Do We Need To Learn How To Play?

This post by Aviva Dunsiger originally appeared on her blog on July 16, 2017.

Last week, I wrote this blog post about my experience facilitating a couple of sessionsat the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. The post generated a lot of discussion, and even a mention in Doug Peterson‘s weekly Ontario Edubloggers post. I think it was Doug’s post that led Andrea to my original blog post, and inspired this comment that has been on my mind ever since.

Here’s the problem: as much as we may talk about the value of the constructivist approach, discuss play-based and inquiry-based learning ad nauseam, and even have an updated Kindergarten Program Document that emphasizes the importance of play and our latest Social Studies Curriculum that instructs us to inquire with our students, the truth is that for most of us, free play is a terrifying concept. We don’t see it as learning. We see it in addition to learning, and supplemented by the direct instruction that we give in a more structured program. There. I said it. And I said it because these are the same fears that I’ve heard expressed from numerous educators across school, Board, and through outside professional development activities for years now. The concerns vary.

  • Will I have enough time to cover all of the expectations?
  • How do I know that the student interests will align with the expectations?
  • How will I get to everyone?
  • How will children be ready for Grade ___ (this is not just a Kindergarten concern) if I teach in this way?
  • How will students learn to sit and listen?
  • Where’s the activity?
  • How will students learn anything in this “free for all?”

Maybe somewhere, stuck at the heart of all of this, is our own uncertainty around why play matters. While Andrea said it in her comment, I’m sure that she’s not alone in her thinking: Do adults want or need to play when learning? I worry that if we don’t, the reliance is on me, as the presenter, to impart all of the knowledge. But I don’t know everything. Neither do all of the people that attend the sessions.

  • When we play though, we form new ideas.
  • We use materials in ways that others may not have considered.
  • We couple our ideas with the ideas of the other people around us, and we all learn a lot more.

I understand why this play is difficult.

  • We’re used to instructions, and the materials come without instructions.
  • We’re used to an activity, and there isn’t a specific one.

Now we have longer, unstructured periods of time with less directions, and that’s hard. The outcome seems less clear. And when we’re looking to take back a task to use in the classroom, now our learning is not just task-based. But if we’re willing to let go, get creative, experiment with materials, talk to our colleagues, share ideas, and explore items as our kids may do so, I wonder just how much we’d learn.

I think back to my sessions last week. Maybe fewer people would have left if I took Doug’s suggestion and “gave more guidance.” If I were to do these sessions again, I still don’t think that I would want to provide question prompts or post activities. You see, if we want our students to engage in “free play,” I wonder if as adults, we have to do so first. Here is what I think I would do instead.

    • I think I would share more photographs and videos of what the children did in the classroom. These can be great for providing a context for the learning and helping people see different uses for the materials.
    • I think that I might tell a few more stories. Stories sometimes inspire exploration.
    • And I know that I would try to do what Diana mentioned in her comment, and get some more facilitators there to help inspire and extend the play. I would love to have my teaching partner, Paula, there, as she is the one that continues to show and teach me the most about how we can be authentic when playing with kids.

Reflecting now, I can’t help but think about this fabulous video from Dr. Jean Clinton, where she talks about the need to stop “stuffing the duck.”

If this is true for children, what about for adults? If we become more comfortable with playing, what impact might this have on our students? I think it’s time to address that elephant in the room: our documents may speak about the value of “play” and “inquiry,” but do we value both, and if not, is it time to change?  

Aviva