Home > 21st Century Learning, Assessment & Evaluation, Inquiry Learning > Here we are now, entertain us…

Here we are now, entertain us…

“Research shows that play-based learning helps to develop the neurological pathways that affect learning, behaviour, and health. This is the “brain connection” – play literally stimulates different parts of the brain and spurs physical, emotional, social, and cognitive growth in children.”                                   ~Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario~

In the province of Ontario we are in the process of  implementing full day/full time kindergarten program (FDK) and working together to figure out the implications of this for schools.  As a result, I’ve been reading, with interest, the various positions that have been put forth on ‘how’ early learners should be taught.

My colleague Carmel Crevola (@CarmelCrevola) is a passionate and compelling advocate for precise and personalized literacy instruction with a sharp focus on developing student’s oral language capacities. Talented and innovative teachers like @Grade1, @team_jelleybean and @TechieAng  are bringing these ideas to life in their classrooms, helping us understand how the role that ‘inquiry’ plays for young learners and helping expand the understandings of many in our PLN.

We hear of examples of how early education is structured from around the globe and each anecdote is added to the discussion, like logs to a campfire, each example adding both heat and light to the conversation. Educators and union staff have added their insights, as have parents and media outlets.

All this attention is exciting and important. After tinkering with a range of less impactful reforms like curriculum revision and class size, we are investing in a program that will deliver meaningful change in our school system; especially for those children who most desperately require our time and attention.

For me, this is the important detail. My superintendent  reminds us that we need teach the students we’ve got; not the ones we wish we had. Ontario is a geographically large,with a culturally diverse population that is growing more diverse with public schools that serve students across the socio-economic spectrum. These are the kid’s we’ve got.

With this in mind here are a few things I’d like to put out there:

  • There is a difference between ‘play’ and ‘playful’. I hope that our FDK students inquire and learn about interesting things that are designed by teachers to engage them and prompt them to think, talk and write (yes, write). A playful environment has a structure and an intentionality that is designed to meet student need and sustain language development.
  •  What about 1 to 12? As the parent of two grade 7 students and one grade 9 student, I’d be quite happy if we could spend some more time talking about what  ‘play-based’ learning would look like for adolescent learners. If ever something was needed…

These are my thoughts, designed to open a dialogue and push our thinking in this important area. I hope to hear from you…


  1. June 17, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    I share your interest in your last nugget in particular. What does play-based learning look like from intermediate on up?

    One of my grade 7 students once said to me, “Mr. Lee, no offense, but your class is like a primary classroom.”

    I think what she meant was that it was a playful learning environment (at least I hope so – LOL).

  2. June 18, 2011 at 12:31 am

    I am alarmed by anecdotes from varied sources commenting on grade school teachers who cannot write coherently, cannot spell, consistently use poor grammar, have difficulty comprehending what they read.

    Fortunately the commentators do not see these examples as characteristic of the majority of teachers, but we must hope that it does not indicate a trend.

    I wonder if there is too much attention paid to the latest fad methodology, the technology, the building, and not enough on the learning transaction between the teacher and the student.

  3. June 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Having seen you in action; I can attest to the playful part. not to mention the academic press. Why is it we think that higher order thinking and fun are mutually exclusive?

  4. June 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks for mentioning me in this great post, and alongside other educators that I really admire. I really like your distinction between “play” and “playful,” and I plan on sharing your post with some FDK teachers, as I’m interested in hearing what they have to say. I think that structure is really important when it comes to play, but I also think that we need to be willing to let students push us beyond what even we think is possible. So often they amaze us with what they can do. I just blogged on “play” too last weekend – http://grade1ad.litcircuits.com/2011/06/10/finally-i-understand/ – and I think it’s a topic that needs even more discussion.

    Aviva

    • June 18, 2011 at 6:44 pm

      Angie shared your blog with me and we talked about the insights you shared. Your post certainly helped me refine my thinking as I composed my thoughts. I agree with your statement on letting students push us. An open-minded willingness to embrace student voice and interest is an integral aspect of a truly effective classroom.

  5. June 18, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    While I appreciate the acknowledgment of the importance of a playful curriculum, I am not sure why it is so important to differentiate “play” from “playful,” as if PLAY is something to be dismissed, or of less educational value for our youngest students. I teach full-day French immersion kindergarten in Alberta. My instruction is definitely playful and oriented towards projects and inquiry. That said, I am absolutely committed to the value of straight-up, child-led, choice-based PLAY in my classroom. My students spend more than an hour a day deeply engaged in interactive PLAY: PLAYing house, building with blocks, digging in sand, squishing PLAY-dough into fantastical creations. It is not a free-for-all. It is not chaotic. There are classroom routines that guide them to manage the space and materials appropriately. Is it loud sometimes? Yes. Is it messy sometimes? Definitely. Does it go in directions I did not anticipate? About 487 times a day. It is also the part of our day where I see children integrating language skills into their interactions with one another, using new vocabulary in an authentic context, cementing the connections between our curriculum and their own daily lives and experiences.

    There is a significant body of research on how engaging in deeply-engrossing dramatic play for extended periods of time helps build critical executive function and self-regulation skills. As Canadian teachers, we need to appreciate how blessed we are to work with kindergarten programs of study that leave room for play (this in contrast to some of our US colleagues who are watching their housekeeping centres be dismantled to make more room and time for “real learning.”) Drawing a line between play and playful creates an unnecessary hierarchy and separation between playing and learning. This distinction does not exist in our students’ minds, and it shouldn’t exist in ours.

    Am working on a blog post of my own about play. You can visit me here: http://www.missnightmutters.blogspot.com to find it!

    • June 18, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      I appreciate the thoughtful and thought provoking response, it was my hope that this post would open up a dialogue and am delighted to see it has.
      In response to your points:
      -I’d like to clarify my post was not referring to play or playful ‘curriculum’ but rather the environment that teachers intentionally create in their classrooms. For me, this is actually an important distinction. A playful learning environment honours risk taking and mistakes while it values individual strengths and passions as a starting point for teaching. No curriculum or program can facilitate that, only reflective, skilled teachers. We need this emphasis not only in K, but all the way through to grade 12.

      -You mention that you teach in a French Immersion K program, forgive my inference (and correct it if it is in error) but it is my experience that FI students usually come from families where social norms to support appropriate play are part of the social capital backpack the student brings to school. My experience as a teacher and administrator is mostly in schools with high poverty and low social capital. Intentional language instruction, in a playful context, is a necessary element for these students. Those of us who are worried about the emphasis on ‘play’ do so because we know that our kids need literacy instruction and play, that is why we have created a model where a teacher and and ECE lead our FDK classes.

      Thanks for pushing my thinking and allowing me to visualize what sounds like a wonderful, busy and rich learning environment. Also for sending the blog link, I;m looking forward to reading and responding 🙂

  6. Kathy bell
    June 19, 2011 at 12:36 am

    I highly recommend the Emillia reggio approach. Very inquiry child centered.

  7. June 23, 2011 at 11:43 am

    To respond to the above discussion of play vs. playful: This distinction IS necessary. One of the features of play is that the player decides when it is over and when to participate. Since we are requiring that children be there, immediately it is no longer play. So, playful is a much more accurate designation.

    With regard to adolescents and “playful” – I will say two things:

    1. When we spend all of our time trying to force adulthood on children and adolescents earlier and earlier, is it any wonder that they regard play as something infantilizing? We did this.

    2. How about looking at it as “collaborative”, and “exploratory” with intermediate students, as budding partners.

    3. How about teachers being more playful, collaborative, and exploratory with EACH OTHER? When teachers are so formal with one another, and the young person is at an age where they are trying to become more “adult”, they need playful adults examples.

    Finally, we must continue to make the following two points:

    1. Playfulness is important for the sake of itself.
    2. Playfulness is important for resilience, the ability to innovate, social interaction abilities, and regulation of “want” and impulse. All of these are more important than intelligence quotient measures, or the “abilities” measured by standardized tests.

    For more, check out http://drkwamebrown.com. It is still under construction, but you can get some ideas from the blog, and the videos under “Move Speak”. My conduit is Active Play, but I come at this from a background in neural development and a rich family history in edu.

    • June 23, 2011 at 11:53 am

      Thanks so much for capturing and extending my thinking through your response (not that I want every reader to agree). Your points have brought voice to some ideas that were bouncing around in my head, but had not yet fully formed. One of my favorite writes, Deb Meier, expresses your 3rd point really well. Adolescents need to spend their days with adults who enjoy their company and model what a well-rounded grown up can be.
      Thanks for the link 🙂

  8. June 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I’m glad my friend Kwame pointed me to this conversation–I’ve learned much from him over the years.

    I teach in a somewhat different environment than most people reading this, most likely: I run a teen leadership program at a local ski area. For these kids, they want to be there for the skiing (it’s how they play, and will willing do it for 14 hours a day, seven days a week), but as soon as I start “teaching” them and lose the playfulness, they become restless, combative, and hard to deal with.

    So, I don’t go there. I make it clear that I am not there to teach them (and when they become instructors next year they are not there to teach their classes). My job is to create an environment where the will learn, and to do that, it has to be playful. I create activities where they can explore in a specific area, notice new sensations and patterns, get curious about them, play with them (I think of play as “curiosity in action.”)

    Whether the focus is on skiing, teaching, leadership, communication or the meaning of life, when I toss them in that playing field and let them go, the learning is amazing. It may be something that takes a minute or two, or it could be a couple of hours in an afternoon.

    They really aren’t doing anything different when they’re with me in a playful learning environment, or when they’re playing with how to jump a cliff, or do a back flip in the park, on their own (I stay away from that and try to scare them with stories of quadriplegics and mothers changing diapers, but that doesn’t seem to stop them).

    And I engage in a lot of playful behavior myself. They see me experimenting on my own skiing and in my own teaching. I use phrases like “I wonder what happens if . . . ” and “hmmm, that was really boring and useless.” Engaging other instructors in this play has shifted their thinking and teaching as well.

    So (as I’m doing a little thinking out loud) the playfulness is there whether they are on their own playing, or with me in a loosely structured but intentional playing field. This is a valuable distinction in helping think through the dynamics and processes, and ways perhaps to communicate it to skeptics.

    The bottom line of what I’ve been saying and writing for some time is:

    Notice. Get Curious. Play.

    (And that’s Dr. Kwame Brown approved!)

    • June 23, 2011 at 6:38 pm

      Thanks so much for the response. There are two things in your reply that I can really connect with:
      – You teach at a ski area (insert envy here)
      – You have so nicely alluded to the difference between educators who ‘teach children’ and those who learn with children. John Hattie reminds us that the most effective teachers are those who have rapport and a positive, professional relationship with their students and; understand that they have to create a climate that supports both student and teacher learning.

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