I was raised on a dairy farm where my dad was employed as the hired hand. My family didn't have a lot of extra money, and I certainly didn't have but one or two store-bought toys. There was one thing, however, I had a lot of and that was opportunities for discovery, play and access to plenty of books through the community Bookmobile.
For 16 years, my colleague, Kathleen Law, and I, put on he Bears Great Adventure: A Christmas Play (32 productions because of 1/2 day kindergarten), and it was never the same twice! We never knew who was going to have a meltdown caused by severe stage fright, who is going to scream the words at the top of his/her voice, who will find the world is his/her stage, or who will cry endlessly because they cannot see mama (even thought she is on the front row). However, it always turned out to be a great success after a lot of hard work by eager 5 and 6 year olds.
I just returned from a trip to Disneyland with my family, and while the sights and sounds of the magical land were amazing, my favorite thing to do was watch the faces and reactions of my grandtots ages 3-7 as they were simply experiencing.
Because brains are built over time through the development of neural connections, you can almost see brain growth as young children experience, see, touch, taste, and hear. This brain growth will affect the architectural development that is creating the very foundation of their future brain power!
As neurons grow and connections are formed, they become more powerful and permanent. Well-used circuits become ready to access as a child learns.
So how can parents and teachers best build that necessary brain power and allow for development of well-used circuits? Not worksheets (that's for sure)! Worksheets limit the use of the brain. They typically use only the sense of seeing. Worksheets typically only have one right answer so demands limit thinking. They lead children to the thinking that there is only one way of doing, thinking, or answering.
"Worksheets do not allow for students to experiment and/or take risks. Conversely, they dampen enthusiasm for learning. Those who can, quickly complete the task because they already know the material. Those who can’t are frustrated. Simply stated, Young children do not learn from (worksheets) what teachers and parents believe they do" (Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 1993). I would agree. Worksheets are for the adults.
So what can we do instead to teach crucial academic skills? We can provide powerful opportunities for guided play-based learning. Rather than a worksheet that asks students to circle the pictures that start with the /b/ sound, a container of objects or pictures can be provided the student to sort into piles of /b/ or other. I have watched students do this very activity with amazement as they not only complete the task, practicing the sound of /b/, but they talk about the objects with each other to expand their learning and vocabulary.
Because I want my students to “experience” in my classroom, I have a myriad of guided lessons that teach core-standards in a playful way. After participating in a guided lesson, the lessons can then be used as independent centers for continued practice through play. The homework I send home mirrors those lessons. I do not want parents to falsely believe that worksheets are the best way for their child to learn, so I limit the amount I send home to about zero.
The following lesson “Teddy Bears" is an example of such a guided play activity.
Objective: Solving story problems.
Common Core K.OA.2: Solve addition and subtraction word problems, and add and subtract within 10, e.g., by using objects or drawings to represent the problem.
Materials: Copy on tag two sets of card backs and then the story cards on the opposite side; laminate and cut apart. Gather a set of teddy bear counters and a bowl, box, or small container for each student. If using paper teddy bear counters, after cutting the bear counters apart, place each set in a bowl or some kind of container. If you are having students write the equations, provide pencils and blank sheets of paper.*
Seat students at a table and give each a bowl or container with a set of real or paper teddy bear counters. Keep the story cards in front of you. Place the story card, 3+2 at the top of the stack for demonstration of the lesson.
Teddy Bears love to play and have adventures. Today we will listen to stories about some teddy bears. We will use the teddy bear counters to act out the stories.
Let’s begin. Read the 3 + 2 bear card. Three bears sat in the pool. Lay three bears in front of you. Two more bears joined them in the pool. Count out two more bears. How many bears are now all together in the pool? Count all of your bears. Three bears and two bears make five bears. Allow students opportunity to swim the bears around the pool.
Now, put your bears back in your (container). Listen to this story. Draw another card and repeat the process.
Continue reading cards and acting out the problems. Make up additional stories if you complete all story cards.
*NOTE: Early in the school year, you will want to focus on mental math, the ability to solve story problems by using manipulative, fingers, or drawings. If you are doing this lesson later in the school year, you may wish the students to write the equation after each story on blank sheets of paper.
Extension 1: Have students act out the story problems as if they were the bears.
Extension 2:Have students illustrate the story problems to make a class book!
Following are the cards needed to play the game. Print them double sided for a deck of fun bear story problems!
My students were waning as we were wrapping up the must-dos of the day. Everyone looked ready to be done and go home. So, with 30 minutes left in the day I announced "Free Choice!" and the countenance of each child immediately changed! There was an immediate switch from cognitive exhaustion to cognitive rigor. From yawning to exuberance in a millisecond, that is the power of play!
Play is freedom! It is the freedom to choose, the freedom to express, create, explore, and discover at ones own pace with joyful autonomy. Play is to children what the weekend is to adults. A chance to learn by doing with a relaxed state of mind. And when it comes to play, whether an adult or child, not only does the body benefit from the relaxation and freedom from stress, the brain also benefits from it’s effects. According to a researcher from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta Canada:
Dr Pellis goes on to explain that the development of the prefrontal cortex is crucial to the regulation of emotions, planning, problem solving, and complex thinking. This is not the only research that corroborates the positive effects of play, there is a wealth of findings that show that children learn best in this way, and that is why play-based learning is the core of my classroom teaching. It is through its powerful effect that I choose to deliver the bulk of my academic content.
Want to see how free choice time looks in my classroom? Check out this video:
If you are looking for some great play-based thematic fun, you might want to check out these cross-curricular thematic units.
Cognitive benefits are further enhanced if particular tasks are given at the block center. This week I will be placing some small vehicles with variances (trucks, cars, buses, etc.) at the block center and asking the students to build a track with ramps to race an opponent. This is always a favorite activity. You can just feel the brains power working at this center. --Keep Play in K!
Do you have a playhouse or dramatic play center in your room? Many principals, as well as parents and even kindergarten teachers, don’t understand the purpose of a playhouse. They hear the word play and understanding ends there!
The value of a dramatic play center cannot be overstated. In this center, students can take on the role of mom, dad, baby bear, chef, doctor, teacher, or post master. Shy students are often more willing to participate when they can “be” someone else. Students have multiple opportunities to take turns, share, and negotiate as they play together. Language and vocabulary development are increased through speaking and listening in the center, especially if it is changed throughout the year to be a hospital, restaurant, a 3 Bears’ cottage, etc.
Reading and writing skills can be practiced in the playhouse. Students can write restaurant orders, grocery lists, or letters to mail. They can read in a hospital room or a playhouse kitchen. With alphabet or number flashcards Baby bear or Goldilocks as well as students in a school room can review letters, sounds, or numbers.
In order to capitalize on the benefits of a dramatic play center, include a variety of materials for students to use, change the “scene” occasionally, and determine which standards are best addressed by the activities that you anticipate in the playhouse area. Check out the standards for Speaking and Listening, Reading Literature and/or Informational Text, Reading Foundations, Writing, and Counting and Cardinality. Post some of the specific standards that are being met or include the standards in your lesson plans. In addition, or as an alternate, post an explanation of the learning benefits of the dramatic play center.
Whether you have an actual playhouse or a defined area in your room, students can thrive in a dramatic play center. Deliberately incorporate this center in your weekly plans to meet learning objectives and state standards.
Here is my learning center poster that is posted by my playhouse.
Want to learn more about why play is so essential to learning in the early grades? Listen to our interview with Kristi Mraz, author of the book Purposeful Play.
I just changed my dramatic play area to the 3 Bears Cottage. Today the children acted out the story in their own creative ways. One group had three daddy bears and one Goldilocks. It was wonderful to see the way they worked out their own problems to satisfy everyone's wants and needs.
Here are more benefits of play:
Dramatic play will stimulate children's minds and promote advanced intellectual development! It also is a great way for children to expand experiences through reenacting events. These reenactments allow experiences to make more sense and have more meaning, paving the way for future academic success.
Define Social Roles:
Dramatic play helps children learn social roles and rules, and offers time to practice such social morays as sharing, taking turn, communicating to inform or persuade, and resolving conflicts, and cooperation.
Creativity and Imagination:
When children are engaged in dramatic play, they can be anyone that they want to be and can even do the impossible! This type of play encourages children to use their imagination and to be creative, as there are no limits. This creative ability will aide students throughout their lives as they become creative and learn to solve problems.
Builds Emotional Strength:
Young children have a hard time understanding and controlling feelings. By engaging in creative play, children can learn to manage and understand certain feelings by re-enacting episodes. Dramatic play can also enhance children's ability to empathize with other people.
Dramatic play encourages expressive language. Children are motivated to convey their wishes to others and speak from the perspective of their pretend roles. In fact, it is often through dramatic play that shy or withdrawn children first begin to express themselves through language.
For more information on the subject. Check this out:
NPR on play
Miami University on play
Scientific American on play