Do we need to learn how to play?

Last week, I wrote this blog post about my experience facilitating a couple of sessions at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. The post generated a lot of discussion, and even a mention in Doug Peterson‘s weekly Ontario Edubloggers post. I think it was Doug’s post that led Andrea to my original blog post, and inspired this comment that has been on my mind ever since.

Here’s the problem: as much as we may talk about the value of the constructivist approach, discuss play-based and inquiry-based learning ad nauseam, and even have an updated Kindergarten Program Document that emphasizes the importance of play and our latest Social Studies Curriculum that instructs us to inquire with our students, the truth is that for most of us, free play is a terrifying concept. We don’t see it as learning. We see it in addition to learning, and supplemented by the direct instruction that we give in a more structured program. There. I said it. And I said it because these are the same fears that I’ve heard expressed from numerous educators across school, Board, and through outside professional development activities for years now. The concerns vary.

  • Will I have enough time to cover all of the expectations?
  • How do I know that the student interests will align with the expectations?
  • How will I get to everyone?
  • How will children be ready for Grade ___ (this is not just a Kindergarten concern) if I teach in this way?
  • How will students learn to sit and listen?
  • Where’s the activity?
  • How will students learn anything in this “free for all?”

Maybe somewhere, stuck at the heart of all of this, is our own uncertainty around why play matters. While Andrea said it in her comment, I’m sure that she’s not alone in her thinking: Do adults want or need to play when learning? I worry that if we don’t, the reliance is on me, as the presenter, to impart all of the knowledge. But I don’t know everything. Neither do all of the people that attend the sessions.

  • When we play though, we form new ideas.
  • We use materials in ways that others may not have considered.
  • We couple our ideas with the ideas of the other people around us, and we all learn a lot more.

I understand why this play is difficult. 

  • We’re used to instructions, and the materials come without instructions.
  • We’re used to an activity, and there isn’t a specific one.

Now we have longer, unstructured periods of time with less directions, and that’s hard. The outcome seems less clear. And when we’re looking to take back a task to use in the classroom, now our learning is not just task-based. But if we’re willing to let go, get creative, experiment with materials, talk to our colleagues, share ideas, and explore items as our kids may do so, I wonder just how much we’d learn. 

I think back to my sessions last week. Maybe fewer people would have left if I took Doug’s suggestion and “gave more guidance.” If I were to do these sessions again, I still don’t think that I would want to provide question prompts or post activities. You see, if we want our students to engage in “free play,” I wonder if as adults, we have to do so first. Here is what I think I would do instead.

    • I think I would share more photographs and videos of what the children did in the classroom. These can be great for providing a context for the learning and helping people see different uses for the materials.
    • I think that I might tell a few more stories. Stories sometimes inspire exploration. 
    • And I know that I would try to do what Diana mentioned in her comment, and get some more facilitators there to help inspire and extend the play. I would love to have my teaching partner, Paula, there, as she is the one that continues to show and teach me the most about how we can be authentic when playing with kids.

Reflecting now, I can’t help but think about this fabulous video from Dr. Jean Clinton, where she talks about the need to stop “stuffing the duck.”

If this is true for children, what about for adults? If we become more comfortable with playing, what impact might this have on our students? I think it’s time to address that elephant in the room: our documents may speak about the value of “play” and “inquiry,” but do we value both, and if not, is it time to change?  


6 thoughts on “Do we need to learn how to play?

  1. Aviva, I think this might be one of the most important blog posts you’ve written. Learning is uncomfortable sometimes, and by illuminating your reflections in light of current pedagogy and research, I think you are asking us to also reflect and explore being uncomfortable instead of deflecting, resisting or avoiding. Playing is hard work, and it is probably more difficult for most adults than it is for children because of pride, experience, expectation, learned habits. The unexamined life is always worth examining. Thanks for making me think.

    • Thank you, Kristi! You have such a great way of taking my thinking and summing it up so nicely. I do think that these things are worth exploring, and that true “free play,” is an incredible challenge for most adults for many of the reasons that you outlined. This is why we tend to provide specific tasks or structured activities during sessions, but is it time that we started to embrace the uncomfortable, and engage in and support this free play? I think it is. Curious to hear what others think.


  2. Aviva, I participate in a lot of play thru Thinked presentations (often several hours) but when I’m at professional development I crave information and ideas to use with my students. When there is so little PD out there or so little time given for teachers to go, and I usually pay for it myself, I understand how teachers may dabble a little then move on to see what else they can learn. I think the idea of having people there to start the play may make teachers more comfortable. I also would love to see a summary at the end, where noticing and naming the learning can be practised among friends. Don’t give up!

    • Thanks for your comment, Barb! I definitely think that having some people there to start the play, extend the play, and even question during play, could help. My initial plan at these OTF sessions were to summarize at the end, and the only reason that I didn’t, is because almost everyone left. Hopefully some changes would help people stay for longer, and this important “re-connect” could happen at the end.

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making the most of PD, and exploring multiple sessions when the opportunities present themselves. I wonder though about what you crave — “information and ideas.” Can we get both through play, and through the dialogue that happens around play? I’m not saying that the whole session should be play, but I wonder if we have to see play through different eyes. You speak about the value in the ThinkEd presentations, where there is a lot of play. How do we make this approach just as valuable at other PD sessions?

      Thanks for pushing my thinking!

      • I think there is still the external (and maybe internal) push to assess students even though it is a play based program. I still see a lot of one to one assessment happening during Sept. instead of taking time to get to know the students and playing with them. Not all people are comfortable or understand the importance of play and just use it as reward at end of day to blow off steam. I had supply EA’s and ECE’s say, “all they do is play all day?” and I had to justify the small group work and the benefits of play.

        • Barb, this comment makes me both happy and sad. I love the value that you put on play, and I absolutely agree with you about the need to build relationships and play with children — not just assess. In fact, if we really get down and observe, listen to, and play with kids, we’ll probably find out even more about them than a formal assessment can tell us.

          It makes me sad though that we have to justify to others about the benefits of small group work and play. I’ve found both last year and this year that my partners (both RECEs) have actually taught me the most about play. They’ve helped me better understand child development and see the value in this developmentally appropriate play. ECEs are trained even better than teachers on this, so I wonder why ECEs are questioning this play? What changed for them between theory and practice? I actually think we need all of our strong ECEs and the teachers that see the value in play to speak up and show the benefits of it. If this isn’t happening, why is that, and how might we change this?

          Thanks for some great Monday morning thinking!

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