Purposeful Play: Letting the Students Take the Lead

A Best-Practice Reflection by: Ashley Smith, Geary Elementary Community School

For as long I can remember, I have wanted to be a teacher. My sister and I had a small chalk board in our playroom and we would rush off the bus at the end of the day and go downstairs to play school. I have been an elementary school teacher for 11 years. I have taught Kindergarten to grade 4 which included several combined classes. For the past three years, I have had a Kindergarten/Grade 1 class. It is an amazing combination to see the Kindergarten students come to school for the first time and the Grade 1 students become the “experts” and help as classroom leaders to the Kindergarten students.

This year, I have begun my journey into the world of Purposeful Play and letting the students lead the way. They are the experts on play. They are creative, full of energy, motivated and willing to try anything. After a visit to another classroom, it has become my goal to let them lead the way and explore different ways they can play together.

Until a few years ago, the idea of purposeful play was a new concept to me and I wasn’t sure where to begin. I recently had the opportunity to visit a fellow teacher’s classroom and watch purposeful play in action. This teacher has been doing purposeful play in her classroom for many years and it was very evident from the moment I walked into her classroom. The students were building with blocks, making “cookies”, using puppets to re-tell a story they had read the day before and carving a pumpkin. Yes, carving a pumpkin with little tools while their teacher chatted with myself and our literacy lead who joined me for the visit. My first thought was “she is actually letting them carve the pumpkin by themselves?” It was truly amazing to watch it all unfold. There were no arguments, everyone was sharing materials, using kind words and when it was time to clean up they all helped each other. The students had the room clean and tidy and were at their teaching corner in less than 4 minutes.

One of my greatest barriers was the thought of an unstructured play time. For many years, to start our school day I put centers on each table and students had to stay at their table to play. The centers rotated each day so by the end of the week each student would have an opportunity to play with each center. I was very reluctant to chance this routine. My concern was how will the students freely choose their centers and who to play with and how will I keep their play time from being chaotic and loud. During my visit, I was very quickly reminded that play is a natural part of a child’s day. It is something that comes easily to them and something that they thrive in. When I finally switched up my morning routines and how we do morning centers, my little group really surprised me. They were very excited when I told them that they could choose the center they wanted to play at and that there was no limit to how many could be at each center. Here is my favorite example of how surprised I was. On my last day of structured centers, the three students who were at the kitchen center argued and complained almost the whole time. They couldn’t get along, they fought over the toys and kept coming to myself and my EA to tattle on the other students. That same morning our literacy lead introduced Purposeful Play or “play workshop” as my class likes to call it. She explained that they could choose which center to play at and that there is no limit to how many can go to a center. For almost 25 minutes, eight students played in the kitchen center. There were no arguments, everyone was kind and play together well and I heard some very creative language from them. They used their critical thinking (which is a whole school goal this year). It was amazing to see play in action, the way it should be. This got me excited to make purposeful play a priority in my classroom.

Below are a pictures of the kitchen center full of activity. This was the day that eight students were there happily playing together.

Since that visit, I have worked hard to provide my students with opportunities to play more. We have increased our play time, given the students more choice about what they would like to play with, use their ideas to create more play opportunities and let the students take the lead. They know they can freely move from center to center, problem solve when an issue arrives, share with everyone and help clean up all toys even if they were not playing with it. Lego is a favorite center for many of my students. I was so amazed at one of my kindergarten students. He made a plan using a scrape piece of paper to draw what he wanted to create. He started his house on a Monday. He worked on it for two weeks with the help of his friends. The other students knew that it was his house and would ask him before they added or took stuff off his house. He made a “Do not touch” sign and taped it to the wall beside the house. Our little yellow table has quickly become our Lego table and our bucket of Lego is usually always on the table. I love that they have taken ownership of this space and claimed it as the Lego table.

Below are pictures of his house that he spent 2 weeks creating. The second picture is the plan he made for the following week.

I have learned many things about my students in the past few months. They love art and creating things with paper, paint, boxes and other materials. The boys love to play with cars but also enjoy cooking up some food in our kitchen center. The girls will play with the dolls, but also love to build things with the various blocks we have. I have learned that the students need to be given freedom to play and be creative how they want to. Last year (even a few months ago), I would have only put one thing at a table (for instance the blocks at one table, cars at another) and I would not have let them combine them. But I have learned why not. Why did I only put one thing at a table? I have asked myself many times “why can’t they have the blocks and the cars together” or “why am I only giving them paper if they want tape and scissors and the stapler too”. I have learned to step back and let them take the lead. If they ask for something to play with, I will usually let them get it out. If they want to cut and glue and create things, I let them and we just clean up with mini brooms and the spray bottle when they are done. They build a car garage with the wooden blocks then get out the dinky cars and would play for hours if our day allowed it!

Below are pictures of the boys enjoying the blocks and cars. They made a garage and were taking their Chevys into be serviced.

I am excited to see what happens the rest of the year and how they engage in play. I will continue to provide them with many opportunities to play and let them be creative and take the lead. I am happy to have had this opportunity to visit another classroom and speak to another teacher. Our journey into the world of play is just beginning and I can not wait to see where it takes us.

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