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Let Them Play

Teacher Magazine
By Jane Ching Fung
August 25, 2010


"What is 'Choice Time?,'" she demanded. "Students don’t have time to play."

My heart sank when I heard these words coming from the mouth of a district administrator. Everyone on our kindergarten team had included "Choice" minutes in her daily schedule. Choice was a time for students to engage in centers and activities that were not teacher directed, assigned, or graded but intentionally designed to be open-ended, student driven, and to promote unstructured interactions among the children.


Dare I say that "Choice" was time set aside for our young students to play?

Since when did the word "play" become outlawed in kindergarten? I remember a time when kindergarten classrooms were stocked with wooden blocks, paint, and dramatic-play corners complete with costuming, furniture, appliances, and play food. Not so long ago, there was a period during the day when we encouraged kindergarten students to freely explore, create, and interact with the materials and people around them.


On the surface, children may appear to be only "having fun" during this unstructured time, but take a closer look and you’ll discover what I know: Play is so much more than idle entertainment. Play, including the ability to make your own choices, helps children develop and use essential social-emotional and academic-learning skills. Through play, I have seen my students develop social, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities in a safe, risk-free environment. Has our early childhood curriculum become so narrow that we now focus only on what is being tested and ignore all the other areas in a young child’s development?

As a primary teacher for the past 25 years and as a parent, I know that play is the foundation of learning. Young children have a natural desire to explore the world and the people around them; play provides them with an avenue to discover things on their own and to develop autonomy. In today’s diverse classrooms, providing opportunities for every student to choose and engage in activities meaningful to them can produce positive results in all areas of the curriculum. Learning is another word for it.

The Benefits of Play

Kenny was a reluctant learner with special needs. During the more structured, academic times of the day, he would often cry for his mother, put his head down on the rug, or sit at his table waiting for someone to help him. Kenny was academically behind his peers and he knew it. He couldn’t write his name or draw simple pictures, so he shut down. They only time Kenny felt success during the school day was when he was able to build a city with blocks, engage in dramatic play with friends, or explore lines and shapes using playdough.


There is no failing when you play. Play allowed Kenny to develop his self-esteem and his interpersonal skills. He learned how to work with and communicate his needs to others and in return his friends provided excellent role models during the other periods of the day. His attitude towards school and himself changed and he was willing to put more effort in his work.


Christopher, a child with autism and speech delay, also used choice time to develop his social and communication skills. Interactions with others during play taught him how to communicate his needs and wants. Christopher was able to learn how to work cooperatively in a social setting without the pressures of a structure. Through play, he was able to work out conflicts with peers and come to realize that others had different points of views.


More cognitively demanding, structured tasks posed a challenge to Christopher, who would fail traditional forms of assessments. While he was unable to produce a pattern or sort objects on paper for a math test, he was able to demonstrate his understanding of the concepts when he was playing with colored teddy bears and lined them up in a pattern or while he sorted foods into categories. Play proved to be one of the best ways for Christopher to show what he knew.


For students learning English, there is not a more powerful way to acquire and develop oral language than in a natural setting. I noticed that Cassandra, a native Spanish speaker, would often pass or remained quiet when asked to participate in class discussions, but during Choice Time she actively engaged in conversations with her English counterparts, readily exchanging thoughts and ideas. Play provided Cassandra with opportunities to interact with her peers in a stress-free environment. She saw value in using her new language during a more social setting.


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