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What I Learned in Free Play...

This web article was published by Teacher Magazine.  Here, a veteran Kindergarten teacher reminds us of the vital importance of play and the learning benefits kids miss out on when free play is squeezed out. Love the interviews with former students sharing what they learned during kindergarten choice time!

Teaching Secrets: Let Them Play

By Jane Ching Fung

“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.

kindergarten play 300x202 What I Learned in Free Play...

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.

Continue reading about the Benefits of Play

Voices From Choice Time Past

Allowing students opportunities to make choices and play with materials does not take away from academic time. Academic skills are embedded in all aspects of play. When Alessandra plays school, she writes sight words she has learned in class and asks her “students” to read them aloud. When Hamza constructs his Lego car, he has deliberately planned which pieces he will need to form a vehicle that is symmetric and will move. When Junieth plays restaurant, she uses the charts in the room to write a menu while her friends sort the play food. The evidence is overwhelming: Young children learn through play.

I asked my former students, all adults now, to share their thoughts on choice time and self-directed play. This is what they said:

Hannah: “During play, I could actually socialize with other children, which I did not get at home. If it weren’t for play time, I never would have learned to interact with other people.”

Shirley Jean: “I wasn’t always playing with others, I was reading. It was a fun time to catch up on random reading. But what I think I liked doing most was the puzzles with my friends on the rug. It was a challenge to us to get the puzzle finished before center time was over. Every day, we tried to beat our original time to see if we could get the pieces together without as much difficulty as the days before. Not only did it allow us to think and work together, but it also helped create strong friendships.”

Kathleen: “I was able to be a child—carefree, lively, innocent, and spontaneous. I was able to run around and let out all the energy inside me so that when it was time to go back on the rug, I could focus and not be all squirmy and distracted.”

Dante: “(It) allowed us to exercise our brains and imaginations, while at the same time developing our social skills through team work and/or compromise.”

Raul: “It was fun. I got to interact with others while building structures and engineering ways to create something huge through teamwork. It created an environment of friendship and joy. It was a very healthy part of my education and growing up.”

Sebastian: “Playtime gave me the tools to be around different people from various cultures, and interact with them on many levels inside and out of the classroom. Sometimes playtime gives students a reason to come to school—and if students can have something to look forward to at school, even if it isn’t academically related, it’s good for them to be excited in classroom and hopefully that excitement will manifest into a greater excitement for learning.”

I am not advocating that we get rid of direct instruction and structure; what I am saying is that there are crucial learning skills that young students need to develop and make sense of on their own. Play provides a path for students to acquire these abilities, as well as academic skills.

Students may not have “time” to play, but they need to play.

Jane Ching Fung is a kindergarten teacher and new-teacher mentor in inner-city Los Angeles. A 2002 winner of the Milken Educator Award, she is a National Board certified teacher and a director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. She is also a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

What important skills did YOU learn as a child during unstructured play time?  Please share!

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