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Prioritizing Play: Why It Matters in Elementary Classrooms

Over the past few months, I have been involved in assessing student knowledge and skill security as we prepare for the coming 2021-2022 school year. I have realized that prioritizing play in the elementary classroom can help students foster resilience and prepare for learning. And as teachers, it can help us design more effective lesson plans for every type of learner and skill level. 

I’ve seen students who fared well during the changing learning environments this year, and many who have learned new skills and discovered new passions that they might not have without the disruption of COVID-19. But I have also seen many students for whom the circumstances of the year have made progress challenging; knowledge is patchy and many of the practical skills central to elementary development have had insufficient practice, particularly for those students who have spent the year in a largely virtual environment.

Every teacher knows September will bring new trials that will stretch our expertise and demand flexibility in our approach. Being aware of the specific needs of the students entering your particular classroom is the first step, which will require communication between a team of people all working toward this one goal. To help us emerge from a year of COVID, it would be great if we found ways to facilitate this knowledge sharing so that we don’t have to wait until the first day of school to get to know our students.

However, this is only the beginning of our preparations, and decisions need to be made about curriculum priorities and pedagogy to maximize the learning potential of our young students. Some of the questions we must investigate are:

  1. What are the best circumstances to put in place to foster resilience? 
  2. How do we ensure all of our learners are prepared for the work of our lessons as quickly as possible? 
  3. Assessing and acknowledging the varied learner starting points, how do we efficiently design lessons with one goal but different pathways to achieve it?

What the research says about prioritizing play 

At risk of pushing against the current of panic, which dictates that we double down on rigor through increased teacher-driven content, increased pen-and-paper assignments, a longer school year, and elevated homework loads, I am going to suggest that prioritizing play may be one answer to all three of the questions we need to answer. Or, at the very least, making play a core element of the multi-faceted plan you are crafting would strengthen your impact and quicken academic progress.

But what do I mean by play in the context of an elementary learning environment?

While investigating the research behind MBE-informed pedagogy for the Elementary Roadmap: MBE Strategies for Teaching & Learning, 2021, Tia Henteleff, a kindergarten teacher from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, clarified the difference between unstructured and structured play with help from many sources including the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.

Unstructured play is self-chosen and self-directed, promoting alert activity. This provides time for rehearsal and repetition, which lead to robustly connected neural networks.

Structured play occurs around specific learning objectives, designed by adults to respond to the “next-step” of cognitive growth as learners incorporate foundational skills and concepts into their personal schema.

The reality is that we need to actively employ both in order to calm frayed nerves and maximize engagement with content after a distanced year. To do this, school leaders and teachers need to be brave enough to protect time for unstructured play, even for upper elementary learners. This can be as simple as time outside to engage with nature, and as complex as providing a space, materials, and tools for older students to create whatever they feel inspired to in that moment.

Support student-driven and mutually-directed experiences

The key is that there is no adult agenda imposed during this time and support is only given if a learner specifically seeks a second pair of hands to achieve a grand plan or needs mediation to navigate a social dynamic. This kind of student-driven experience in an identity-safe environment allows for the development of a healthy locus of control, and provides a much needed interruption to the chronic worry that many students are carrying this year. Physical activity through play in particular alleviates stress and helps children learn to manage feelings and gain a sense of self-control (Stegelin 2005).

In addition to providing student-directed freedom of choice, we can look for moments where this play can become mutually directed. In order to do this, we have to be skillful in accompanying our learners in a way that shares power over play. There is fertile opportunity in these moments to support sophisticated thinking and action. However, there is also the potential for adults to assume power and undermine robust processing and schema development within the child.

To avoid asserting my involvement too heavily, I tend to hold to three roles; mediator, co-player, and scribe. I have a clear understanding of what each role entails and what it does not include. This helps me hold back when a child is grappling with a concept or problem they could solve themselves given the space and tools to do so.

Time dedicated to learners pursuing their own imaginings, both alone and with others, is one low-cost way we can orchestrate the best circumstances to foster resilience, build social cohesion between classmates, and facilitate healing after a deeply trying year. Even with this in place, the task of re-familiarizing children to a more pre-COVID-like school day and effectively addressing a wide range of starting points requires careful planning and confidence in the approach you choose.

Be thoughtful about structured play

Being thoughtful about how we incorporate structured play is very important. For me, confidence comes from diving into academic literature on a topic to become more fluent in both the pros and cons of any given educational theory or practice. As I read broadly about the implementation of structured play, I see connections to many pedagogical approaches that can guide our implementation for the elementary environment. Any time we’re asking our students to process content as engineers, scientists, artists, or explorers (and many more), we are employing principles of structured play that include choice, independence, sense of purpose, and relevance. Whichever approach resonates most strongly with our disposition as a teacher, there are plenty of resources we can leverage to plan to effectively include elements of structured play in our lessons.

One other theme that emerges loud and clear from both research and my own experience as a teacher is that background knowledge is the key to effective structured play experiences. When we have learners starting the year with unpredictable knowledge, we have to address this before we send them out to process in a way that resonates with them.

Direct Instruction is an evidence-based approach in which teachers communicate and model salient knowledge and skills with clarity and precision, followed by opportunity to use that new knowledge. It is more than simply “telling the students”, and knowing the details of how to use this instructional approach is important. Becoming committed to developing my skills in the Direct Instruction model made a huge difference in the amount of content I was able to explore successfully with my students across a year, and when paired with a culture of student agency through structured play, my room became a joyful place where success was the go-to expectation of every child.

However you decide to teach next year, make sure you allow time for your students to play in downtime, remember to front load the knowledge your students will need to be able to meet the objectives of your lessons, and embed opportunities for structured play with content. There is no magic pill that will solve all our problems as educators, but perhaps several small changes will collectively move our students forward, toward their full potential next year. Prioritizing play is a great start.

About the author

Christine Lewis is the Lower School Teaching and Learning Strategist at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the CTTL Lower School Research Lead. For the past 14 years, Christine has served the St. Andrew’s community, teaching kindergarten through fourth grade, as well as supporting the school’s early childhood and elementary faculty as they investigate research-informed, evidence-driven pedagogy for academic growth and student well-being. She is a constant learner, focused on the broad body of emerging research in the fields of education, human development, psychology, neurobiology, and sociology.