Let The Children Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s a timeless question that some children ask out loud directing their hopes for play at loved ones and even at those they’ve just met. It’s also a question often unstated, particularly as children grow older and as their awareness of the vulnerability of a possible rejection grows. Almost nothing hurts more than the rejection of play or the anticipation of play that is then unrealized.

In my experience, by the time many students reach fifth grade they’ve learned that play is so rarely a part of learning at school anymore that they stop looking forward to learning at all. But this moment of global crisis is an opportunity to reset what learning can look like when we return to classrooms. To rekindle what’s worth learning. To invite play. To bring more joy.

At the heart of any learning situation at any age is the heartfelt desire to play. In his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Dr. Ned Hallowell proposes that when we have learning experiences that start with play, we create a cycle of happiness that can sustain us over and over again in life. Whenever I need to remind myself of what’s most important for learning and happiness, I ask myself “Where is the play?”

Here’s how the cycle works: When learning starts with play, it gives us a reason to practice. Learning anything is hard and usually requires repeated, intentional practice. When we practice enough, we reach a stage of mastery where we use less mental energy to continue growing in our knowledge and skills. When we reach a stage of mastery, other people recognize us for our efforts and success.

Here is essentially what we’re telling ourselves when this cycle is in place.

Play is inherently joyful–fun, even. The experience makes us want to keep trying. We lose track of time while doing it, don’t want it to end, and choose to practice. We’re able to recognize our own success. Finally, we feel seen, known, and loved by others. Without the first step, the cycle falls apart.

But the reverse is also true. When learning is initiated with tasks less play-oriented, practice becomes rote and boring and is then abandoned. If we give up on the “invisible practice” needed for automaticity to solidify, we never get to a place of mastery and ease. Or we get there through tears, arguments, and maybe some heated book throwing and pencil breaking. When we miss the opportunity for mastery of a new skill, it’s pretty unlikely that someone else will recognize us for our efforts or success. Rather, we will be recognized for the negative behavior that stemmed from a lack of practice and a lack of mastery ala No, David!

In this moment of learning from home, teachers and families have an opportunity to invite different kinds of play into learning that are incredibly difficult in today’s typical classrooms like:

  • using nerf guns to practice phonics and grammar skills
  • going on an indoor/outdoor scavenger hunt
  • creating reading forts with boxes, blankets, and pillows
  • using food to enhance learning like making structures with sugar cubes and learning the parts of a paragraph with Oreo cookies
  • telling or creating stories with toilet humor ala Captain Underpants
  • giving kids time and space to figure out how to play alone

But if all learning is strengthened by starting with play, what does that mean when we are back in classrooms? We know from research on the childhood roots of adult happiness that the primary components of a happy life are positive feelings, flow and fulfillment, emotional intelligence, and strong social bonds–all of which are enhanced through learning that starts with play.

Imagine a nonfiction unit of study. Rather than lead with the skills of identifying the main idea and key details, what if learning started instead with enticing photographs and the challenge to generate 20 questions about the image with a partner? Or a scavenger hunt for text features across different texts? Or the opportunity to build something from loose parts that will connect to a shared topic? Learning how to identify the main idea and key details in a nonfiction text is strengthened if we start with play first.

Or take a narrative writing unit. Rather than starting with a story map graphic organizer, what if you started with comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes to laugh out loud while learning about how characters often land in a sticky predicament? Or with costume pieces and small props? Or with stick figure puppets? Or with lines cut up from stories that the class has to put back together in order? Or with wordless picture books for students to add descriptive sentences, dialogue, and internal thinking? Students will understand and remember how stories work and what makes a great story if we start with play first.

When we return to classrooms, children will expect and need learning that is joyful and gives them a sense of purpose and recognition. It will require letting go and giving children, and ourselves, the freedom to make decisions and try something new.

If you want to read more about play, here I share some more ideas about how to invite play into learning and here my husband and I explore what play looks like in middle school. We also talk about play in Episode 5 of The Professor and the Principal podcast.

Have you played today?

The Professor & The Principal, Episode 5: Wanna Play?

In this episode, Chris and I talk about how we are inviting play into our lives and our children’s lives right now as we home school/crisis school our boys during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, and Anchor. If you have a moment, it would mean a lot if you could rate our podcast or write a review. Thanks for listening and subscribing!

Continue reading “The Professor & The Principal, Episode 5: Wanna Play?”

Life Must Be Lived as Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s an age-old question that our eleven-year-old son will still ask us when he wants to shoot hoops in the driveway or play ball tag in the basement. My husband and I know that, at some point, our tween will stop asking. We hold on to these moments and hope they continue for as long as possible. “Will you play with me?” is an invitation with no guarantee of being accepted and we feel grateful to be asked. I try to remind myself that the dishes or emails can wait and that I may not hear this question very often in the coming years. 

As adolescence starts to take hold in our house, it’s prompted me to wonder when we stop asking others to play and why that is. Psychiatrist Stuart Browne writes in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that play is like oxygen, “It’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” 

Thanks to early childhood researchers and advocates from Fred Rogers to McArthur Fellowship recipient Vivian Gussin Paley, we know that the “work” of childhood is play. Through play children build their imaginations, learn how to problem-solve, and navigate social networks. This doesn’t change as we get older. Throughout our lives, it is through play that we learn how to move beyond frustration and into innovation. Play is more than fun. When we are engaged in play, we learn to express our feelings, opinions, ideas, and needs. Above all, play creates joy, which is its own best reward. 

At home and at school, we can support the children in our lives by creating invitations to play. Based on Brené Brown’s work in The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, we asked our sons this weekend about when they feel like they’re engaged in play. Specifically, we asked: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end? 

We made a family list:

Wandering the stacks at the library
Dungeons and Dragons
Board and card games
Weekend cooking and baking
Reading fiction and memoirs
Wandering the local market
Board and card games
Ball tag
Jumping on a trampoline
Playing with Sandy (our puppy)
Reading a good book

Reading in bed or on the couch
Board and card games
Playing with Sandy
Drawing in a little notebook

We talked about why these things feel like play and we made a family commitment to try to bring more play into our lives by carving out time together to do the things we love.

In the classrooms, I partner with, I work with teachers to think about the times when learning feels playful. It’s often when students are connecting with one another or they are laughing together or discovering something new. 

During a unit planning day with sixth grade teachers this week, we worked on making learning engagements more joyful, memorable, and playful. The teachers are taking their students on a field trip to a science museum as part of the unit. They initially planned to have students explore the museum website to preview what they will experience. It seemed purposeful, but not particularly playful. I suggested that, instead, they could print photos of images from the museum website, put them on large pieces of chart paper, and have students write and draw in small groups what they think they will see and what the images makes them wonder. Students could circulate around the room to the different images creating “graffitti boards” that they could then revisit after the trip. Purposeful, joyful, and playful. 

Clicking around the website wasn’t likely to evoke much wondering or feelings of play, but gathering together with classmates in what I call “heads in a huddle” to share their thinking about a compelling image would feel like a form of play. Students would likely lose track of time, be a little goofy, anad wish that it could last longer. All signs that joyful learning is occurring. 

Plato is said to have stated, Life must be lived as play. I agree. 

Here are some additional ways to make play a pillar for starting with joy in your home and classroom: 

At Home:

  • Invite children to play with materials by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and paper. 
  • Make a family list by asking each other: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Play together with board games, card games, dice games, and role playing games (some of our favorites are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, 30 second mysteries, and Exploding Kittens)
  • Invent family games (our family favorite is ball tag–pretty much exactly as it sounds but using a giant yoga ball)
  • Play with books through family read-alouds by making your voice match the characters’ voices. Our recent favorite are the Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay. Another family favorite has been and always will be Calvin and Hobbes.
  • Listen when children ask us “Will you play with me?” and find a way to say “YES”
  • Model the ways you find play in your own life. 

At School:

  • Invite students to play with materials as part of the writing process through mixed media illustrations by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and various paper. Look to picture books for inspiration especially wordless picture books and Caldecott award-winners.
  • Make a class list of favorite ways to play by asking: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Consider ways to foster student choice and movement while meeting the same lesson objectives
  • Reframe independent reading as imaginative play–after all, that’s what fiction reading really is
  • Incorporate daily “quick writes” to help students see writing as a playful process through short bursts of what Paula Borque calls “thinking and inking”. See Paula Borque’s Spark: Quickwrites to Kindle Hearts and Minds in Elementary Classrooms for more ideas. 
  • Support students to play with ideas by creating a culture of experimentation 
  • Notice times when students are implicitly saying “Will you play with me?” Confer with students one-on-one to honor those moments when students need us as academic play partners to discuss their innovative ideas and interesting noticings. 
  • Finally, model the ways you are playful in your own life. Take silly class photos. Play games with students at recess. Invite laughter. Compliment the ways you see students inventing their own ways to play. 
playing with watercolors to make joy bookmarks

The Simple Joy of Sidewalk Chalk

No directions. No prompting. No explicit instruction needed.

When I handed a group of fourth and fifth graders a big box of chunky sidewalk chalk, they simply started to write. Dream Big. Anything is possible! Dreams come true! This is what hope looks like.

If you haven’t held a piece of sidewalk chalk lately, I recommend it. It may reignite in you a sense of possibility or maybe even a gnawing sense of doubt. What do I write? Who will see it? Is it any good? The roots of our biggest hopes and deepest fears all rise to the surface with that chalk in our hands. But, what chalk really represents is the sense of freedom that comes from writing or creating anything. Seeing your mark on the world.

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep a box of sidewalk chalk in your trunk or a little baggie of chalk in a bag you carry. It’s a simple way to spark joy when waiting for a sibling to finish an activity or in between errands.

Pair sidewalk chalk exploration by reading aloud books like Peter Reynolds’ creatrilogy The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color. This trio of texts celebrate the freedom and pride that comes from making your mark where there is no guarantee. For an extended read aloud, try Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Chalkbox Kid. This early chapter book is ripe with possibilities for discussion about finding hope in unexpected places.

If you are a classroom teacher, stock up on sidewalk chalk for spontaneous days this fall when you take learning outside. Watching what children do with sidewalk chalk gives us enormous insights into the literacies young people feel most comfortable using. Who draws? Who writes? What words do they use? How do they spell them? Who partners together to create? Who asks for help? Make chalk available throughout the year during recess. This also allows students who just want to create a chance to feel as proud on the playground as the student who wins the foot race.

This summer, pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk and see what comes to you. Draw. Write. Dream. Play. Then, carry that joy and energy with you into your life with children.