Play has always seemed synonymous with children, because it’s what they do. When students
come to school now, it seems as if the decision makers want to limit the amount of playing that
goes on in primary classrooms. It is also relegated to the outskirts of the day, where children are
allowed to play after they complete their “work”. Today I want to advocate for play-based
classrooms, and explain why I believe that they are so important.
serious activity. This may be somewhat true for adults, but it is not the definition that I would
use when it comes to children. Play can be complex, but the simplest way to define it is what
children do on their own. They come up with their own ideas, and they are free to create their
own rules. Oh, and play from the perspective of children is a serious activity.
Children engage in many different types of play! The one that quickly comes to mind is
fantasy play. We see them play “make believe” when they pretend they are at a restaurant,
and they take the orders of others, etc. During this time, they begin to role-play, using what
they know from their schema (what they already know). They automatically assume the role
of the waiter/waitress, cook, cashier, etc. They do what those roles are assigned to do
without anyone having to tell them.
Another type of play is what I like to call “on the playground” play. Others may like to call it
“horseplay” or “roughhousing”. This type of play involves gross motor skills, as well as body
contact between a few children. They love to run after each other, playing tag, swords and the
like. Lately the pendulum has swung to where we do not want children to engage in this type
of behavior because we think that it will go too far. The truth of the matter is that sometimes it
will escalate to a point where it has gotten out of control. It is during this time that children
learn self-restraint. They learn what it means to go too far. The only way that they will learn how to
control impulses and recognize social cues is during play.
Playing games with different types of rules is something else that children love to do. When
children engage in this type of play, there is a some sort of logic involved, as well as order.
They learn to cooperate with each other, resolve conflict and learn what it means to lose
and/or win at something. They learn how to handle disappointment during this type of play
Constructive play is what my students like to do during blocks, play dough, etc. This kind of
play is considered to be open-ended, and has implications for STEM work as well. As they begin
to form questions, then their imaginations begin to work as they try to solve the problems that are
before them. Children who do not have opportunities to play often struggle with STEM work,
project-based learning and/or design challenges. They attempt to solve an issue, but they are
unable to adapt their thinking to new situations.
skills. Play helps children to engage in conflict resolution. Inevitably something will happen where
children will disagree on what they need to do, and there will need to be some type of compromise.
This is the perfect time for them to learn how to handle these types of situations. They learn when it
is ok to adjust their expectations or position, and when they need to stand firm. Through this type of
play they also develop emotional regulation. This helps them to learn to avoid overreacting, and
they regulate their own desires by developing strategies through play such as heroism, fearlessness,
friendliness and the like.
Creativity grows through play as well. Pencil and paper work will never foster creativity. When
children are unable to participate in balanced play, then we stunt their development. All we have to
do is look around our classrooms and schools to see what the ramifications of this is. When you skip
developmental skills, it leaves deficits that can remain with the child as they grow up.
Children are required to learn academic content at a faster pace and earlier than ever. At the same
time we are skipping over educational milestones.
Rigor. That can be a scary word in an academic setting, but what does it really mean? I don’t have
the perfect definition, but luckily someone else does. “Rigor is creating an environment in which
each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at
high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.” This definition comes from
Barbara Blackburn, the author of Rigor Is Not a Four-Letter Word.
Psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the concept of the zone of proximal development. Simply
put, this zone is the difference between what a learner can do with and without help. He believed
that when little ones play, they are operating at the very edge of their zone. Most children
feel comfortable with play because it is something that they have been doing since birth. During
this time they do not struggle with drawing, writing, speaking, listening, social skills, reading, math,
etc. If it is a concept that they haven’t mastered, they don’t let their lack stop them from
participating. In operating at the edge of their zone, isn’t that considered learning at high levels,
or what we call rigor? I believe that it is.
Work first, then play?
Some people might say that play is something that children can do after they finish their work. I
remember hearing over and over in college that play was the work of children. It wasn’t until years
later that I actually understood what it meant. Play is the one area where children do not have to be
told to learn. Play comes naturally to them! During play, they are actively moving towards a goal.
Well, isn’t that what work is? Vygotsky believed that the entire purpose of education is to provide
experiences that are within their zones of proximal development. He thought that this would build
on their strengths. Since his time, the definition has been updated and expanded. This zone now
includes the area of learning that develops when a student is supported by a teacher or a peer with
a higher skill set.
What does it look like in a public kindergarten classroom?
I know that we have constraints as to what we can do. I’m sharing with you a peek into my
classroom so that you can see how I try to incorporate play into our day. Now, a lot of what I do
is play-based. This means that it has an element of play, but our centers do have teacher directions.
There are two centers that I have incorporated into my classroom in the past few years as I have
tried to make a shift to developmentally appropriate practice. First up is dramatic play. It is
something that had been on my heart, and after visiting other school during our time as a Leader
in Me school, I noticed that other schools had dramatic play areas in kindergarten classrooms!
This definitely piqued my interest and I desperately wanted to have one in my room as well.