Could Play Build Stamina?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stamina lately. It’s a word that comes up in many conversations that I have with educators, particularly when it comes to reading and writing.

The Grade 1 teachers and I are working on a plan right now about how to best support small group, targeted instruction in the classroom. We all know that this instruction is valuable, but after years of COVID restrictions and pivots online, it’s easy to get out of this routine. In my Reading Specialist role, I can work with the different classroom educators to create a routine that works for them. All educators and students are different, and as such, I want to help support these differences and recognize that this small group instruction can exist in all classrooms, but possibly, with slightly different models.

As educators are considering a 40-minute block to support some small group instruction (with multiple groups during these 40 minutes), one concern that understandably comes up is, what will the rest of my students be doing for this time? Educators want to ensure that all of the learning is valuable, and a concern about stamina for independent reading and writing, often enters into this conversation.

I know that sometimes people think that play is to blame for the lack of stamina. As a previous kindergarten teacher, I often heard about “preparing kids for Grade 1,” and reducing this play was part of this requested preparation. Speaking recently with my Reading Specialist mentor, I had an epiphany. Could play actually be what’s needed to increase stamina?

When I say, “play,” I’m talking about open-ended, student led explorations, with materials out that will lend themselves to creative thinking, problem solving, vocabulary development, collaboration, reading, writing, and math. Having just left a kindergarten classroom back in October, I can tell you that my teaching partner, Paula, and I spent an inordinate amount of time discussing classroom design, provocations, material options, targeted instruction, and at the heart of everything, our students. Play takes planning time. When I say this, I don’t mean planning a game or a craft or a specific product. I mean planning a space, an inspiration, a collection of materials, an entry point for ALL students, and possible links to Program expectations. I mean considering how we might observe and enter into this play. With a long block of time, easy access to reading and writing materials that connect with each provocation (e.g., books on the topic, clipboards, whiteboards, and sticky notes), clear expectations, and consistent routines, students will develop the stamina that we want and hope to see when it comes to reading and writing — particularly as they progress throughout the grades.

For with a longer block of time to explore, students are not looking at the clock. They are not thinking about “what comes next,” or “when something is over.” They’re engaged, in control of their learning, and will receive enough feedback from peers and staff to extend it. I keep thinking about these outdoor play experiences from yesterday.

As Mrs. Deane and I were reflecting at the end of this play (Mrs. Brooks was away at the time), we noted that the students could have happily continued to play for another period. We could have looked more closely at the water flow and maybe started to dig into some different recipes and list of bakery items created. We want to try to support a double block for this play in the coming weeks. There’s no doubt that these kids were engaged and had the stamina to extend this play.

While at times, both Mrs. Deane and I were pulled to certain groups of students or facilitating a little problem solving, overall, the kids were incredibly independent and assisted each other. We could then connect more with different groups of children, and even support some reading and writing extensions for a few students. Although this was most certainly play in action, there was nothing scripted about this play. The amazing construction investigation took part without any provocations or pre-planning from us. Yes, we supported this investigation, but only because the mud and water inspired students to engage in it. We also didn’t pull anyone to this sensory play. Most students gravitated towards it, especially with the new materials and the wonderful sand space for them to use, but a few students do not like to get dirty. They wanted the gross motor experiences that come from lifting tires and kicking a ball in the courtyard pit. Mrs. Deane and I chatted about how we might slow down this play. Are there other materials that we could add that might get kids building with the tires? Could this then lead to creating and labelling some plans? Sometimes just one new item leads to a whole new learning opportunity.

I share all of this, for often, especially in the world of Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest, when we think and talk about play, we’re focused on an activity or a game. Many times, we want all students to be involved. This activity only lasts a short period of time before kids move to something else. An adult is also needed to facilitate this play or it breaks down quickly. I think that we use these games and activities with the best of intentions and with a strong belief that they are engaging. Likely they are, or at least at first and with the adult support. But as we have students quickly transition between different short activities, I wonder if this makes it even more difficult for kids to build stamina. They are constantly focused then on what comes next. One of the most valuable things that Paula ever taught me is the importance of time. Students need a long block of time to settle into play, and we need to give children this time before we make changes. This happens with open-ended play, but this does not always happen with games and activities.

Maybe for different kids and in different situations, a game or an activity might work — especially in a small group — but if we want to build stamina, do we need something more open? Do we need to release our control a bit? Maybe, contrary to what we might think, do we need to let kids play more? Have students make plans for this play. Expect them to label their creations. Get them to make signs, create books, or add speech bubbles to the characters that they make. Have them write notes for supplies they need and even try writing them back. Kids will be reading, writing, problem solving, exploring math concepts, and with periodic connections with educators, extending the play and targeting specific needs.

Beginning next week, the Grade 1 educators all have different plans to support some small group instruction in their classrooms. Some have more open-ended ideas (with a focus on reading, writing, and word work) in mind. Some have a combination of open-ended options and a few games and activities. A few educators are going to do two different shorter times for this instruction, with independent reading during one time and centres during another. Every single educator is considering their students, their current routines, their feeling of comfort with different possibilities, and the rest of their program, when deciding how to begin. Will ideas change throughout the process? Quite possibly. Will educators share what’s working and not working in their rooms and co-problem solve with me and with each other? I have no doubt. And somewhere, in the midst of all of this, I’m curious to continue our stamina discussions. Do our choices impact on student stamina, and if so, what else might we try? Why? This line on page 8 of the Kindergarten Program Document is one of my favourites: “The Kindergarten program reflects the belief that four- and five-year-olds are capable and competent learners, full of potential and ready to take ownership of their learning.” This sounds to me like a view of the child that supports the building of stamina. What do you think? If this is what we believe about four- and five-year-olds, should this not hold true for kids of all ages? Maybe it’s play that holds the key to this successful independence and deeper learning. Is anyone else wondering if this could be the case?


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