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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Play Time--"The Best Day of My Life!"

Luke was having a regular day in his Kindergarten class at Deer Creek Elementary School in Austin, Texas. Activities before lunch included calendar time, whole group reading and work board, where every child has and performs her/his special job for the day. After lunch the class would have time for math and science instruction. At the very end of the day would come Play Time.

But on this particular day during a break just before lunch Katy Azanza and her partner Gina Pinkston decided to try something different.

“Let’s see what happens if we move Play Time up before lunch instead of its being the last event of the day as it normally is.”

Gina agreed and both went into their classrooms to announce:

“OK, children today we’re going to do things a bit differently. So, right now is Play Time and you can go to whatever corner or computer you want to.”

There were youthful cheers, a scramble to get to the blocks, the reading corner and Luke walked purposefully by Katy saying, “This is the best day of my life!”

Imagine that, at six Luke already knows his good and better days and having time to play at the computer—or, one imagines, with the blocks—represents to him a significant change for the better.

What have Katy and Gina done?

They have chosen to provide Luke and his friends with the opportunity to play, to make a choice and to have fun. But her decision involves more than just making this choice, for she has given Luke and his friends time to engage in what psychologists have called play, “children’s work,” a most important activity in growing up and learning to think and act responsibly.

Why is play so important for kindergartners and others? Because play is that very important human activity characterized by:

Internal motivation—We play because it is fun, not for external rewards

Internal control—We decide what to do—to go to the computer, to use blocks to build a city

Internal reality—We make a block into a truck, a whole structure of blocks into a city or a school.

There are few if any other human activities wherein we have such control over our experiences, to engage in fantasies about being a commander on a space shuttle, a world famous basketball player, a doctor, teacher or Antarctic explorer.

Recent research by Aamodt and Wang, claim that play is one of those experiences that lead to self-control:

“Play allows children to practice skills that are useful in adult life. Young children build self-control through elaborate imaginative games like pretending to be a doctor or a fireman.” (19 February, 2012, NY Times, Sunday Review, p. 5)

Play gives us opportunities to make choices, to create little dramas as the teacher or the commander of an expedition, to figure out how to solve them and learn from our experiences. Katy says that some of the dramatic play in her class focuses upon playing husband and wife, imitating how their parents act at home, how they deal with family situations.

Play builds our minds, our feelings and our physical bodies and is not something to be relegated to the end of the day. H erein, as Katy and Gina are discovering, are golden opportunities for kids to play with the toys of the curriculum—the snails in the science unit where a Wonder Wall records kids’ questions.

Imagine being a snail out in search of food during a rainstorm, or when a predator lurks around the corner. What would you do?

Play makes us who we are and every child deserves as much time to play as in doing her numbers to prepare for first grade.

Katy reports that now Luke and his classmates “are much more calm” in class as they do not have to wait all day to play.

And truth be told, my Kindergarten teacher, Lilian Mould, reported that John Barell’s Dramatic Play—“centers around block construction he has done, and shows he has a variety of ideas.” She also noted, however, that he “tends to be somewhat over-anxious.” Would that little John had played more often and with others to gain Luke’s sense of calm.