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NYC Helpline: How To: Get Started
 NYC Helpline: Manage Your Classroom NYC Helpline: How To Get Started

The Power of Play
Judi Fenton

Carina and Naimah were playing in the block center in my Pre-K classroom. Different shaped ramps were all over the area, and they were rolling toy cars off of each of them.
Naimah: “This one will go all the way to the door.”
Carina: “No, mine will go farther.”
They both rolled their cars down their different sloped ramps. Naimah’s car went farther.
I walked over to them and asked, “Why do you think that Naimah’s car went farther?”
During the ensuing conversation, we discussed the slope of the ramp, the speed and the materials of the respective cars, and the slowing effect of the car that hits a stray foot.  Two more students joined in the discussion and all four of them decided to experiment more with various cars and ramps.  I showed them how to measure their distances with string for comparison purposes and they collected more data, remaining engaged for another 20 minutes.

Why would anyone think that decreasing playtime for students could increase student learning?  And, yet, with all of the focus on testing, accountability, and “student achievement,” we have seen a substantial reduction in play in our schools.  There seems to be a desire to cram in more and more “instructional time” during which we attempt to fill students up with knowledge that we have and they don’t. Their brains are not computer memories to input data, they are interactive growing human beings. We must realize that constructivist play can be the best use of instructional time. Play contributes to deep, important, and “real” learning that lasts.

Play encourages exploration; it enables students to deeply understand concepts, as opposed to merely memorizing what we tell them.  With older students, it also helps them understand that the theories they have learned are “practical” and can be applied to and generalized across real situations.  My pre-kindergarten students could never have grasped the physics that they learned without experiencing these concepts through their explorative play.

I would argue that high school physics students should also have time to play and explore during classes. Through play students discover the concepts behind what they learn in textbooks and through lectures. Great teachers integrate the two worlds, guiding students in figuring out things on their own and contributing information and resources or questioning strategically in order to help students understand what they are experiencing. In early childhood classrooms, we set up an environment that encourages exploration and experimentation. We don’t provide this nearly enough as they grow older.

While we’ve consistently (and wrongly) been pushing down curriculum into early childhood classrooms, there are still few who dispute the value of play for our youngest students. Perhaps with the exception of our federal administration, which instituted a standardized test for Head Start students.  However, there is a great value in play for our older students as well.  Their play might look different, using different materials, but it still contains the essential components of play—student-directed, student-centered, “stuff” to manipulate, elements of student choice, interaction, and uninterrupted time for exploration.

I was in a 5th grade classroom the other day.  Students were charged with the task of showing how many different combinations they could make with 15 chips in three piles, each with a different number of chips.  The students certainly were not ready for infinite theory calculus, instead they purposefully played and experimented with their piles of chips to get different combinations.  In another 5th grade classroom students were completely absorbed in creating three-dimensional geometric forms with shapes that snapped together. Their insights and understandings about 3-D geometry were incredible and we teachers supported those insights by giving students the language to name what they discovered.

The examples above illustrate how play contributes to academic growth and achievement. However, it is clear that our children also need time for unstructured, uninterrupted play for the sake of relaxation and fun. We all remember just playing with friends, hanging out at recess in the schoolyard and making up silly games. Our children are so overscheduled these days, and it’s evident in their increased levels of stress and the acting out that we see in the classroom.  Play gives students the “down time” they need during a long day to be able to focus better and to be emotionally and physically healthier.  When students collaborate with each other, play enables students to grow socially; when they work alone play fosters independence. It also gives them the time they need to think deeply about and “solidify” what they are learning.  Even as adults, there is only so much our minds can absorb before we get overloaded and need some time to relax. With such an overloaded school day, and with the threat of an even longer day, all our children need to have time to play.

If you are interested in learning more about restoring play to early childhood classrooms, check out allianceforchildhood.org.