Purposeful Play and the gift of TIME!

A Best-Practice Reflection by: Tinika Lowe, Geary Elementary Community School

I have been an elementary school teacher for more than 19 years; most of which has been in Kindergarten classrooms. I have seen many “trends” come and go but a common theme that has always remained is the importance of allowing children to have an active part in their learning.

At the marvelous ages of four or five the greatest asset that a child brings to the classroom is their ability to play. Their capacity to merge their imagination and fearlessness into the tools that a teacher provides them. This year our school has identified the need to increase our students' ability to think critically as one of our primary focuses for student growth.

As a kindergarten teacher, I had to ask myself “how do I help these young children improve their critical thinking skills?” “How do I even explain to them what critical thinking is?” and “How can play become a medium to achieve the answers to both these questions?”

 My own classroom after I started the longer block of purposeful play where the kids are working out how they can all be a part of a “tape ball” game that they invented.
My own classroom after I started the longer block of purposeful play

Recently I had the opportunity to visit a colleague’s classroom where purposeful play was an integral part of her student’s day. I have always recognized the importance of play in student learning but had somehow over time, shifted away from what I think is one of the keys to teaching success and that is to “allow students the time to authentically play."

My visit to her classroom not only reminded me of this but also triggered my own excitement and enthusiasm for play in the classroom. Her carefree, yet targeted approach to setting up the play environment inspired me to step back and reexamine my own teaching practices.

Two of the main barriers that I thought I would observe was “how can this teacher ensure that all students where learning and able to participate in an unstructured environment?” and “what is the teacher doing during this time that lets her know that the play is 'purposeful'?”

It did not take long for me to see that there was in fact structure; it just looked different from the traditional center type activities. The teacher provided the framework and then stepped back and allowed the children to take control. It was evident that lots of pre-teaching had occurred, as the children knew what was expected of them at each play area, what they could take out without asking and what they needed permission for.

The teacher circulated throughout the room, engaged in conversations and helped redirect when necessary BUT never once told them how to play. She posed questions to get them thinking when problems arose and allowed them the time to problem solve without her input.

Here is an example from the classroom I visited where children were problem solving how they would clean up the sand from the sand table that ended up in the kitchen center.
children problem solving how they would clean up
Here is the painting stations, one of many stations the children could play at.
painting station, one of many stations

This painting station was one of the sets of materials that were available to the kids. It was incredible to see the kids using paint, unsupervised and undirected. The level of creativity was so amazing and at one point a child brought a puppet to the paint station and with the puppet on their little hand, picked up a paintbrush and began to talk to the puppet and create!

The merging of toys from one station to another was something that I thought I would never have allowed but here was this little one showing just what can happen when they have the freedom to.

Here is one of my students after I put these purposeful play methods into action in my classroom.
students after I put purposeful play methods into action

When I came back to my own classroom I put her methods to work and allowed my students the same choice activity and the same freedom to combine their areas of interest (of course lots of talk about our “why” and “reasonable expectations” happened before this took place).

One of the greatest areas of interest for me during this observation was how the students were engaged in so many different activities but were still

interacting with each other as they moved from place to place.

I saw students building alone at first and then several other students joined and all of a sudden towers became racetracks, all while one student stayed focused on working independently but modified what he was building to “fit in” with the play of his peers.

Here is a student creating an intricate and detailed car in the classroom I visited.
a student creating an intricate car in the classroom

The conversations that I could hear could easily fill a checklist of Speaking and Listening outcomes! This has been one of my favorite observations in my classroom. How students engage in so much meaningful conversation, solve problems, and create opportunities for others to learn.

  Here are my own students sorting socks and mittens for the stuffed toys in the Veterinarian center while another friend joins in.
students sorting socks and mittens for the stuffed toys in the Veterinarian center

Overall this was a fabulous and eye opening experience for me. Was the idea of children learning through play a new one? Not by a long shot. But this experience was a stark reminder that if we want to observe children in meaningful conversation, problem solving in social situations, and thinking critically to create, explore and examine, then we need to give them FREEDOM and TIME to do this inside our classrooms. This way we have the opportunity to observe it and guide it so that the play takes on a life of its own where children are not only the students but are the teachers.

I am learning so much from my students and, through my observations and conversations, I am covering more outcomes than I could have ever imagined.

My student's lego creation during purposeful play.
student's lego creation during purposeful play

This is what happens when one of my students was given time to build with Lego! AMAZING

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