What does “play” mean to you?

We have a finalized Kindergarten Program Document that I absolutely love. I have already blogged about many of the highlights in this new document, including the value of play-based learning and an inquiry mindset for children and adults. To support this, the document emphasizes that literacy and math should not be taught in blocks of time, but integrated in meaningful ways throughout the day. I embrace this approach, and was even vocal about it last year when we were still using the Draft Kindergarten Program DocumentAll of this being said though, I’ve come to realize that sometimes what seems simple in theory is far more complex in practice.

My teaching partner and I have talked a lot about literacy instruction (in particular) over the past couple of weeks. Since the school year began, we’ve made some significant changes to our classroom program. These changes initially stemmed from some Kindergarten team reflections. There are two Kindergarten classes at our school, and both classes have 32 students in them. The classrooms are attached, and due to the location of the cubbies, there’s only a partial wall between both classrooms. With two full classes, this means that there can be a lot of noise. We realized that the noise was a stressor for many students. To reduce this stress, we decided to make more use of our outdoor classroom, split both classes in half (as much as possible), and support smaller groups of students instead of always supporting larger ones. 

We’ve definitely noticed the value in these changes. Both the indoor and outdoor classroom environments are a lot calmer. With smaller groups, there are also more opportunities to model play and problem solving, which helps all children when interacting in the larger groups. Even when all 64 students are between the two classrooms, the noise is less, and the play is far more productive. Clean-up time can still be a challenge, but there’s definitely been a lot of growth in less than a week!

While this part is wonderful, my teaching partner and I continue to contemplate how we can use our small group time in the classroom. Play is definitely how the majority of this time is used, but should it be all the time? This is where we’re struggling. Right now, when I bring in the first group of students, we spend about five minutes, looking at, reading, and discussing books. Yes, I do ask every child to get a book. 

  • Students can sit anywhere.
  • They can look at a book alone or with friends.
  • They can spend the whole time looking at one book, or select multiple books to explore.

I should say that all of our students know how to open a book, track text (even if they’re making up a story to go along with it), and tell stories based on illustrations. They love books, and taking a few minutes to explore one after running around and playing outside, seems to calm them down. I’ve noticed that many students go back to looking at books during the day and/or refer to the books around the room as they play. I wonder if a little time exploring a book in the morning, helps with this.

After this reading time, we connect together on the carpet for a quick morning meeting. This meeting time is 5-10 minutes, maximum. It’s the instruction that happens at this meeting that has my teaching partner and I wondering if there’s a better option. At this point, I’ve used this time for a reading or writing mini-lesson. 

  • This IS NOT about a letter or sound of the day program.
  • This IS NOT about reviewing sight words.
  • This IS about showing how writing allows us to communicate with others, and how we can write in many different ways: from pictures to conventional spelling.
  • This IS about trying to create more confident readers and writers that are willing to share their thinking and ideas, even if they’re not perfect.
  • This IS about highlighting a few decoding strategies (not naming them, but showing how they’re used), with the hope that more students will start to use them as well.

I don’t have a mandatory follow-up activity, and I don’t have reading, writing, or math centres set-up around the room. I do encourage students to apply what they’ve learned as they play, and then I circulate, observe, and look for opportunities to encourage and/or support this reading and writing during play. 

My intention is not to forget about the other frames, and I definitely observe learning that happens beyond reading, writing, and math, but I wonder if I capture enough of this other learning. Does this kind of morning mini-lesson run contrary to the play-based learning approach? I keep thinking about the fourth point in Kristi Keery-Bishop’s recent blog post: “We need the check ins and instruction.”  While her post was not about Kindergarten, it does speak to the fact that we need to support students to move them forward. From the data we’ve collected these past few days (i.e., work samples and group contributions), can we better support this learning through play instead of through a group mini-lesson? What if we used this meeting time to provoke thinking around a topic of interest, and see where children go next?

We’ve already seen an interest develop, and maybe digging deeper into this topic, developing vocabulary, asking and answering questions, and observing how children share their knowledge with us, will also give us opportunities to read, write, and develop math skills in a meaningful context. Tomorrow morning, I will still bring in a group of children. We will still spend a few minutes looking at books, but after that, we’re going to look back at some photographs and videos on the blog, discuss an evolving interest connected to them, and see what happens next. My teaching partner and I feel better about this new plan, but we still have some nagging questions, and would love to hear about your experiences.

  • In a play-based learning environment, is it okay to have a “book time?” How do you decide?
  • How do you handle group instruction? 
  • How do you inspire children to extend learning beyond this instruction? Do you use provocations, leave them with a question, just wait and see what happens, or do something else entirely?
  • How do you support reading and writing during play? How do you determine the right time to do so? 

I know the value in oral language. I understand the need to develop social skills, problem solving skills, and self-regulation … usually before academics. But when we have a group of learners that are ready — and even eager — to read and write, we want to capitalize on this interest. Every book that I’ve read on inquiry, also speaks about the value of direct instruction. I think this would also hold true for our youngest learners, but what does this balance look like in a play-based, Kindergarten environment? Let’s extend this important discussion.


6 thoughts on “What does “play” mean to you?

  1. Aviva!

    You’re posing some great questions here, and I wish I had the time to reflect more deeply and reply with less brevity. As it is, it’s 6:53 AM and because you and Doug have been talking to me on Twitter, I haven’t even read his post yet!

    However, I share your interest in exploring the question of the dance between play, inquiry, and instruction.

    I’m just starting to formulate a potential and hypothetical operational principle, and it’s provoked by the “computers at the point of instruction” phrase.

    How about: “instruction at the point of interest” ?

    When I first started teaching, the phrase “teachable moment” was proffered as a new approach. The idea was that the teacher would recognize a situation that presented an opportunity for instruction and capitalize on the timely intervention to teach a point. The downside, of course, was that you couldn’t map your entire curriculum onto a series of as-yet unhappened moments.

    I think this is similar to what you’re wrestling with, in that on one hand we have a list of expectations, and on the other hand we want to arrive at the learning serendipitously.

    We are all capable of detecting that moment in a child’s eyes when their initial excitement in their offered question drifts away as instruction takes over. It always makes me sad.

    While we may not want to keep kids always on the cusp of a perpetual state of questioning excitement, what if we had as an operational premise to never “instruct” to the extent that that excitement dissipated? This would change our goal from meeting the list of expectations in the shortest possible and most efficient manner possible to rather keeping the students’ excitement and enthusiasm and facility for inquiry and learning at the fore.

    When we play, and when we are motivated by internal questions, we remain engaged. Children learn naturally in this manner. When we see the negative effect of schooling in decreasing the engagement of learners as they progress through the system, we have to question are methods. See the recent Gallup poll (2015) on student engagement which shows the peak at grade 5 and demonstrates the rapid decline an engagement that follow subsequently. http://www.gallupstudentpoll.com/188036/2015-gallup-student-poll-overall-report.aspx

    Great questions, Aviva! Requiring more time than I have right now! I need to read Doug’s post, and school awaits!

    • Thanks Andy for chiming in here, and with such interesting thoughts. Your concept of “instruction at the point of interest” makes me think about many Board Kindergarten inservices I’ve attended lately, and the emphasis of figuring out what children need, when they need it, and using that as the basis for instruction. You take this idea, and then push it one step further, by also ensuring that we do instruct around these interests, but in such a way, to still keep this interest (and really this engagement).

      I also can’t help but think about our new Kindergarten Program Document, and the emphasis of not starting with the expectations, but instead, starting with the students’ interests and linking the expectations to think. This really allows us to do what you suggest. I guess that I’m trying to figure out how to do this, support the development of reading, writing, and math skills, but also figure out when and how to support this. The document, and this discussion, is a good reminder that school is about more than just academic skills. Maybe this is a part of my struggle, for as a teacher, do I tend to think about academics first?


  2. As always you say so many things that swirl around in my mind daily! We have been slightly shifting and altering our dance with literacy and mathematics instruction over the past 6 years together as a team!

    There is absolutely a time for direct instruction and support when children are learning discrete skills. But there is also TOO much of that happening often in rooms. Lately, I have been reflecting that both need to be balanced. If we don’t engage in direct or modelled instruction sometimes, they can’t reinforce and use those skills in play.

    This year we are trying something new. We only meet 1 time as a whole group (all 26) for approximately 15 minutes. This whole group time will be inquiry based, reflecting on documentation, a read aloud, knowledge building circle.

    We then have 3 large blocks of uninterrupted play (2 outdoor and 1 indoor) – 40-60 minutes each in length.

    We have scheduled in a Math and Literacy play block too. These are short 10-15 minutes times where we will do small group instruction and other students will have opportunity to engage with math/literacy in a play based or simple way (e.g., looking at books, doing puzzles).

    We are a bit torn always about “what is best” and “what is right”, but we are going to try this! We won’t “pull” students from their open ended play, but we will encourage some interactions with materials and concepts that they may not naturally gravitate towards!

    • Thanks Tracy for sharing what you do, and how your thinking has evolved over the years. I can really relate to what you’re saying here. I guess that I struggle with some of this direct instruction in a big group, for are all students at the same “point of instruction?” I do think though that there is a need for some modelling/direct instruction, but it’s the when/how that continues to have me wondering. My teaching partner and I talk about this a lot. I also wonder about specific Math and Literacy Block times, and how this aligns with our new curriculum document. Is this contrary to what’s being shared? Is there still a need for it though? I am torn, as while I totally see the value in play, I really wonder how children will learn some of these academic skills without some direct instruction. I’m really interested in hearing how different people make this work.


    • Thank you for your comment and for sharing this document! I will definitely take a closer look at it. I bet it will also give us more to think about as we continue to contemplate some of the questions that I posed here.


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