A few words on the importance of play

importance of playIn my grad class we’ve been doing some readings about the importance of Socratic questioning in education. While I was initially turned off by the topic (what does Socrates have to do with teaching five-year-olds?), it turns out to be really relevant to teaching kindergarten. Socrates viewed inquiry and investigation as the best way to learn, as opposed to passive accumulation of skills and knowledge. I’ve long been an advocate for more play in the classroom, and it turns out that even 300 years ago, educators saw play as the best way for young children to learn. Check this out, from Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (emphasis my own):

German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) conducted reforms of early education…that have changed the way young children in virtually all of the world’s countries begin their schooling. For Froebel was the founder and theorist of the “kindergarten,” the year before “regular” schooling begins in which children are gently encouraged to expand their cognitive faculties in an atmosphere of play and affection, and one that, in a Socratic spirit, emphasizes children’s own activity as the source of their learning.

Froebel intensely disliked traditional models of education that viewed children as passive vessels into which the wisdom of the ages would be poured. He believed that education should focus on eliciting and cultivating the child’s natural abilities through supportive play. The idea of the kindergarten is just this idea of a place where one learns and unfolds through play.

Modern kindergartens…[retain] the core idea that children learn to unfold themselves by active thought, reciprocity, and the active manipulation of objects…Children all over the world today owe much to his contribution, since the idea of a type of early education through play in an environment of sympathy and love has created kindergartens more or less everywhere.

So awesome! Kindergarten should still be about playing! Except the author goes on to say…

This healthy idea is under pressure in our world, as children are pressed to drill at skills earlier and earlier in life, often losing opportunities to learn through relaxed playing.

It’s true. So much of my kindergarteners’ day is NOT playing, and is instead structured learning experiences to make sure they acquire a set of skills that in order to be “college and career ready” (at age six!). Ugh.

What that means for me is that I’m going to cling to that 30 minutes of free play time in my schedule every day, and not feel guilty if I expand it.

50 Ways to Wonder: Science kits for the playground

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

In an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

8. Make science kits for the playground.

I don’t know how recess works at your school, but at mine, it’s complete chaos. All kindergarten classes have the same recess times, so there are usually about 65 kids running around on one tiny playground. Despite their best efforts to institute rule-following, the poor recess teachers spend their whole time fielding complaints about hitting, tackling, and going the wrong way on the slide. It’s not the recess teachers’ fault though – most of the kindergarteners, especially at the beginning of the year, don’t have the social skills or the independence to organize games together, or do anything except run around like recently-freed monkeys in a zoo.

Don’t get me wrong, I really value recess and think it’s incredibly important for kids to get outside and have time to move their body. If it were up to me, we’d have a recess at the end of every hour of learning (well, ask me that question in the middle of winter, and I would NOT be as excited to facilitate putting on of snow clothes at the end of every hour…)

But when my kids come in after recess, they are mostly just sweaty, and more hyperactive than before they went outside. The environment of five dozen kids running around screaming is not exactly rejuvenating for them.

So rather than complaining about recess (I need to save my complaining time for even bigger problems in public education), I decided to slowly work on this problem, starting with something very small – science kits. The idea came from the nature center where I work in the summer – small bags that kids can take out into the field to investigate the natural world. I figured if kids can use them out in the woods at the nature center, why not make something similar for the playground?

So I went to Michaels, bought four cheap canvas bags, and filled them with magnifying glasses, small notebooks, and a bug catcher. It took me less than an hour to put them together.

They turned out to be a huge hit. Kids were so excited to have something to do besides run around on the playground, and the bags were filled with enough items that 3 or 4 kids could share each bag. Every day I pulled name sticks to pick four people who would be in charge of bringing the bags out to recess. I thought I would have to make a big deal out of not forgetting the bags on the playground, but the kids felt so much pride in bringing them out that they almost never forgot to bring them back in. (I think it was also because they played with them for the entire recess time – instead of just discarding them after a few minutes, and forgetting about them by the time the bell rang.)

The science kits also had the benefit of engaging students who love to investigate the natural world. I saw students working together to create bug homes, identify (often imaginary) animal tracks, and use notebooks to sketch leaves and rocks.

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Using a bug catcher to capture ants crawling on a tree

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Working hard to create a bug home

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Look at these kids at recess! No running around screaming here, just good old fashioned exploring

Below is a photo of what I included in my science kits, as well as a list of other ideas. In the future, I’d love to create other playground kits, including a reading kit and a nature journaling one.

TeachRunEat - science kits for the playgroundIncluded in my science kits:

  • Bug identification cards
  • Small notebooks
  • Bug catcher (actually just a cheap craft box from Michaels)
  • Magnifying glass
  • Pencil
  • Animal track identification cards

Other ideas you could include:

  • Field guides
  • Binoculars
  • Compasses
  • Butterfly nets
  • Flashlights
  • Nature log (for recording animal and plant sightings)
  • Colored pencils
  • Nature journals
  • Maps
  • Jars or boxes for building collections of rocks, leaves, etc.
  • Nature scavenger hunt checklists

Here’s a few more links on creating science kits for the playground: Fun Field Bag Supplies for Kids, and Scavenger Hunt Bingo.

When work becomes more important than play in kindergarten

importance of play

This will be my third year teaching kindergarten (and seventh year teaching overall), and every day I become more frustrated with the demands we are making on kindergarten students. Research overwhelming states that children need to play to learn. Just read this and this and this and this.

I know how important play is, and I make every effort I can to put it into my classroom. But the urgency with which we are required to fit in so much curriculum and testing sometimes leaves me feeling powerless to do what I feel is best for my kids.

Sadly, this was a week in which I hardly let my students play. There were too many other things that they HAD to do.

In place of playing, here are a few things I asked my five- and six-year-olds to do this week:

  1. Complete 7 math worksheets.
  2. Write a personal narrative.
  3. Edit and revise their personal narrative.
  4. Sort spelling words according to their letter pattern.
  5. Read silently for twenty minutes each day.
  6. Take a state-mandated test on their “reading level.”
  7. Memorize flashcards of high-frequency words, and participate in a daily song drilling these words.
  8. Write using a “graphic organizer” to demonstrate what they learned in science.
  9. Complete four math homework sheets.
  10. Summarize and retell a book each day, as well as tell me the title, setting, main character, problem and solution.

This isn’t what kindergarteners should be doing in school. Third graders, maybe. But not kids who are still learning the most basic of life skills, including taking turns, having empathy, asking questions, and making observations.

To learn these skills, kids need unstructured play, small group interactions, movement, exploration, free time. I will continue to create pockets of time for these vital learning experiences. But it’s an uphill battle.