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Sunday, April 16, 2017


It's that time of year when a collective sigh can be heard from teachers and administrators in schools across America. The one-size-fits-all, state-mandated accountability test is over. Now what?

Before introducing a new unit, I propose having an in-school playtime in your classroom.  I'm not talking about a whole class free-for-all that will result in your serious consideration of taking early retirement; but rather play that is manageable.

It is planned. It is focussed. It is productive.

Inviting play into the classroom is as easy as supplying a few board games purchased at a Goodwill, playdough, and legos. If you have access to Ipads and you are supported by your principal, play can turn into digital creations. (I'll share an example later).

Play can be cost efficient. Recipes for playdough can be found on Pinterest or a simple google search for teachers on a't we all?

Why play?  Erik Jenson, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, contends play builds memory and improves parts of the brain used for problem-solving. There are countless studies by neuroscientists to support how positive emotions associated with play improve mood.

Think about the student in your classroom who is not able to remember how to get from point A to point B after you have gone over, and over, and over the instructions. Think about the student who looks sad and may even be acting out in anger.

I'm not saying throwing an activity together and calling it "play" will support students.  Play needs to be something that you (the teacher) will buy into or your stress will spill over into other parts of your life. You will feel like kicking the dog when you get home. If you're like me, there needs to be structure. Give students clear expectations. I went as far as to say to my middle schoolers how play improved learning. Make play work for you and your classroom. 

Here are some ways play supports learning:

1) Play fuels the brain.

After buying one too many games with missing pieces at garage sales, I decided to write a grant for board games. Before the ink was dry, a parent came to me and asked, "What if I could get games donated to your classroom?" In no less than a week, my campus's parent-teacher organization (PTO) collected and donated more games than I could have imagined (or afforded).

With the influx of games, I upped play days to the first 15 minutes of class two times a week. I noticed the students who routinely played board games participated more in classroom discussions. My first-period sleepy heads were visibly more awake and had fewer tardies.

2) Play builds self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is a fancy term meaning the belief in oneself to complete tasks or reach goals. One year I had a student beg me to allow him to bring his new Lego collection to school on Fridays. (He had a 'special edition'). After pricing Legos on my own, I agreed.

During playtime, you would have thought my Lego builders were given a secret agent assignment because they seemed secretive about their creation.

One day my Lego builders called me over, "Mrs. Dollar, do you want to watch our Lego movie?"

"Your Lego movie?" I repeated. I had no idea.

After watching their movie, I was awe-struck. These were sixth graders with no previous experience (that I was aware of) in moving making of any kind.

When I asked how they learned to make the video, one of the students hunched his shoulders and answered, "I googled it!"

I also learned that my Lego builders had been learning about Recycling in their Science class.

3) Play improves mood.

Ask any teacher if learning should be fun, and you'll get a variety answers. I tend to reside in the "learning is fun" camp. In my opinion, there are far too many stresses our students deal with outside of the school walls. If play can bring some reprieve from life's disappointments like parents getting a divorce, or worries over money for groceries, then it is worth doing. 

I believe it is during play when students are able to take a moment and leave their stress at the classroom door. 

Note: I invited play into my middle school literacy classroom after attending a district training on teaching students in poverty with Eric Jensen. My assistant principal (and supervisor) asked me to try some of the strategies presented in the training as part of our campus initiative. One strategy involved using games to improve memory. The first year, I had phenomenal results in improved behavior and even test scores, that I continued using games. I added "play" because I had some students who didn't want to participate in an activity that involved competition. When play became a routine part of my classroom, I supported activities with state learning standards and added reading and writing extension activities. If you'd like to try implementing play on a routine basis, you'll need the support from your administration. 

Confession Reflection: 
  • How might play support a positive classroom learning environment?
  • What are some characteristics of play that would equip students with skills to be successful in the real world? i.e. taking turns, social language, collaboration
  • Why is it important for teachers to make play accessible to ALL students? What are the dangers of making play only accessible to 'well-behaved' students?

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