On Thursday night I wrote this tweet …
and before I get down to working on my Communication of Learning comments today, I need to expand on my thinking.
Education is full of edu-jargon, and while I’m not a fan of it, I will say that I’m sometimes guilty of also using these terms. Lately, two terms that I hear the most are “play-based learning” and “inquiry.” Due to a renewed focus on math, these words are often used in conjunction with this subject area. My struggle here is two-fold.
- As often as the terms are used, they rarely seem to be accompanied by specific examples of what this actually looks like in math. Please note that I know there are exceptions to this rule, and I do follow and interact online and in-person with some people who share amazing examples of meaningful math in a classroom environment. But far too often, I think I hear, “these skills are reinforced through ‘play and inquiry,'” but without a look at what this actually means.
- Hands-on learning with math manipulatives is so often the way that “play” seems to be defined, but does the use of math manipulatives equate to play-based learning? I feel as though this second struggle is my biggest one, and maybe it’s because of my interpretation of the new Kindergarten Program Document that I continue to question this.
Our updated program document explicitly states to start with the child’s interests and make the links to the expectations. I know that this is contrary to much of what we’ve done in the past. “Noticing and naming” is such a huge component of this. It’s as we observe the students and see the math, that we help them see it too, and give them the math vocabulary to explain their experiences and understand their learning. So much math happens during student-initiated play, and so rarely does this play involve your typical math manipulatives. Does this matter though? I think of this experience in the forest yesterday.
I was watching and listening to this group of students in the trees today. They mentioned that they were all sick. I said that it was like they sorted themselves with all of the ‘sick people’ in the trees and all of the ‘healthy people’ on the other side of them. A few minutes later, another child came to join the play. This is the conversation that happened. Love how she showed her understanding of “sorting” in her reply. And he happily moved back and played with them from the other side of the trees. 💛❤️💙💜💚 This is what “noticing and naming” is all about. #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry #engagemath
We could have taught sorting in a different way. I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve given students sorting circles, sorting trays, and buckets of various manipulatives. We have a whole cabinet full of loose parts and plastic bears, dinosaurs, and an assortment of other animals that could all work for sorting. If we put these out on a table or on the floor, students might sort them into groups and count them. We might even encourage them to do this. Technically, I guess that they’re “playing” with the manipulatives, but does this make the play meaningful to them?
This doesn’t mean that we can’t — and don’t — use manipulatives to teach or reinforce specific concepts with students when the students are ready to explore these ideas. A group of children helped me make a rekenrek in our outdoor classroom. We’ve used this since then in different ways through play.
And while using these different tools can sometimes help solidify (or teach) specific concepts for students that can then be further explored through play, I think that this kind of “play” still varies from play-based learning.
I know that this is an argument around language, and does the word choice matter? I think that it does though. If “play” is just being seen as hands-on learning with math manipulatives, are we missing the richness that comes from the meaningful math that happens during free play? I know that there’s always a fear that if we don’t use certain tools, teach certain strategies, or instruct in a certain way, that we won’t prepare our students for the future. But I look at some of the math that’s happened in our classroom, through play, in just this past week alone.
Students are talking about — and working with — math concepts, and we’re discussing math with the students. To me, this is play-based learning in math, but am I missing something here? What does play-based and/or inquiry-based math learning look like for you? As I see the variety of ideas shared online, I start to wonder about my own perspective and want to gain a better understanding of other people’s perspectives … no matter how “uncomfortable” this may be for me. As I tweeted before, “nobody said that One Word Ontario words are easy.”