It can be easy to dismiss children’s play as trivial, but play is a critical component of early childhood education. Play is how children internalize classroom learning and make sense of the world around them. Children incorporate new vocabulary in dramatic play, develop creativity and design skills with block and LEGO creations, and build essential communication and problem-solving skills with friends on the playground. During academic time, gameplay reinforces math and literacy concepts, allowing students to practice skills that require repetition. “There is a huge overlap between learning and play,” says Kindergarten teacher Anne Canada, “and it’s important to understand the value of play as a learning tool.”
Play with purpose
Gameplay is a consistent feature of learning in the Primary School. Kindergarteners begin with partner games, board games, and card games to practice math and literacy skills. Gameplay also supports differentiated learning, allowing students who are at different places in their understanding to play the same game with varying levels of complexity. While some students might play a math game with a nine-sided die, for example, others play with a six-sided die.
When children play games, there are often complex group dynamics to negotiate. Students have to decide how to take turns and define each person’s role. “Our literacy and math games target academic skills, but they also help children practice self-regulation, fairness, patience, and compromise,” notes Kindergarten teacher Lee Bogaert.
Gameplay continues in first and second grade to practice math, science, and literacy concepts. Popular choices include “I Have, Who Has,” where students practice vowel concepts; “Zap,” where students practice sight words; and “Top It,” a card game similar to War, where students practice addition and money concepts. “These games offer the opportunity to play with a purpose,” says first grade teacher Kelly Porter.
Gameplay supports learning even as concepts become more complex. In a recent science unit on force and motion, second graders demonstrated their understanding of tension and compression with a game of “Push and Pull Charades.” Each student acted out a different activity, such as pushing a grocery cart or pulling a wagon, and classmates guessed the action and named the force.
Academic gameplay can elicit those “aha” moments where the student who has been struggling with a new concept suddenly grasps its meaning. “Some kids are auditory learners and some are visual learners, while other kids need to see it a few different ways to understand,” says second grade teacher Jessica Nichols. “We try to demonstrate skills and concepts in ways that work for all types of learners.”
Choosing to learn
In Kindergarten and first grade, time is built into the schedule for students to explore their interests. Kindergarteners have a choice time block once or twice a day. They choose from various activity centers, including blocks, dramatic play, library, writing, art, building and engineering, science, puzzles and games, and manipulatives. While the activity is self-directed, teachers will gently steer it in a productive direction. “We call it sneaky teaching!” says Lee, who might issue a design challenge to the students in the block area to build a tower as “tall as Mrs. Bogaert” using only 15 blocks. On Friday afternoons, first graders have choice time, when they can select a building box containing Magna-Tiles or LEGOs, write a story with a friend, or act out a scene in the dramatic play area. Teachers note that choice time can get messy and loud, but even in those moments, kids are actively learning because they are busy, interested, committed, and engaged.
The playground serves as an equally important learning space, as children practice self-advocacy and develop problem-solving skills. Kelly Porter notes how she observes children using the social-emotional language learned in class and during Wellness classes to navigate friendships, collaborate on rules for a game, or speak up when something doesn’t seem fair. “Playing is practice for life,” she says.
Anne Canada has also observed how new academic concepts turn up during unstructured play at recess. After a science unit on simple machines, she watched as her students removed a large chunk of wood from the sandbox by creating a lever. “The children took what they had learned in class and applied it to solve a real-world problem!” she says.
Observing students at play enhances a teacher’s understanding of the whole child. “When I watch my students at play,” says second grade teacher Theresa Berkery, “I see them demonstrate so many life skills that can be harder to see during a busy academic day, but that are so valuable in the real world.”