A quick Google search will show you that learning through play is a frequently discussed topic for educators, parents, and other early childhood professionals. However, it is far more difficult to find resources that actually share practical ideas that teachers can use in their play based learning classrooms.
In this blog post, we will move past the WHAT of play based learning and move into the HOW by sharing actionable strategies that you can use right away in your Pre-K or Kindergarten classroom.
First things first . . . if you do want to go back to the WHAT and get the answer to the question, “What is learning through play?” feel free to check out this post. Then, when you are ready to dig deeper into the teacher’s role in play based learning, read on!
Before becoming a 4K (full-day, four year-old kindergarten) teacher in a play-based learning classroom, I had been a first grade teacher for a few years and a Kindergarten teacher for a number of years before that. My role as the teacher in those classrooms was made clear. Every day, I could be found leading guided reading groups, facilitating individual writing conferences, and guiding math talks with my class.
On the other hand, when I made the switch to 4K, my role in our play based classroom was a bit fuzzy. I was totally psyched about the play based approach and the trust that our administration had in us as educators. However, I had much to learn.
I asked questions like, “What is MY role in all of this as the teacher?” and “How do I ensure that my students are learning?” If you have already made it this far in the blog post, my guess is that you have asked similar questions as well.
So if you have ever wondered, “What is the role of an early childhood educator to support learning through play?” then you are in the right place. By the time you and I are through here, I am certain you will have at least one idea that you are excited to try in your classroom.
Support Learning Through Play Before and After the School Day
Learning through play in Kindergarten and Pre-K may seem daunting at first, especially when we try to take on all the ideas at once (been there, done that). The key is to take baby steps.
As you read through the list of suggestions below, think about your own teaching situation. Then, choose one idea (or more, if you are feeling ambitious) that you might consider for the children in your classroom. Without further ado, let’s get started!
Believe it or not, you can support learning through play without your students even being in your classroom. The suggestions below can be done prior to the first day of school, before the bell, and after the bell.
Consider How the Space Is Being Used
Look around your learning environment. Is the furniture set up in a way that spreads your students out during play? Can you locate open floor space where children can build? Is there an area in which your students can leave their works-in-progress? Are there spaces where rich play experiences are possible? How much space are you (and possibly other adults in your classroom) using? Overall, is the space primarily centered around children?
Commit to making a change that will be advantageous for your students. Make a plan of action, then schedule a specific day and time when you are going to adjust the space as needed.
Think About the Materials That Are Available to Your Students
It is important to have a variety of toys and materials, especially if you notice your students repeating the same actions over and over or they are not using much imagination and creativity. However, know that it may take time for you to provide that variety of materials, especially if you are a new teacher or your classroom is empty when you are assigned to it. The best thing you can do is start now.
Begin collecting loose parts. Ask your students’ families to send in clean recyclables. Consider writing a Donors Choose project. Talk to your administration about what funds may be available to you. Chat with your students about what they might want or need, then co-create a plan for accessing those materials. When we are intentional about the materials we choose to offer in our classrooms, those materials become the teachers.
If you are looking for some guidance as a new teacher or if you are just in search of some fresh materials to excite your students, feel free to check out my Amazon store. The majority of the items listed there are materials that we love in our 4K classroom. I continually add items to this storefront, so be sure to check back!
Disclosure: My Amazon store includes affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn a small affiliate commission, if you click through a link and finalize a purchase.
Move Toward a Balanced Play Approach
In an earlier post, I expressed that we (the teachers) do not get to decide what is play for our students, but rather our students get to make that choice. This is why a balanced play approach is important. Again, take a look at your daily and weekly schedules.
If your students have the freedom to play the majority of the day, try to include a balance of indoor and outdoor play, free choice play and guided play, playful whole group activities as well as invitations to engage in play based small group activities. Compare the idea of balanced play to balanced literacy. Just like you would not ONLY focus on, say interactive writing in a balanced literacy approach, you would not want to ONLY focus on, say whole group games with rules in a balanced play approach.
Now if you are a Kindergarten teacher or your program is more focused on academics, alternate the types of play you are offering. For example, if you only have 30 available minutes in your day, you might invite your students to choose indoor play activities, but then the next day, you take them outside to explore the outdoor space. The key is to not get stuck engaging in the same type of play. Remember . . . what may be play for one child may not be a joyful, voluntary play experience for another child. And since we know that play is the vehicle for learning with our kiddos, we want to include activities that feel like play for all. That leads me to voice and choice.
Support Learning Through Play During the School Day
Of course, there are also actions that teachers can take throughout the day when students are present that will support learning through play.
Include Voice and Choice Throughout the Day
What Is Student Voice?
To be clear, when educators refer to voice, it means that teachers invite and encourage their students to speak up and have an opinion around the happenings of their learning space. Voice comes in many forms.
For example, if a child asks a question and the teacher honors that question by writing it on a Post-It note and inviting the student to stick it on his Wonder Wall, that is voice. When a teacher simply asks her class, “What do you want to learn about?” or “How should we set up our Imagination Center?” that is also inviting children to use their voice. Oftentimes, upholding student voice does require us teachers to be flexible, but it is so important for us to do just that.
What Is Student Choice?
When educators refer to choice, it means that teachers leave space for students to make their own decisions throughout the school day. In many preschool, Pre-K, and Kindergarten classrooms, choice includes allowing children to choose the centers they play in, the materials they play with, and the peers who play beside them. Choice may come in the form of voting to either go to the playground or visit the outdoor classroom. When teachers invite students to engage in a small group art project or say, “No thank you,” and continue free choice play instead, that is choice as well.
Voice and choice are important parts of ANY classroom no matter the grade level or teaching situation. However, voice and choice become especially important when teachers are faced with academic requirements that seem to dominate the school day.
Voice and Choice Opportunities Are Endless
Do whatever you can to carve out room for voice and choice. For example, if you must engage in a shared writing experience daily, invite your students to choose their writing tools: “Do you want to write on a mini whiteboard or do you prefer a magna doodle board?” If you must administer an assessment, consider how you can squeeze in some voice and choice: “Do you want to show me what you know about numbers or letters first?” or “Would you like to use the star pointer or the laser pointer to show me the numbers?” With some intentionality, we can put a playful twist on just about anything and make the whole day feel playful.
The bottom line is that learning is more likely to occur when students have a stake in that learning. Voice and choice are how we make that possible.
Provide Your Students with Ample Time to Play
Possibly the most important way that teachers can support learning through play is by providing an adequate amount of time to play. Of course, that amount of time is going to be dependent on your particular situation. Some educators may have the freedom to allow their children to play the majority of the day, yet others may only be able to carve out 30 minutes. Always remember to just do what you can do for now and move forward from there.
How Can Teachers Find More Time for Play?
Start by taking a close look at your daily and weekly schedules. Be willing to make adjustments for the benefit of your kiddos. Are you able to switch some activities around in a way that will free up some time? Is there a transition time that regularly takes longer than necessary? If so, how could that transition time be improved and sped up? If you can add even just 5 extra minutes to your free choice play time, I call that a win.
When you look at your classroom schedule, analyze every activity listed there. Ask yourself, “Why are we doing fill-in-the-blank?” If the activity serves a purpose that benefits your students, awesome! But if it is an activity that you have been doing for years and you are not sure of the reason anymore, consider removing it from your schedule.
For example, perhaps your program used to implement a mandatory curriculum that included calendar time in years past. But maybe your program no longer requires that you use that curriculum and, therefore, you are no longer required to run a calendar time. This could be a situation in which you might eliminate something from your schedule completely.
Be Willing to Be Flexible!
The ultimate goal in going through this process with your schedule is to free up minutes that can be added to your free choice play block. (In our classroom, we refer to this block of time as Play Workshop.) When you create more time for play, you are supporting learning through play.
If you are reading this blog post in the middle of your school year, be brave! Try not to stress over schedule changes. Children are flexible. They will adapt and so can you. If you are excited for the changes, your students will be excited, too!
Pay Attention to Natural Curiosities
Another way that educators can support learning through play is by noticing when students are curious about a particular topic, then taking action to help students dig into that curiosity.
How Can Teachers Integrate Student Interests in Play?
Let me share a quick story as a way to give an example. One day in our classroom, a kiddo noticed a photo holder that I had picked up while visiting Paris. He asked me what it was and I explained that it was called the Eiffel Tower, which can be found in another country called France. The questions did not stop there and other kiddos who overheard the conversation started asking more questions.
As their teacher, I knew I had to support their curiosity. So I printed photos of the Eiffel Tower (and other famous structures) and put those photos in our Construction Center. I checked out books about the Eiffel Tower from our public library and set them out as a book invitation during our morning play as my kiddos entered the classroom.
During Play Workshop, when one of my kiddos struck a pose and said, “Look, Mrs. Unger! I am the Eiffel Tower!” I celebrated his excitement by taking a picture of his Eiffel Tower pose. As he stood there with his legs spread wide and his arms held together above his head, I knew that he had learned and understood the structure and shape of the Eiffel Tower.
But What If My Students Are Curious About All the Things?
Now don’t get me wrong . . . I know we cannot dig into every single topic that interests our students. I also know that we cannot address every question that our little ones ask all day, every day. What I am saying, however, is that children learn best when they are truly interested in a topic. So when you see those natural curiosities arise, whenever you can, take action to support those interests.
Transition from Teacher-Supported to Student-Initiated Play
Without a doubt, teachers must support children at play, particularly at the beginning of the school year. This is especially true if we want to guide students toward powerful play that is packed with learning. The end goal, however, is to always move in the direction of student-initiated play.
How Can Teachers Gradually Release?
When we give children space to process their own ideas, problem solve with peers, and ultimately be in control of their play experiences, this is when deep, meaningful learning occurs. So how can we teachers accomplish this? Step back. Walk away. Hang out in a corner (where you can still see all of your students, of course). We can transition from teacher-supported to student-initiated play by giving our students the space they need to grow.
It can be tempting to jump in when a child seemingly cannot decide which tinker toys to play with or when students are arguing over who had the blue car first. You may be eager to intervene when you notice a kiddo getting upset that his marble track keeps falling over or when a pair of students are struggling to start their puppet show. Resist the temptation to save the day! Instead, as long as everyone is safe, give your kiddos the space they need to explore possibilities independently.
Of course it will take time to create a learning environment in which all of your students feel safe enough to engage in this sort of play, so a gradual release from teacher-directed to student-initiated play is to be expected. Teach, model, and reteach skills as needed, but always keep your eye on the end goal.
You Can Do This, Teacher Friend!
Choose an Immediate Plan of Action
Phew! That was a lot, I know. All of us teachers are at different stages in our own play based learning journeys, so my hope is that at least one of these ideas is something you can run with at this point in time. So . . . which of these suggestions is most within your reach given where you are now? Which strategy can you digest right away? Pick one and go with it!
If you want an accountability partner, I am here for you. Send me an email, direct message me on Instagram, or drop a comment here on the blog. Let me know which of these strategies you are going to try and I will check in with you later on to see how things are progressing.
Set Long-Term Goals
I cannot emphasize enough that creating the play based learning environments that we strive for takes time. Please do not try to tackle all of these suggestions at once. Instead create a plan that you can work on over a period of time.
For instance, perhaps you want to acquire a set of persona dolls for your classroom, but the set you have your eye on is pricey. A Donors Choose project may be the answer, but you do not currently have the time to sit down and write up a project. That is okay, but do not let yourself forget the idea! Make a note in your teacher planner or create a reminder on your Google calendar, so you eventually make time to write that Donors Choose project and get those persona dolls for your kiddos.
Small Changes Are Better Than No Changes
My hope is that these suggestions have left you feeling inspired and motivated. Remember that you cannot do everything all at once. Pick one idea and take action. After that, pick another idea and keep going. Just do what you can in the here and now. Taking baby steps forward is far better than allowing yourself to be overwhelmed and taking no steps at all. You’ve got this!
More Ways to Support Learning Through Play
If you want to continue reading about ways teachers can support learning through play, take a peek at these awesome articles.
- How to Use Play for Learning by Jessica Arrow (Edutopia)
- Deliberately Planning Play for Learning by Maggie Sabin (Edutopia)
- Scaffolding! 10 Ways to Stimulate Learning Through Play by Heart-Mind Online
- How to Create Opportunities for Student Choice in Preschool by Oi Ling Hu (Edutopia)
- What Role Should I Take in Children’s Play to Best Support Learning? by Dr. Vicki Hargraves (The Education Hub)
- How Schools Can Incorporate Play Based Learning Into Playtime by Playworld
- What Is Play Workshop? Teachers, Here Is Your Easy to Understand Answer by Amber Unger (The Cream City Teacher)
One Final Tip
Okay teachers, I have one last suggestion for you. Yet another way to support learning through play is to observe your students at play and document what you see and hear. Going through this process will provide you with so much insight into what your students currently need from you in order to continue growing and learning.
Good news! I have a FREE resource to help you with this process. Grab my documentation template to get started. I give you all the details on how to use the resource within the PDF itself, so you feel confident in observing and documenting your students’ play progress.
If you have found this blog post to be helpful, be sure to pin it for later. You can save it on Pinterest by hovering over any image in this blog post and clicking on that pink “Pin!” button. Feel free to forward the post to a teacher friend who is also looking for ways to support learning through play in his or her classroom.