that seem to struggle with more open-ended choices.
  • I am the teacher that will make a choice for a child if a child can’t seem to make one on his/her own.

Maybe though, I need to become the teacher that follows the unsure child until he/she makes a choice. Then I need to become the teacher that inserts myself into the play when a major problem arises, and uses different questions and modelling to help the child problem solve and remain in this play situation instead of automatically moving to another one. 

I wonder how this might work if more than one problem presents itself at a time. I wonder if there is a need for some small group mini-lessons on problem solving and self-regulation for those students that seem to struggle the most. Is it better to learn in context, or is it better to learn first and apply later? Maybe the answer to this changes depending on the child and the classroom dynamic. I just keep thinking back to tweets and blog posts that I’ve seen before about the “benefit of the struggle.” If this is true in an academic situation, is it also true in a social situation? It seems as though more and more educators are encouraging children to try, fail, and try again in all subject areas. Why can’t this also be true for the Learning Skills? What do you think?


4 thoughts on “Can We Let Them ALL Play?

  1. You ask great questions as always Aviva. For me the answer is it depends. So many variables in the struggle: when to step in, when to watch or when to wait before eye contact or a direction. If the struggle doesn’t result in physical harm then we have some leeway. Role play, books and encouraging conversation fits in somewhere in these social situations. A quiet place for the child who needs some time and space is another option that I have seen work. I think building that relationship of trust in a safe environment might go a long way.

    • Thanks for your comment, Faige! I think that your “relationship” statement is so important. Relationships/connections play very key roles in self-regulation. This is obviously a complicated topic, as there are so many factors that may influence our choices. I think that for me, Shanker’s article reminded me that even when there are problems, we don’t have to always make the choices for the students. Asking them questions and modelling the options within the play, can help with self-regulation and with learning. I’m very curious to hear what others do.


  2. Yes, we all learn by taking risks and making mistakes. In fact, Jane’s personal learning stories which appear as Windows on the Classroom in my latest book Multiple Paths to Literacy K-2 (2016), demonstrate a classroom culture that creates a safe mistake-making environment which results in amazing student achievement socially, cognitively and emotionally. Jane has a tiny sign on the wall that says, “Making mistakes is a way that we learn.” This is a key message shared frequently with students and parents alike. Children develop grit, their ability to persevere, by learning firsthand that making a mistake is just a first try. It is the way they learn. It is the way teachers learn too. It is important that the school culture also encourages teachers to believe that it is okay to take
    risks, to say “I don’t know,” or to say “I need help” (Hattie 2015,39).

    “Sometimes mistakes result in richer learning than if everything went just fine! In fact, according to Carol Dweck (2014), students need to be encouraged to take risks, to push out of their comfort zone, to get smarter” (Trehearne, 2016, pg..109).

    “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes”.
    Mahatma Gandhi

    Excerpts from my latest book, Multiple Paths to Literacy K-2 (2016) Miriam Trehearne

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Miriam! Reading your words here make me even more eager to read your latest book: Multiple Paths To Literacy K-2. It is on the top of my summer reading list. I love the fact that you and others support risk taking. I think that this is so important, and that when we make mistakes, we also learn from them. Creating that school culture — where adults and children feel safe in taking risks and making mistakes — is crucial. I’d be curious to hear how different educators and schools go about doing this. Now I really want to read Jane’s personal learning stories. I love the sound of the sign that hangs in her room.


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