For decades, a child’s experience in school involved plenty of playtime, allowing them to learn key skills like sharing, solving puzzles, and interacting with one another via games like monkey in the middle.
That time has become increasingly hard for school leaders to carve out as the extent to which students — especially from minority or low-income backgrounds — were struggling to develop key skills like reading and writing became apparent. In the past two decades, focus shifted to academics and play got pushed to the fringe. At younger grades, the move has proved controversial, with academics and educators finding themselves divided by competing impulses: teach students to read and write early, ensuring later academic success, or focus more on play to ensure social emotional development, which can support later life success.
But research indicates that playtime is crucial for developing skills — like problem-solving, creative expression, and social interaction — that are hard to teach through straight instruction. Those skills are important for students’ academic success becoming increasingly important after graduation, as more jobs open in tech-related fields. High-level success in many of those fields likely looks more like a group of kindergartners building towers out of blocks than a class of high-schoolers taking a test: clusters of people working to solve seemingly impossible problems, rather than sorting through papers individually.
Still, schools face competing demands and certainly academic skills engender future success. So here are a few creative ways for school leaders to think about encouraging and incorporating play into instruction, even when the focus is on innovative instructional models and new school approaches.
Play as preparation
Especially in younger grades, some schools are beginning to look at ways to incorporate play-based instruction that helps students build skills that will be needed for their academic develop. It can be a way to provide more time for play while adhering to a more academics-focused mindset.
And it can even be part of a tech-driven approach.
For example, San Francisco has begun to design computer science curriculum for early grades that could involve playing with blocks. That’s a smart choice for a couple reasons. Research from the TIMPANI Toy Study at Eastern Connecticut State University indicates that basic toys — wooden blocks, toy cars, Tinkertoys — can be the most effective at helping preschool students develop problem-solving skills and creativity.
And while San Francisco's curriculum will likely include a computerized element, they don’t necessarily have to. But the strategy can help students sort out the specific problem-solving skills needed to be fluent in computer science concepts later in life, including figuring out how to sort and order objects. That means the approach can help districts better prepare students for academic instruction later, without sacrificing play early on.
Technology can provide the tools
As schools transition to a heightened STEM focus and blended learning models, they can use the tools those provide to ensure students are engaging in play. It’s still a small arena, but a number of companies are beginning to look at ways to incorporate play. For example, LEGO offers toys that incorporate both physical and digital components to help students learn STEM concepts, vetted by education experts across a number of school levels.
Schools can also take advantage of community partners who are familiar with what it takes to use technology in play. For example, many towns and cities now have MakerSpaces where adults and children alike experiment with everything from robotics to welding and woodworking. The maker movement includes tech leaders and educators who also understand the importance of play-based approaches.
“Most of the people that I know who got into science and technology benefited from a set of informal experiences before they had much formal training,” Dale Dougherty, editor of Make Magazine and founder of Maker Faire, told KQED last year. “And I mean, like building rockets in the backyard, tinkering, playing with things. And that created the interest and motivation to pursue science.”
District leaders can encourage partnerships, and school leaders can work with MakerSpaces to lead after-school clubs or become involved in classroom activities. Since the MakerSpaces are all-ages, it can be a great tool for higher grades when avenues for play are less apparent.
Physical fixes for the problem
Not all approaches to more play and physical activity require a tech-driven mindset, even as part of innovative school structure. Some schools have started to make physical movement an integral part of instruction, using things as simple as teaching kids to act situations out to understand and improve social interactions or move around to mime chemical phenomena. It’s an old-fashioned approach, certainly, but some schools have started to incorporate the methods in new and interesting ways.
One big way that’s happening is through health initiatives or whole-school approaches to student health. One Colorado charter school, Academy 360, has made health and wellness a central part of its academic approach. That means designated playtime outside throughout the day. The school is too young to demonstrate much in the way of results, but students did make progress in the school’s early years.
Other schools have also experimented with more play and movement classroom layouts. That can be as simple as creating a quiet space for students to go and spend time in during lulls or rearranging desks to give students the freedom to move around. But it can be more involved as well. Some classrooms have added standing desks, bouncy balls, and stools to encourage students to move around and play.
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