Play in the Primary Classroom

Play in the kindergarten classroom

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.

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What is the Definition of Play?

The traditional definition is what one does as a form of enjoyment or recreation, rather than a 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.

Types of Play

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 as well.

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.

What does the research say?

It seems as if more and more children are enrolling in school without what used to be pre-requisite 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.

What about academic rigor?

It seems as if every few years there are standards that are pushed back to the previous grade. 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.

For more on how I begin learning centers and integrate sensory tables into our routine, click the links.

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 another 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.

Our dramatic play area is nothing special, just a corner/area that I created in my classroom. It is awkwardly placed, but it serves its purpose! The farmers market stand I got from Target. I have also linked it in my Amazon store if you can’t find it at Target. 

My students rotate to this center just like they do the writing center, pocket chart center or any other center that is on their rotation for the day. When I initially incorporated this into my class, I thought that I would change it out every month, and have thematic tasks, such as post office one month, dentist office another, etc. Life got in the way, and I realized that the dramatic play area was just as I’d started it. There’s a cash register, table, shopping cart, farmer’s market stand, kitchen, and a washing machine complete with an ironing board. There’s also a bin filled with grocery items and plates, spoons, forks and cups. Oh, and a tent is in that corner as well. 

Guess what? My students do not care that everything stays the same. Because their imagination provides all of the different scenarios that they need. It is amazing to me what I hear coming from this area. My timid students are no longer shy, the students who hate to speak up in class are leading the activity. Speaking and listening standards? Covered. The hidden curriculum of social skills and interaction? Covered.

I also have a STEM center in our rotation. This center uses a mix of activities from Pocket of Preschool, and Design and Build centers from Lakeshore Learning. I begin with the Lakeshore Learning centers, so that they only have one set of materials to use. It gets them use to the idea, and I’ve found that an overabundance of materials starting out can overwhelm little ones. Especially if they haven’t had the opportunity to be in this type of environment before. So we start small, and discuss expectations, then model and practice. Once I feel that they are ready, then I add more and more things. It has worked out great for my class. 

I get asked all of the time how I’m able to “get away with all of this in my classroom”. Let me tell you that question truly makes me sad. It is what is developmentally appropriate and best for our little ones. The first thing that I tell teachers is to be armed with research. We can always share our opinions, and we know what’s best, but administrators respond to research. I always strive to have a research based classroom. The first place that I would start is the book Purposeful Play. I have also linked it here, just click on Professional Development Books

Sometimes we don’t get the chance to explain why certain activities and centers are in our rooms, especially if it’s a walk-through or observation. When they are taking in a quick birds-eye view of my classroom, I want it to be understood immediately what my little friends are doing.

I now have these posted around my dramatic play and STEM centers, so that anyone can glance at them and know exactly what my students are doing. Click on either picture or to grab this for your classroom.

Purposeful play is just as important as being purposeful in our literacy and math instruction. It is what primary children require and if anyone has spent a winter with indoor recess, you know exactly what I mean! We must provide the students that come through our classroom with what they need, giving them new opportunities to expand their creativity.

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Purposeful Play in the Primary Classroom
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