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?”

When Parents Become Teachers

Strikes and gutters, ups and downs–that pretty much sums up each day right now. We are two days into homeschooling in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and we’re learning lessons as we go. My husband and I are both educators, so we are constantly wearing the multiple hats of parent-teacher/teacher-parent. Yet, this moment is calling on us to draw on our greatest levels of patience and understanding with our children and one another. We’re keeping our goals for this time simple–more strikes than gutters each day.

In our town, the hubs of our community–our schools, public library, and YMCA– have been closed for days. And social distancing has created a feeling of uncertainty unparalleled in our lifetimes. But you can hear children playing outside in their yards. Neighbors are out walking with their loved ones before dinner. Community members are self-organizing food donations and book swaps. And we have a mandatory break from our over-scheduled lives.

This gift of time is also posing particular challenges. Our children are 8- and 11-years-old, and I find myself grateful that my children are toilet trained, sleep through the night, and can get their own snacks from the fridge. If you have toddlers, your challenges probably revolve much more around basic needs right now. If you have high school or college students, they may be quickly underwater with the flood of independent expectations put on students with distance learning assignments. As schools and colleges close, every parent is all of a sudden a teacher.

In this post, I share what’s working for us and what we have learned from our pilot of sorts the last two days.

On the first morning of our new reality, we had our boys help us design a daily schedule that includes some academic time which we call “practice” along with choice blocks.

Rather than a list of possibilities for the choice blocks, we organized choice time into four categories drawing from the pillars that guide my work in schools. What could we do to connect with one another during this time? What could we create on our own or with someone else? What did we want to discover and get curious about? How could we make sure we move each day? We are adding as we go.

There are a lot of thoughtful daily schedules being shared online right now. You might find one that works as a starting place and recruit your children in the process of creating a schedule that works for everyone in the family. To make our schedule, we started out by having our boys make a list of things they wanted to do with this time. Every family has different constraints including the number of parents or caregivers available to help, the number of working parents, the number of children, and the number of accessible digital devices. What works for one family may not translate into success during this time for another. It’s easy to go into “compare-despair” mode when viewing each other’s Facebook posts. Remember, we are all experiencing strikes and gutters, but sometimes only the strikes are shared.

For us, starting the day without an alarm clock has been a gift in and of itself. We read or play on our own until 8ish. We then start our day together for family breakfast and a “morning meeting” of sorts. We talk about something we are each looking forward to as a way to set the tone for the day. That way, even when something gets hard or inevitable frustration sets in, we know there is something to look forward to in the day. We then make sure everyone has time for movement of some kind either by heading outside for a walk or by watching an online workout. Movement increases blood and oxygen flow and sets you up for cognitive development and overall well-being. When in doubt, move and get your children moving.

It’s amazing to see the spirit of generosity this moment has created. Publishing companies, educational websites, teachers, and parents are all sharing resources to support student learning at home. The wealth of resources online to support children’s learning has never been more accessible. Take a virtual tour of a museum you may never see in person. Watch a BrainPop video on a topic or join Scholastic’s free digital hub and learn something new. Watch a video of an author conducting a read aloud of their books or join an illustrator teaching a drawing class. In some ways, there has never been more opportunity to learn something new. That is, for children with access to digital learning. For thousands upon thousands of children, those resources remain out of reach.

Yet, more valuable than any online resource is the time and attention we give to children. Curling up on the couch and reading a book together. Telling family stories. Cooking side by side. Time outside. That’s what our children are most likely to remember anyway.

The Power of Invisible Practice

“Invisible spelling and sentence practice”

“I want it. I need it. So, I’ve got to do it.” Like a human Nike ad, my ten-year-old son voiced this new personal mantra to me on a recent car ride. He was describing why he works out in the basement every day. We’re talking planks, wall sits, pull ups–things most people do only when a coach or trainer is standing over them shouting, and, sometimes, shaming. But, Jack, chooses to do these things. Every day.  He even watches Youtube videos that help him learn new exercises and then he’s willing to try them even if he initially fails. He wants to get faster on the soccer field and in the pool. Just now I found him with ankle weights doing leg lifts before bed. I’m not advocating that all of our children or students should do calisthenics before bed. Jack finds joy in the process of this self-driven practice to get stronger and better at the things he likes to do. 

In our house, we call this kind of practice that no one else sees (except your family) “invisible practice”. Jack’s teammates and coaches don’t see this kind of practice. They only see the end result. It’s why we call it invisible. 

We learn nearly everything through practice. To play the piano. To throw a ball. To recognize that letters represent sounds. Or to form letters on the page so someone else can read them. But, in the beginning, practice is hard.  It can feel like the opposite of joy. And the only way we keep practicing is if we want to create change in ourselves or if we find the practice a form of play. 

Initiating an “invisible practice” routine can be hard. Assigning or requiring “invisible practice” can backfire. We see this with reading logs which can become anxiety producing and sometimes lead children to see reading as a chore. The truth is children often know the things they would like to get better at. 

Our youngest son told me this week, “Mom, I’m not a good writer.” He’s seven and already thinks writing isn’t for him. I thought to myself this is a boy who until recently used to carry a pocket notebook around so he could jot down little notes and create sketches. Holding his heart closely, I reminded him that being a writer is about having ideas that you want to share. It’s not about what your writing looks like. But right now, he is looking at everyone else’s paper and realizing his writing doesn’t quite look like everyone else’s. 

Learning to form letters was not automatic for him and has taken years of practice. Learning to conventionally spell has been challenging. Some phonics lessons have stuck. Others will come in time.  A lot of writing for him requires a lot of thinking in order for it to look conventional. But, as cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, reminds us “the brain is actually not very good at thinking.” When certain processes become automatic and memory kicks in, thinking becomes easier. 

We decided to try some “invisible practice”. Every morning after breakfast, we practice a few spelling words with the same phonogram pattern and a sentence or two. No more than five minutes. Every day. We’re working on “b” versus “d”. We’re practicing how to form letters. We’re working on capitalization and end punctuation. But the end result is a sentence that looks like something he is proud of and wants to get better at. 

This “invisible practice” is like the wall-sits of writing. We’re practicing the foundational skills that didn’t solidify for him through immersion.  It’s not the imaginative, narrative-driven writing of writer’s workshop. It’s practice designed to help with automaticity and sentence fluency so that the mechanics of writing feel less effortful and less uncertain. So he knows his stories are worthy of sharing. So he has the confidence to tell his stories through writing.  

At home and in classrooms, I emphasize the value of “invisible practice”. Learning is messy and thinking is hard. You can learn to embrace mistakes, have a growth mindset, and persevere, but practice is a part of learning. 

Here are some quick strategies for how to make “invisible practice” a part of your home or classroom:

  • Model and think-aloud about the kinds of “invisible practice” you do to learn new things or to get better at things that are hard for you
  • Use the term “invisible practice” and emphasize that it’s the practice we do out of choice that matters most in life
  • Create invitations to practice rather than requirements (invite children to make decisions about the kinds of invisible practice they might do based on their own goals)
  • Support a growth mindset before, during, and after practice by praising hard work and effort rather than mastery
  • Help children learn strategies towards independence like asking themselves questions and noticing patterns