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The Power of Play

Teacher's Network
 By 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.

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