When I began working as a superintendent of schools here in Perth Amboy, NJ, we started thinking about how instruction should look in all of our classrooms. Our school leaders began visiting classrooms at all levels (preK, elementary, middle, high school) to determine what was happening and how we could improve. We started our rounds at our early childhood centers which include three and four-year-old children. The school leaders immediately noticed how powerful play was in these settings. They took notes on specific interactions they observed among the children and concluded that ALL classrooms needed to include more engagement like this. Play is the vehicle that moves learning for preK kids. It can be used throughout all levels, including adult learning. If you have participated in corporate retreats, you have likely engaged in learning through play.
How can we ensure that all kids are getting enough time and space to play naturally, the way we did in suburban America in the 1960s? As parents, we have to ensure that our kids get outside with friends in the neighborhood. If you don't live in a neighborhood where there is a safe place for them to do this, take them to a playground and then get out of the way. They key is to allow them to make their own rules, run their own games, and solve their own problems. All you have to do as a parent is to ensure time and a safe place to do this. This may mean that you have to eliminate some of the structured activities that currently fill up your calendar. Beware, if you have not allowed your child the time and space to do this in the past, it may not come easy. Your child may come to you repeatedly and ask you to intervene in disputes. When this happens, you have to tell your child to work it out independently of you. Resist the urge to get involved. Expect there may be conflict and hurt feelings on occasion, but don't jump in to "save" your child unless there is grave risk to physical safety.
In schools we have to ensure that the structure of the day includes time for play. This may be at recess when adults need to stay out of the way. It may be in the classroom when teachers provide time, space, and materials for kids to use. I know of one school in New York that has block time infused into the daily schedule of kindergarten and first grade students. Students are given old-fashioned wooden blocks of all shapes and sizes and time to build. They love it. Teachers have found that this unstructured block time assists children to develop the spatial awareness number sense necessary to become good at math. Math scores in this school have increased dramatically as a result of just allowing children to play with blocks.The key in schools is to find as many opportunities as possible for children to do what comes naturally to them - play.
At a time when we are increasing academic requirements for children, we need to be sure to always allow kids to be kids. Be sure to leave time and space for play.
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