Social Play: What IS Possible?

I recently read Beth Lyons’ #oneword blog post for Marchwhich Doug Peterson featured in his Friday post — and it has me thinking more about my new word. In February, I focused on patience. We were all returning to school after seven weeks at home, and as much as my teaching partner, Paula, and I wanted to jump right in and capitalize on the wonderfulness that often happens in January in kindergarten, we wondered if we all needed more time to adjust to being back. We focused on a slower start.

  • A chance to reconnect because we’re all back together in one space.
  • Opportunities for more sensory play because we know that this play is calming for so many of our kids.
  • A little extra time for any of the transitions that we do have — if it’s in the movement outside to inside or packing up at the end of the day — to reduce the stress that can come with a fast pace.

The amazing thing was that, overall, the January magic happened even without us being in a physical building together. When we returned to school, students that might have struggled online were back at their prime in the classroom. Some children changed so remarkably in their actions that Paula and I continue to question, why? What’s making things better now than they were before? We think that they might just be happy to be back together at school again.

Along with some of the academic changes that we noticed in our kids — from letter-sound awareness to reading, writing, and math growth — we also noticed social changes. Students are really seeking out opportunities to socialize with others outside. Even if it’s through live action versions of Pokemon Games or cheetah families, they are constantly looking at ways to play together. Since children are now masked outside, and there’s a caveat in our restrictions that say that they must remain in masks if they cannot ensure 2 m. of physical distance, we can support more of this socializing outdoors. We are also play in a huge open field space with limited materials beyond nature, so we don’t need to worry too much about sanitizing objects. Kids can be kids and play together. There’s something wonderful about this!

In the last little while though, we’ve noticed that students are also starting to look more for each other in the classroom. Inside, they have to stay at their individual spaces. Many of our kids have become amazing at independent play, as this is how they spend a lot of their day. Since almost the beginning of school, there have been pockets of interaction as kids talk together from their own spaces, but usually the classroom is quiet. Like really quiet. Almost silent. Paula and I miss the hum that comes from kids socializing.

Then on Wednesday of this week, we started to hear some of the talk that we would have heard in previous years — but this time from a distance.

It really got us thinking about what kids want and what they need. It is with this in mind, that I picked my #oneword-ish for March: social play. How can we make this type of play work in our classroom considering COVID protocols?

For all of the academic learning that happens in kindergarten, social learning is also huge. Kids learn how to …

  • negotiate play,
  • enter play with others,
  • share materials,
  • share ideas,
  • and solve problems.

We know that some of this learning is happening outside, but is it out responsibility to support this learning inside? How can we do so safely?

Our thinking around social play really came to a head on Friday afternoon. As usual, many children were into buckets of blocks come the afternoon. Most students were using tracks and dominoes to create variations of marble runs and Rube Goldberg Machines. We’ve been looking at these for months, but the play has started to stagnate. Maybe we need to explore some different provocations to incite new learning here, but both Paula and I find that if we’re not there to continue the discussion with kids about their runs, the block play is short. This leads to students packing up one set of bins and moving to another one. It’s a lot of really quick play that tends to lack the deep thinking that we know is possible.

As Paula and I observed the play in the classroom, we looked at each other and agreed, “It’s time for a change.” What if we got rid of the tracks, ping pong balls, and marbles? Would this change the play? Often we help inspire new thinking by adding materials. This time, we decided to do the opposite. Paula comically became The Grinch, and with a big plastic bag as her sack, she went around the classroom and got kids to help pack up some of the building supplies. They found this amusing, while it also had them looking at materials differently. Watching this castle creation had us re-packing block bins after school, sanitizing new materials, and doing a little ordering of our own.

Will this play be for everyone? No. But with the addition of some loose parts, mixtures of blocks and KEVA planks, and even some peg people, maybe we can start to inspire more distance dramatic play and storytelling. We then plan on listening to one of our favourite writing stories — The Signmaker’s Assistant (thanks to Kristi Keery-Bishop for introducing it to us) — to inspire some writing connections and authentic reading opportunities to go along with the building.

Paula and I also thought a lot about how dramatic play is often richer and deeper thanks to the social nature of this play. How can we support this social play from a distance? We wonder about inspiring some parallel building of sorts: let kids see how they can each build in their own spaces, but talk to each other along the way.

Even for those students that are less interested in block play, we can still support these social interactions and storytelling through a little parallel LEGO play and plasticine play. A shoebox space or shelf space could be perfect for small world possibilities. Our hope is that as students combine materials (e.g., adding LEGO or plasticine figures to blocks, and then creating signs to go along with both), we’ll see more storytelling evolve.

While the possibilities here are exciting, they also bring with them uncertainty.

  • Will this work as we anticipate?
  • What impact will this type of play have on the volume in the classroom?
  • What impact might this volume have on student behaviour?

On a positive note, we also wonder if this change in play might bring with it less of a reliance on us to be the sole source of extending learning and connecting around learning. Right now, with limited movement in the classroom, Paula and I become the playmates for kids. This means that almost all of our interactions with kids are quick and often involve a chant in the background of “Dunsiger” or “Crockett,” as other students look for one of us to come and see what they’re doing. Now they might be able to look more to each other, even while staying physically apart.

As we both got ready to leave on Friday evening, Paula reminded me, “It’s going to take time for this play to settle. We can’t make changes right away.” Another opportunity for “patience” perhaps?? But maybe March will also bring with it the chance for the impossible to become a little more possible … and that is just the kind of happiness that I need right now. What about you?


4 thoughts on “Social Play: What IS Possible?

  1. So much going on here, Aviva. I’m trying to figure out how I can adapt this to my big kids. They really loved our “one word” art building when I just put bins of stuff out for them to create with. I’m wondering if I can bring in a little Angela Stockman inspired loose parts writing, and make it clear that we’re going to deconstruct anything we build. Or if I need to add to the loose parts collection my students already have in their individual Bins. Thank you for making me think about what kind of changes my spaces need.

    • Lisa, I absolutely love how you think. It makes me so happy to hear your possibilities for your big kids. I love the loose part writing idea. I remember all of Angela Stockman’s Fairy Garden work (that inspired some of our online learning in the spring) and the notes that went along with them. Could you create some Fairy Gardens on your school property or in surrounding areas? Maybe even creating nature friendly notes that would inspire younger kids to write back? I even wonder about a virtual fairy garden, depending on your access to devices. Any of these fairy garden options could evolve into pen pal experiences of sorts. There could be some interesting media literacy loose part possibilities, maybe even tied into a fairy garden option or another Makerspace idea. Maybe students could dissect and reflect on their choices. I see some possible metacognition here. Can’t wait to hear what you do!


  2. We are a 7-12 space, which means we don’t have littles around, but we had some amazing conversations in the session that Angela, Mel And Pam did at OLASC around trying to create some mysterious gnome action, even in a high school space. Things to think about. What could my students build with loose parts in response to a prompt? (That might eventually lead them to writing)

    • Thanks for sharing, Lisa! How did I forget that you’re in a 7-12 space?! I actually knew that. This does sound like some playful building/writing opportunities, even in an older grade. There could be some media links here too. Excited to hear more about what you try and what your students do.


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