Published Online: August 25, 2010

Let Them Play

"What is 'Choice Time?,'" she demanded. "Students don’t have time to play."

My heart sank when I heard these words coming from the mouth of a district administrator. Everyone on our kindergarten team had included "Choice" minutes in her daily schedule. Choice was a time for students to engage in centers and activities that were not teacher directed, assigned, or graded but intentionally designed to be open-ended, student driven, and to promote unstructured interactions among the children.

Dare I say that "Choice" was time set aside for our young students to play?

Since when did the word "play" become outlawed in kindergarten? I remember a time when kindergarten classrooms were stocked with wooden blocks, paint, and dramatic-play corners complete with costuming, furniture, appliances, and play food. Not so long ago, there was a period during the day when we encouraged kindergarten students to freely explore, create, and interact with the materials and people around them.

On the surface, children may appear to be only "having fun" during this unstructured time, but take a closer look and you’ll discover what I know: Play is so much more than idle entertainment. Play, including the ability to make your own choices, helps children develop and use essential social-emotional and academic-learning skills. Through play, I have seen my students develop social, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities in a safe, risk-free environment. Has our early childhood curriculum become so narrow that we now focus only on what is being tested and ignore all the other areas in a young child’s development?

As a primary teacher for the past 25 years and as a parent, I know that play is the foundation of learning. Young children have a natural desire to explore the world and the people around them; play provides them with an avenue to discover things on their own and to develop autonomy. In today’s diverse classrooms, providing opportunities for every student to choose and engage in activities meaningful to them can produce positive results in all areas of the curriculum. Learning is another word for it.

The Benefits of Play

Kenny was a reluctant learner with special needs. During the more structured, academic times of the day, he would often cry for his mother, put his head down on the rug, or sit at his table waiting for someone to help him. Kenny was academically behind his peers and he knew it. He couldn’t write his name or draw simple pictures, so he shut down. They only time Kenny felt success during the school day was when he was able to build a city with blocks, engage in dramatic play with friends, or explore lines and shapes using playdough.

There is no failing when you play. Play allowed Kenny to develop his self-esteem and his interpersonal skills. He learned how to work with and communicate his needs to others and in return his friends provided excellent role models during the other periods of the day. His attitude towards school and himself changed and he was willing to put more effort in his work.

Christopher, a child with autism and speech delay, also used choice time to develop his social and communication skills. Interactions with others during play taught him how to communicate his needs and wants. Christopher was able to learn how to work cooperatively in a social setting without the pressures of a structure. Through play, he was able to work out conflicts with peers and come to realize that others had different points of views.

More cognitively demanding, structured tasks posed a challenge to Christopher, who would fail traditional forms of assessments. While he was unable to produce a pattern or sort objects on paper for a math test, he was able to demonstrate his understanding of the concepts when he was playing with colored teddy bears and lined them up in a pattern or while he sorted foods into categories. Play proved to be one of the best ways for Christopher to show what he knew.

For students learning English, there is not a more powerful way to acquire and develop oral language than in a natural setting. I noticed that Cassandra, a native Spanish speaker, would often pass or remained quiet when asked to participate in class discussions, but during Choice Time she actively engaged in conversations with her English counterparts, readily exchanging thoughts and ideas. Play provided Cassandra with opportunities to interact with her peers in a stress-free environment. She saw value in using her new language during a more social setting.

Voices From Choice Time Past

Allowing students opportunities to make choices and play with materials does not take away from academic time. Academic skills are embedded in all aspects of play. When Alessandra plays school, she writes sight words she has learned in class and asks her "students" to read them aloud. When Hamza constructs his Lego car, he has deliberately planned which pieces he will need to form a vehicle that is symmetric and will move. When Junieth plays restaurant, she uses the charts in the room to write a menu while her friends sort the play food. The evidence is overwhelming: Young children learn through play.

I asked my former students, all adults now, to share their thoughts on choice time and self-directed play. This is what they said:

Hannah: "During play, I could actually socialize with other children, which I did not get at home. If it weren’t for play time, I never would have learned to interact with other people."

Shirley Jean: "I wasn’t always playing with others, I was reading. It was a fun time to catch up on random reading. But what I think I liked doing most was the puzzles with my friends on the rug. It was a challenge to us to get the puzzle finished before center time was over. Every day, we tried to beat our original time to see if we could get the pieces together without as much difficulty as the days before. Not only did it allow us to think and work together, but it also helped create strong friendships."

Kathleen: "I was able to be a child—carefree, lively, innocent, and spontaneous. I was able to run around and let out all the energy inside me so that when it was time to go back on the rug, I could focus and not be all squirmy and distracted."

Dante: "(It) allowed us to exercise our brains and imaginations, while at the same time developing our social skills through team work and/or compromise."

Raul: "It was fun. I got to interact with others while building structures and engineering ways to create something huge through teamwork. It created an environment of friendship and joy. It was a very healthy part of my education and growing up."

Sebastian: "Playtime gave me the tools to be around different people from various cultures, and interact with them on many levels inside and out of the classroom. Sometimes playtime gives students a reason to come to school—and if students can have something to look forward to at school, even if it isn’t academically related, it’s good for them to be excited in classroom and hopefully that excitement will manifest into a greater excitement for learning."

I am not advocating that we get rid of direct instruction and structure; what I am saying is that there are crucial learning skills that young students need to develop and make sense of on their own. Play provides a path for students to acquire these abilities, as well as academic skills.

Students may not have "time" to play, but they need to play.

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