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All work and no play? How to create a play-friendly classroom

All work and no play? How to create a play-friendly classroom

Have you ever wondered how technology impacts on your students’ ability to play? 

You know, play – the freely chosen, self-directed and intrinsically motivated “work” that your students do on their breaks, at home, and in the weekends.

Back in 2010, a study showed that elementary-aged children were using technology devices for an average of 7.5 hours per day (and we've come a way since then). In fact, they were relying on technology for the majority of their play.

I’m not anti-technology by any means, but I strongly believe that play – sensory, nature-based, technology-free play – is not only good for students, it’s an important part of their development and education.

I work in early childhood education, where play is an important part of what we do dat to day. In elementary schools, however, play is almost entirely restricted to break times. Even then, play time is mostly seen as the time students are given to take a break from the “real learning”.

I want to challenge the idea that play isn’t “real learning": when children play, they are investigating, testing, and theorizing – not only mathematically and scientifically – but socially and creatively. They are learning to persevere despite difficulty, find joy and wonderment, develop empathy, and find strategies to resolve frustration and conflict. All of these are dispositions and virtues that will help them to become contributing, empowered, community-minded, and active members of society.

In other words, your students need to play.

But how can you include it more in the daily life of your classroom? Here are some tips.

5 ways to put the play back into school

1. Check out the Theory of Loose Parts

Architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts in 1972. His idea was that “loose parts” (materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned) invite children to create, experiment, engage, construct and invent far more than static materials and environments do. 

A loose-parts learning environment will get your students exploring, creating and investigating through open-ended questions, natural resources, and real tools.

Want to know what a “loose part” is? Do a quick Pinterest search! Enter “loose parts” or “nature play” in the search bar – you’ll quickly get some ideas for what to use and how to get started.

2. Go outside as much as possible!

"Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore their learning and creativity." – Richard Louv 

Take a leaf out of Finland’s book: they’re big believers in the fact that “There is no bad weather, only inadequate clothing”. Students are encouraged to spend as much time outdoors as possible in both their break and learning time. So, many lessons are adapted to be held out in the open.

After all, what can children learn inside that they can’t also learn outside?

3. Start looking at everything as a process

The hardest thing about being a primary school teacher is how much you have to fit into a day, a week, or a term. I'm not saying you don't have to add even more to your programme, all you need to do is recognise that there’s a play/learning opportunity in absolutely everything you do.

Let’s say, for example, your class is working on a piece of art. Instead of automatically providing them with paper, paint and a set of brushes, could students actually make the paper, paint, or brushes? What could they use? Can they find out about how paper is made, and what are some ways they can make it themselves?

Of course, having your students discover knowledge through their own investigations is not completely unfamiliar to you – you’ll know it in part as “inquiry-based learning”.

Embrace it! Let your students be driven by their interests to understand and know more.

4. Minimize homework

Einstein is often attributed as saying, “Play is the highest form of research”.

Homework is often given out because it encourages students to practise, rehearse, and perfect the concepts and skills you teach them every day. 

But you could also look at it this way: play is also giving them the chance to practise, rehearse, and perfect. Through play, your students are practising talking, singing, writing, and reading – all the skills they need to be an active member in your classroom.

Read more about the pros and cons of homework here.

5. Let students be bored

Sometimes, having no work to go on with means your students will be given the time and space to be their most creative. 

British researcher Dr Teresa Belton says, “When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Think of it this way: having nothing to do is a chance for your students to demonstrate creativity and problem solving, and to develop motivational skills that may help them later in life.

 

Recommended reading for play-based learning

One of the biggest concerns you might have with bringing play back into your classroom (especially when you read point 5) is that you’re potentially inviting children to be disruptive – and yes, you’ll definitely need to consider your behavior management. But this also brings up an important issue: some students will have forgotten how to play.

So, here are some recommendations to challenge you, inspire you, and to help you develop better ideas about how you can integrate play into your teaching practice.

  • The Genius of Play – Sally Jenkinson (in particular, look at her Charter for Play)
  • The Sacred Urge to Play – Pennie Brownlee and Kimberley Crisp 
  • The Nature Principle – Richard Louv
  • Marc Armitage and his Malarkey Playwork
  • The Reggio Emilia philosophy 
  • The Land – a short documentary about the nature of play, risk and hazard set in a Welsh 'adventure' playground. Prepare to be challenged! Watch the trailer.

Got a question? Let me know in the comments!

About the author

Julia Trim is a senior early childhood teacher in Melbourne, Australia. She has almost 20 years’ experience in early childhood education and specializes in formative and holistic education.

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