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?


9 thoughts on “What if “free play” was truly “free?”

  1. Thanks for listening to the show, Aviva. You never really know how many listen live but there are numbers on the “on demand” areas. It’s fun to use other blog posts and then head off in discussions with Stephen.

    You’ve done a nice job documenting things that happen in your classroom. If you have to do a portfolio review for the year or you’re applying for a job, use this post.

    Except for one thing – we now have pictures that you don’t know enough to come in out of the rain!

    There was one part of your original post that you didn’t address though that Stephen and I focused on and that was the concept of leaving lessons for a supply teacher in this sort of environment. While I’ve never taught Kindergarten, I have visited many classrooms including English, Immersion, and French classrooms. The beauty of education is that I can honestly say that no two were ever the same.

    The idea of a supply teacher parachuting into these environments intrigues me. But, I suspect it’s the same for every classroom. I suspect that you would wonder if you had to take a computer science lesson for 75 minutes. I got a kick and a fond memory of an on-call coverage of a music class where the concept of “play” takes on new meaning.

    I think that our profession really grows when people take the time to reflect on their practice and encourage open and productive conversations. I hope that others drop in here and share their thoughts. In some small way, I also hope that they may be inspired by listening to the radio show or reading my TWIOE posts.

    • Thanks for the comment, Doug! That photograph of me in the rain was about 20 minutes into our 80 minute time outside: I was a lot wetter at the end of it all. 🙂 But the rain was a warm one, the thinking, conversations, and problem solving were fantastic, and nobody melted (me included). 🙂

      It’s funny that you mentioned the part of your conversation that I did not include here. I thought about that after I pressed “Publish.” Here were my thoughts.

      1) I thought that the post was long enough as it was, and I was worried that people would stop reading if I wrote anymore.

      2) I wondered if commenting on this here would just be a repeat of what I shared in my last post.

      It’s definitely challenging for most supply teachers to come into this type of environment, just like it would be challenging for me to go into a Music Classroom, Phys-Ed Classroom, or French Classroom (maybe the most challenging of all). I’ve changed a lot over the years, and in the past, when I was away, our classroom routine varied. I left worksheets, independent activities, and mainly activities that took a lot of time and could be completed easily by everyone. I hated this though! The children behaved worse because their routine was different. I killed TONS of trees with all of the paper that I left behind. The day was wasted because I never extended later on anything that happened on these days. And let’s face it: I left a lot of boring work for students to do. (For previous students or parents reading this, I really do apologize for that!) So, in the past couple of years, I changed. I tried to have students take more ownership over the classroom, so that the routine could continue even if I was away. With a teaching partner, things also change. She helps keep the routine consistent. That said though, how do I help supply teachers feel comfortable with inserting themselves into play and extending the learning based on what they see and hear? What if they’ve never been in a Kindergarten classroom before and have never read the new document? Connecting with cookies (Stephen’s idea, which I quite loved by the way) and maybe a song or two (again, Stephen’s plan), could help, but then what?

      Talking to my teaching partner after my last afternoon away, made me realize just how challenging these plans can be. Things that seem so straightforward to those of us living it can be foreign to those people that are new to it. For instance, I make sure to include on supply plans that our students are allowed to climb trees, and that they do so safely. I also mention that we go outside in all weather, as long as it’s above -20 with windchill (our Board cut-off) and there are no thunderstorms. But I realized all of the little things that I don’t include. For instance, students fill up the stapler on their own. They know the drawer where we keep the staples, and they get them out and put them in correctly. One student even knows how to fix a broken stapler, and children go to him if there’s a problem. We also use real items in the classroom: we have glasses, real plates, and even glass jars (for painting). When the supply saw students filling up the stapler and using glasses, she got worried. This is normal for me, but new for her. It’s almost like an environment that calms me, stressed her out, and that’s when I wondered, what could I do to make things better? And in a truly “free play” environment, how do we capture all of the possibilities and all of the ways to extend this learning in our supply plans? It almost seems overwhelming … and I wonder if it’s truly possible.

      Thanks Doug for helping me fill in the missing piece of this post! I’m curious to hear what others have to say.

      P.S. I love the shows! I listen to the recordings every week. You have such a great rapport with Stephen. Plus, these shows give me new blog posts to read during the week. 🙂

  2. Aviva, I was intrigued to see how you would respond to Doug’s comments about “directed” and “guided” play VS free play. In the true sense of the word I suppose that we do not offer totally “free” play- we are, however, provocateurs of learning through play because of the intentionality with which we choose the materials to put out and when and where we put them. As educators, we do as you say- we watch to see what the children will do and we respond to that in how we engage with them, what other materials we put out (or take away) and how we use what we see and what we hear to “grow” their learning. I think you hit the nail on the head one more time!

  3. PS- forgot to say that I agree that the challenge is how to prepare a supply teacher to come into this program and keep it running effectively. Hopefully, Boards are finding ways to provide PL opportunities for all educators who want to spend time in K classrooms. Otherwise the challenge is huge for everyone. I suspect in your case, though, the kids could tell the supplies how to do it!!

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Jill! I totally agree with you about professional development for supply teachers, and I think that more PD opportunities are happening. My teaching partner is a HUGE part of keeping the class “routine” when I’m away. She is so fabulous with the students and responding to their needs. I often recommend to supply teachers that they watch her in action and see how she interacts with students. We can all learn a lot from her! The students also help with this routine. They know how the class runs, and they support each other in the learning. I like to think that there are 35 educators in the room, and my teaching partner and I, are only two of them! The hard part is when these students continue with the routine that they’re accustomed to, and the choices they make and the flow of the day, make the supply teachers uncomfortable. I just wonder if there’s a way to help prepare supplies more so that they feel more comfortable with the choices we make and why we make them.

      You are right about “free play” as well. I guess our guided piece comes from the materials we choose to put out (and the ones that we may choose not to). But since students move these materials all around the classroom and use them in such unique ways, they really do help form the basis of the activities and the learning. It’s up to us to watch, listen, question, and extend … and it continues to be a balancing act of knowing how much talking to do and when to do it. I continue to work on talking less (never an easy task).

      Thanks for chiming in on this important discussion!

  4. This blog perfectly captures the Kindergarten program in all of its entirety!

    I think ultimately your understanding of self regulation drives much of how you interact with and engage with students. You truly view them as competent and capable – I believe many say this, but it doesn’t always come through in their actions.

    We structure our day and play in a very similar way. Long, uninterrupted blocks of play. The depth of their learning is tremendous.

    Where I sometimes struggle is how to help others to get to “this point”. There are so many layers and pieces to the program that it makes it challenging to explain our philosophies and day to day. You do a really good job capturing it all in the post.

    I have also struggled with OT’s and how to support them. They often ask for more “to do”. I believe that a large piece of it is that relationships are the foundation. We thrive and teach through relationships – trust, respect, common understandings. OTs walk into our program without that, which makes sense. I have found the most successful OTs have been the ones that immediately work on connecting w the kids and taking their lead.

    So much to think about but so well put together Aviva!

    • Thanks for your comment, Tracy! I have loved following you and your blog since before I even taught FDK, and now I do so with an FDK lens. I think that we have many overlapping philosophies, and I really hope that we get a chance to chat together in person at the Math conference this summer. There are so many layers to the play in the classroom, and the learning that comes from this play. I think that you are right in commenting that “relationships are the foundation,” and making these relationships with kids, helps when determining where to go next. This is a challenge for supply teachers that may just be spending part of a day in our classrooms. I wonder if there’s anything that we can do to make this easier. I know that some do this so naturally, but it can be a struggle for others. Then what? Is it even possible to outline how to connect with kids?


  5. Tracy and Aviva, such great points. I did not mean any criticism with my comment about “guiding” through the materials we put out! I am quite sure most if not all of us would say we are not ready to have a totally “free” play program. I know a bit about Tracy’s program first- hand and about yours, Aviva, from your posts and our conversations- and I would say you are as close to the vision of this program as anyone is. So kudos to you both for your willingness to share YOUR questions, wonderings, and needs to that your learning is made visible. In doing so, you help all of us grow in our thinking.

    • Thanks for your reply, Jill! I did not see your comment about “guiding” as criticism at all, and I’m sorry if my reply made it seem that way. I continue to think about how we guide, and how we still embrace “free play” (or as free as it can be). I’m curious to hear what others have tried. It’s so great to have these discussions together and continue to extend our understanding of the document and of what play can be for kids!


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