Do We Ruin Play By Getting Involved?

Over the holiday break, I saw this article shared by Carrie Marshall about how to ruin a child’s play.

I’ll admit that I didn’t share the article at the time because I was also torn by it. I understand the value in letting kids play, but I also try to instruct and extend learning through play. In many ways, our Kindergarten Program Document rests on the very belief that we can observe play, connect it to expectations, and facilitate learning as part of play. So how do I feel about not intervening in play?

Strangely enough, on the same day that I saw Carrie’s tweet, my teaching partner, Paula, texted me a link to this same article. Maybe it was the idea of seeing it twice in one day that really had me thinking more about this article when we later returned to school. This past week, I’ve had a couple of experiences that made me better appreciate the thinking in it. The first experience happened mid-week, when we were outside in the morning. These two Instagram posts, not only capture the experience, but also our reflections.

By staying back, observing, and reflecting together, the kids were able to own the learning and the experience.

  • Would the play have evolved as it did if we intervened?
  • Would getting involved have drawn more kids to us as problems occurred, instead of own the problems and the solutions as they did?
  • Would our involvement have changed the direction of the game, and if so, would that have been the right thing to do?

Usually, I like to get close, question, and interrupt (in a good way, I think), but my #oneword of pausing has me thinking about the value in not saying anything at all. 

I thought about this further during the play inside on Wednesday, as kids began to get involved in our dollhouse experience. (Thanks to Paula for making our vision become a reality with some “making” of her own after school on Tuesday.)

When Paula and I began to plan at the end of the school day, we reflected a lot on this dollhouse experience. Paula wondered, did students do what they did today because we stayed back and let them be? It does make you wonder if the doll clothes (which we never thought about having kids create) and even the furniture, like the bed with the popsicle stick legs, would have happened if we started to create first. Neither of us saw the use of materials in this way, so would our children have been confident enough to express contrary thoughts to us, or would they have followed our lead instead?

Our students are now so independent that they can support each other and problem solve on their own, so when a child did need me to use the glue gun, I could easily sit down and do so, knowing the value of the play happening around the room. While Paula and I slowly got involved in the play on Thursday and Friday, we tended to do so after watching first. As you can hear in the videos, most of our involvement was on celebrating the wonderfulness that the kids did all on their own. Listen to and observe the math talk, social language, and problem solving that’s part of the play without our interruptions.

Now I realize that in a classroom program that is 100% play-based, conversations, mini-lessons, and questions can still be valuable … at times. Learning doesn’t happen by accident. But watching play this past week and thinking about the article, also reminds me that we are not the only ones who can extend learning. Kids can support, question, teach, and extend learning with their peers, even when these kids might only be four-years-old. Let’s not forget about the value in play and the importance of stepping back. What do you think? Do our good intentions ruin play, and is it important to sometimes say and do less? Seeing what can happen with us in the background has me celebrating just how competent and capable these young children are. Now imagine the possibilities beyond kindergarten.


2 thoughts on “Do We Ruin Play By Getting Involved?

  1. I have long felt that one of the big jobs of a teacher on recess duty is teach teach the children how to manage conflict on their own. By January every adult should be able to do as you did – just sit back and monitor the independent play! Do you think you have so much success with this because your students get a great big block of play every single day? My primary students get two 20 minute blocks and I am doing a lot of thinking about it. I am never out with them. However, fairly often I like to go out and join them instead of bringing them in when the rest of school ends recess. Letting them stay outside for any extra 10-15 minutes does some amazing things. They come in relaxed and tired instead of still wound up from the recess. They get the whole space divided by 20 instead of the divided by 150+ kids. This year we have a special need to keep to our routine for one friend, so I haven’t done this much and I am noticing a difference!

    Back to your topic! LOL Do we ruin play? Yeah, I think we definitely can. I think any time adults even come close to a group it changes the group dynamic. When I join my own two children I have to remind myself to remain a passive participant, an invited guest, instead of trying to confer with them or direct the play toward a learning goal. Ha ha I can’t help it! In my class I like to sit with my students and work on my own art projects when they are doing art. I have found I have to be really careful about this because some kids will start to copy me, or compare themselves to me. I want to get their thoughts on the process (because I’m interested and because it gives me good anecdotal evidence of their understanding that I can write down!) but I don’t want to interrupt their process.
    Great post!

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa! I absolutely think that the long, uninterrupted block of play outside is key. I love how you extend this after recess. We actually choose not to go out at recess time, but instead, spent 1-1 1/2 hours outside first thing each morning (regardless of weather). It does amazing things for kids! I actually reflected on this very topic a few years ago, and the impact that short times outside can have versus longer ones. Not sure how to make this possible school wide — as the space to also “be” outside is so key — but it really does seem to make a difference for kids.

      Thanks for also sharing what you do to be invited into play and not overtake it. This is hard for me. I wonder if it’s also because our whole day is play, so I’m very cognizant of the teaching/learning that I want to see and extend through play. But this past week also has me thinking of the teaching/learning that can happen without me … and the amazingness of kids. It’s interesting as Paula often does what you do to play beside kids. I continue to work on this. It’s not always easy. Sometimes though, observing from a distance can help. Then if I do go in, I can do so with a specific purpose, and usually also leave quickly.


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