What if “free play” was truly “free?”

Just before school started on Wednesday morning, I received this tweet from Doug Peterson.

While I couldn’t listen at the time, I decided to listen to the recording of the show later on that evening. I was interested in knowing what blog post of mine they were discussing and what they had to say about it. At the 13:44 mark, they started talking about this post of mine about play-based learning, supply plans, and the visit from Dr. Jean Clinton. Ultimately though, it was a comment that Doug made at the 17:10 mark that inspired this new post. 

Doug started to discuss what play-based learning means. He mentioned that in this case, play includes,

  • “guided and directed activities.”
  • It’s “not random.”
  • It’s “done to address the curriculum expectations.”

I can’t stop thinking about these three points because I wonder if play in our classroom actually looks and sounds like this. And this is where my blog post becomes a lot more uncomfortable, for you see, when I say that we “play,” we really play.

    • We do not restrict children to certain areas of the room.
    • Our shelves are full of open-ended materials, but students can choose and use any of them.
    • While we do have areas in our classroom, students can bring materials fluidly between these areas. 

    • We do not require students to complete any activity, assignment, project, etc. Students decide where they want to go and what they want to do. 
    • We may make suggestions for calmer options, but now students choose many of these options independently. 
    • We do not put out activity signs explaining how to use the materials that we have around the room: children use them in the way that they want.

    • Students redesign the classroom, on a daily basis, to meet their individual needs. 

  • We do not require anything to remain out throughout the day. Students will ask for certain activities (e.g., the Perler Beads), and we then ask them, “Where could they go?” This leads to children cleaning up and setting up new areas in the room.
  • We let play happen for a very long timeWe are usually outside in the morning for 1-1 1/2 hours. Then we come inside for a group meeting time, followed by a transition to play. This play continues for almost 4 hours. Elements of it change. Students tidy-up certain areas and set them up with new materials. Small groups may leave to go to library, music, or phys-ed, based on their needs and interests. Sometimes, if needed, we will break for a short Brain Break, and then resume playing. Students also choose to sit down at least twice during this time to eat. We do not observe nutrition breaks. In these four hours, we only do one full class clean-up, and it works GREAT!

I realize that reading these bullet points may make people question, “How do your students learn? How do you get to all of them? How is your classroom not chaotic?” I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions, for in fact, our classroom is incredibly calm and the students have made greater gains and met with more academic success than I have ever seen in 16 years of teaching. Here are some of my thoughts as to “why.”

    • Relationships matter. This is ultimately what inspired the original post that Doug and Stephen discussed on VoicEdI think that the classroom environment is a calmer space for everyone when you have these strong connections with each other. As educators, knowing the kids also means knowing the ways to help soothe, comfort, or support students that may need it and/or ultimately intervene before this support is needed. 
    • Routines matter. I know that many would question if we even have a routine considering our long blocks of play, but in fact, we have a schedule that remains consistent every day of the week. We even go outside in the snow, cold, and rain. This regular routine actually helps all of us — educators and students — know what to expect during the day. Even free play can have a predictable pattern that increases comfort for everyone.

    • We have very few transitions. Even when we do transition, it’s slow and based on student needs. Our daybook schedule includes “ish” times, so that we can always be responsive to kids. As someone that’s lived by the bell for over 15 years, this was a BIG change for me, but it is so good for kids. 
    • Forest play matters. First of all, the outdoor time in the morning is calming for so many students. It allows children to slowly transition away from parents. It’s a time that they love, so it’s something that they want to do, and this helps with the transition. The forest also gives every child what he/she needs. This may be a spot to read under a tree, a chance to put on a play or a musical performance, an area for a big run, an opportunity for some heavy lifting, a space for some quiet conversation, an opportunity to climb, a place to build, or a chance for some sensory play. Second of all, the forest inspires risk-taking: safe risks, but still risks. Learning to read requires children to take risks, and this can be hard for many that are accustomed to always looking to an adult for support. It’s out in the forest, that students learned to climb trees, swing from vines, climb up icy hills, get safely down slippery hills, and build things that continue to fall down. They often start with requests for help, but instead of saying, “yes,” we instead ask, “How could you start? What might you do?” Soon students are learning what they can do on their own with hard work and perseverance. I don’t love the word, “grit,” but the forest helps all of us become a little grittier. Finally, the forest inspires inquiry. It’s where students start to wonder. They begin to share theories. They connect with the natural world, and bring this learning back into the classroom. We have introduced so much new vocabulary out in the forest, and it’s wonderful to hear students using this vocabulary again and again. The forest makes this possible. It helps us see the learning in the every day. 

    • Knowing the expectations matters. Both my teaching partner, Paula, and I have read the revised Kindergarten Program Document and know the expectations well. We spend our day watching, listening, and talking with kids, and then we find opportunities to notice and name the learning that’s happening. We look at how to insert the reading, make links to writing, and identify and extend the math. We ask questions, we pose problems, and we give students lots of opportunities to explore. We do a lot of mini-lessons, but instead of doing them with a whole class, we try to tailor these lessons to individuals or small groups. Then every child gets what he/she needs, and all within the context of play. It’s all about the “next best step,” and while this can be a challenging approach at first, the impact on student growth is huge. 

  • A team approach matters. Paula and I know that we both come to the team with different skill-sets. We try to maximize this by engaging in a lot of kid talk, discussing strategies together, and documenting our conversations with students so that we can explore next steps as a team. We are not always in the same space at the same time, and when we are, we do not always see the same thing. Our constant dialogue and team reflection really helps address these needs, and I think, to the benefit of kids. 
  • We have high expectations for students, and they know this. We talk to them about we know they can do, and we celebrate with them when they meet new goals and overcome challenges. Our students understand that play is learning — play is their work — and it’s great to hear them reflecting on their learning during play. 
  • Home connections make a huge difference. We talk a lot with parents. We suggest next steps and learning opportunities for home. We know that parents are talking, reading, writing, and discussing math concepts at home, and even sharing with us what they do, so that we can further extend this learning at school. It’s truly a two-way street. 

I think about all of this now while also thinking back to Doug’s comment in the radio show. 

Just this past week, we were outside one morning, and some of our JK and SK students joined a group of junior students that were sitting around a picnic table with their teacher. Pretty soon their conversation was around math and big numbers. The junior students could not believe what our Kindergartners knew. One of them commented, “How do they know so much when all they do is play all day?” Their teacher replied, “They learn through play.” Why couldn’t this be true for every grade? Free play with a teacher observer, documenter, questioner, and facilitator sounds like it has tremendous potential for ALL students. What do you think?


Here’s To You: The Almost Graduates!

I’m about to finish my 16th year teaching with the Board. Sometimes it amazes me that I’ve been teaching for so long, and had so many opportunities to connect with students, parents, extended families, and staff members at multiple schools within Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Yesterday, I was reminded of how lucky I am, when I ran into two former students with their moms: one that is about to graduate Grade 8, and one that is getting ready to go to Grade 12. These interactions really made me stop and think about how much I’ve learned from my former students over the years. 

There’s something special about every child and every teaching experience. I have memories of all 16 years. But today, I’m thinking back to my experience teaching Grade 5. There was something extra special about this class. 

  • I taught many of these students in Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, and then, Grade 5. When this happens, you truly become a family.
  • This was the class that helped me embrace and love play-based and inquiry-based learning. These students inspired me to start teaching Full-Day Kindergarten with a Program Document that truly supports these approaches. 
  • This was the class I was teaching when I found out that I was one of the recipients of the Prime Minister’s Award For Teaching ExcellenceIt was an experience to remember, and one that I got to enjoy with these wonderful Grade 5’s.

These Grade 5’s are the same Grade 8’s that will be graduating on Tuesday. It is in thinking about all of them, that I raise a toast to these “firsts”: special memories and experiences that happened with them first.

    • Here’s to our Murder Mystery that was like a culminating task without a culminating task.

    • Here’s to our Big Body Bonanza that helped me feel like Ms. Frizzle for the first time in my teaching career, and allowed us to go deeper with the human body than I ever thought was possible.

    • Here’s to our first game of Challenge that led to many, many more. Here’s to an environment where questioning was always welcomed and encouraged.
    • Here’s to the “operator”: the child that gave himself the job of answering the phone every time it rang, and took responsibility and showed maturity in a way that was truly special for him.
    • Here’s to The Energy Grinch play, a wig that I thought I’d never wear, and getting me up onto a stage at a year-end assembly because this is what mattered to kids. Here’s to me learning how to embrace the “uncomfortable” thanks to these Grade 5’s.

    • Here’s to Michael Kors shoes, babysitting solar-powered S’mores, musical organ systems, and daily discussions over digestion.

To all of those Grade 5’s (now Grade 8’s), here’s to a year of “firsts” and a lifetime of many more “firsts” to come. I’m so proud of all of you. The sky’s the limit! Continue to work hard, play hard, think hard, and question lots: there is NOTHING that you can’t do! And “thank you” for teaching me so much over the years. There’s a little bit of each of you in all that I do, and I look back on and think about these special memories often. You have each made me a better teacher, and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

Here’s to the almost graduates, and amazing new adventures to come! To think that I ended the year before this Grade 5 one wondering if I should stay in junior, and to now be so very thankful that I did. We all need to find a way to preserve these special memories. Blogging is my way. What’s yours?


Did “Out of Control Bots” Help Me Reframe “Hitting?”

I had an interesting experience earlier this week that has caused me to reflect on my responses in the past and how they’re changing over time. Let me explain. 

On Monday morning, we were out in the forest as we always are, and a child came up to my teaching partner, Paula, and I to express a concern. He mentioned that another child “hit him twice” as they were playing together. This child was part of a larger group of students out in the mini-forest. Paula said, “Let me come over with you and we can talk.” Since there were so many children over there, I wandered over with her. Paula initially spoke to the child that hit, but it was his response to the hitting that led to this bigger conversation with another child. You see, there was a reason for the hitting. They were playing, “Out of Control Bots.” Paula’s one question about what happened, led to this much longer conversation.

Even though he was fixing his watch at the time, he did agree to write the rules for the game. This rule writing, actually led to some dramatic play, as different children acted out the Out of Control Bot sequence. One child videotaped this to include as part of the instructions for the game.

Next came some photographs along with writing to share more about what this game looks like in action.

I share all of this here because my initial temptation was to stop the game … and stop it before I even had a chance to hear more about it. For years, I’ve replied to reports about hitting with comments to other students to, “Stop hitting. Choose another space to play. Stay away from each other.” And, if I’m completely honest, I usually make all of these comments without even attempting to find out what happened and if there could be more to the story. 

Paula has caused me to think differently though. She always asks students, calmly, about what happened. She hears students out, and she attempts to problem solve with children. She also keeps a very important lens: what is developmentally appropriate play? Some play is physical, and there can be value to this rough and tumble playIs this type of play always valuable at school? Maybe not. But if we just tell students to “stop,” is this really enough to change behaviour? 

On Monday, Paula caused students to reflect on their play. Out of Control Bots continues to be a forest game, but with no more reports of hitting. 

  • So is the touching gentler?
  • Are all of the students more aware of the rules?
  • Or did students just start to accept the physical nature of this game? 

Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. I think there’s something to be said for this though. When we watch students play and listen to children interact, we do this through an adult lens. I wonder if we have to see things more through the eyes of a child. How do we do this? How do we decide when to stop play, interrupt play, or just let play be? I know that Monday’s experience has caused me to react a little less abruptly when I hear about hitting. This doesn’t mean that I ignore the problem, but just hear everybody out. I think this is a change worth making. What about you?


It’s Time To Change My Supply Plans!

This week, it was a couple of seemingly unrelated experiences that helped give me a new perspective. Let me explain. 

It started when I was away at a meeting one afternoon, and a supply teacher came in for me. In the past, I’ve heard similar words from supplies as I heard after this day. 

  • “I feel so useless.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”
  • “So they’re just going to play all day long?”

Yes, we run a play-based Kindergarten programOur students play for most of the day. This is when and how learning happens, and it’s through our questions, mini-lessons, and extensions, that we also work on targeting areas of need. I can imagine how overwhelming this may seem to a supply teacher. It’s so contrary to how I’ve taught in the past, and it’s so hard to detail this approach through written plans (no matter how hard I may try). 

Fast forward to a few days later, and another experience. On Thursday morning, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Jean Clinton visit the Kindergarten classrooms at our school. I’ve admired Dr. Clinton for years, and heard her speak multiple times in the past. I was so excited to have her visit. She arrived just a few minutes before the bell, and she joined us outside as we met the students. What I noticed about her right away was that she immediately connected with kids.

  • She got down to their level.
  • She answered their questions.
  • She showed interest in what they had to say. 
  • She shared some of her own experiences, while also respecting students’ ideas and theories. 

Even when she was talking to us, she realized the importance of our connection with kids, and let us step away, interact with others, and then come back to the conversation. There are many things that are incredibly special about Dr. Clinton, but the ability to build relationships — quickly and meaningfully — I think is definitely one of them. Within minutes of saying “hello” to Dr. Clinton, one child looked at me and said, “I like her. She’s funny!” In fact, he liked her so much that he took it upon himself to go into the classroom and get her, and invite her out to the forest to play. I love how two kindergarteners walked her out to this space, and took her to our nature swing to start the morning exploration. 

I share these Dr. Clinton anecdotes because it was actually watching her in action and thinking about how my teaching partner, Paula, interacts with students that I had an aha moment: my supply plans have been wrong all along. For years, in addition to my other instructions, I’ve suggested to supplies that they rotate/circulate around the room. But what I should have said was this:

Find a group, sit down, and talk to, listen to, and play with kids! Then later on, go and find another. Repeat.

When you just circulate all day, you don’t connect with anyone. You don’t form relationships and you don’t find out more about children. It’s then easy to feel lost, useless, and unsure of the value in play. But when you get closer, and make these connections with kids, you start to see the magic that we get to see every day!

Consider the math and science learning that comes from this kind of experimentation.

From now on, my supply plans will change. I wonder if this will change how some educators feel about teaching Kindergarten. Imagine if we all left supply plans that first emphasized the need to build relationships with children. Would the supply horror stories that we all hear far too often stop altogether? I think about my supply days from 17 years ago, and realize how little I connected with kids. I know that I would change that now. What about you?


Let’s Not Forget About The Power Of Love!

The most wonderful thing happened yesterday, and I have to share it. 

We started our day out in the forest as we always do, and many students took an interest in the track lines left over from the previous day’s Track and Field event. 

About half-way through the races, one JK student sat down in the middle of the track. Students ran around her. Eventually she got up mid-way through one of the races and ran to the finish line. Then she walked over to the fallen tree — obviously upset — and sat down. Before my teaching partner, Paula, or I could go over to see what made her sad, another child walked over. 

  • He sat down beside her.
  • He rubbed her back.
  • He whispered quietly to her.
  • He even gave her a hug … of which she returned one as well.

He spent quite a long time sitting there comforting her, and in the end, she joined a group of children and began to play again. There are many amazing things about this.

  • The upset child always comes to see us if she’s feeling angry or sad, but due to the comfort from a classmate, she never did.
  • These two children rarely play together and never speak, but yesterday, this little boy gave this little girl the kindness that she needed to calm down.
  • The student that offered so much comfort has never done something like this before. He often seeks out a hug or a gentle rub on the back when he’s feeling upset, but he has not given the same to somebody else. When a child really needed it though, he did. And on top of everything else, without her saying a word, he recognized this need.

As the year comes to an end, and we reflect on our student growth, I can’t help but think about what happened yesterday. How do we continue to make “love” a classroom and school priority? Imagine if the world was filled with a little more empathy, kindness, compassion, and love!