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Let’s play! And learn while we’re playing 

Play doesn’t end when the school day begins

Editor’s note: This is the first in a periodic series of columns, ‘How Schools Work,’ explaining the day-to-day workings of public schools. Our writer is Carol Lautenbach, a veteran educator and School News Network contributor.

All districts — Before students ever actually attend school, many ”play school,” a pretend activity sometimes involving younger siblings or stuffed animals as stand-ins for classmates. 

Can you picture it? Little chairs or boxes set up in the living room to mimic a classroom, books and pencils on the makeshift desks, students sitting quietly, and lots of instructions from whomever is designated “teacher.” 

If you have a child just starting school, this may be one of the images you have in mind. I sure do. I remember having much more fun playing school with my friends when it was my turn to be the teacher. Thankfully, I never had a real teacher who was even half as bossy as we were in our pretend school. Playing school led to me a career teaching real school — this time without either the bossiness or the quiet sitting.   

While it is true that some of the school day for your child certainly will include listening to the teacher from a desk or table, many schools have also implemented active, playful learning into students’ days – and not just because students enjoy it. 

“For children, play is serious learning,” said beloved children’s television host Mister Rogers. So, what does playing to learn look like in school? 

When teachers plan ways to play to learn, they are most likely not thinking about free play at recess. More likely, they are thinking about play that is linked to learning goals.

In fact, many educators call the kind of play that students do in the classroom “guided play.” The ”guided” part means play has a purpose determined by the teacher; the “play” part means each student has choices to make to achieve the purpose. These choices are often designed to be active, meaningful, social, and most of all joyful for students. 

In my own experience in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, playful learning was also more joyful for teachers. In surveys about learning, we found that teachers reported more satisfaction as they worked together to bring more playful choices for learning into their classrooms.

Related story: Playful learning is everywhere

Preschool Play

If your child attended a preschool program, playing to learn is not new to you. Like the bowl of hot cereal in the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” play is “just right” for young children’s learning. 

Mary Willaker has been teaching pre-kindergarten students for 23 years in Comstock Park’s Little Panthers’ program. When I asked her what makes play so powerful, she highlighted how play can build vocabulary, especially through student-to-student interactions: As students re-enact the Goldilocks story using props and costumes, they may talk about which bowl is the “medium” size, and what a “gruff” voice sounds like. 

‘Students emulate, listen to, and learn from each other.’

— Mary Willacker, Comstock Park preschool teacher

The social dimension of play is especially beneficial for special needs and English learners, Willaker noted. When students reenact a story about three bears and a visitor who makes herself at home in their house, they “emulate, listen to, and learn from” each other. And, she said, they develop confidence and learn to work together, too. 

‘Sticky’ Learning Lasts

Teachers know that learning through play makes learning “sticky,” whether or not the activity involves that newly purchased glue stick in your child’s pencil box. “Sticky learning” means that what is learned lasts and sticks, to be used to learn more deeply and in other ways. 

From games to movement to imagination, teachers use what looks to us like play to help learning stick. Students have choices and decisions to make and often work with others in active ways that create joy — and learning.

To be sure, educators and parents certainly want students to learn new skills and in ways that help children make decisions about how and with whom they will learn. Play, it turns out, is an excellent way for kids to do so! 

How Schools Work: An Explainer Explained

Families and schools are partners in children’s learning. Schools encourage family participation in many ways. But even the most welcoming schools can seem confusing. So, if you are new to public schools or have questions about how schools work, then “How Schools Work” is for you!

Every four to six weeks I’ll explore a different topic, tapping into the knowledge and experiences of local educators. I’ll suggest action steps you can take to strengthen your partnership with your child’s teacher and school.

This will be a two-way conversation: I’ll ask what you need to know and write about the topics that interest you the most. I hope you’ll enjoy learning about learning with me!

An Ada Elementary kindergartner whips up a pretend latte for his teacher

Telephones, Menus, and Dollhouses … Oh My!

At Forest Hills Ada Elementary, kindergarten teacher Kristin Kemppainen’s classroom is full of gadgets like steering wheels, ski goggles, helmets, and pretend airplane tickets to allow students to “explore and decide to try something they might not have tried before.” And these relate to learning how? 

‘They’re going to learn these skills first during play, and then they’re going to practice during the rest of the school day.‘

— Kristin Kamppainen, Ada Elementary kindergarten teacher

“We might line up some chairs and call it an airplane,” she explains. “And then we have pilots, navigators, stewardesses, or airline attendants, passengers with tickets, and somebody taking the ticket. We have a full-service kitchen to make food for the passengers. So, we allow students to practice being in an adult role.”

Her students experience purposeful play 30 minutes each afternoon. It’s a favorite part of their day. 

She sees the sticky learning that students do — from communication as students practice classmates’ names using puppets, to compromise when students who want to play together have different interests — as important skills now and in the future. 

“They’re going to learn these skills first during play, and then they’re going to practice during the rest of the school day. All of these are 21st-century skills that they’re going to need as adults.

“Kindergarten is a long day of school,” she adds, “but they thrive on play.”

What Can Families Do?

As you experience all kinds of learning with your child this year, here are some ideas to try to support and understand your child’s learning experience better:

  • Ask: Ask your child’s teacher about play and how it might be part of your child’s learning this year. And, when your child comes home from school, try this: Ask “What did you play today?” or “Who did you play with today?” You may hear about a part of your child’s day that was about both playing and learning.
  • Do:
    • To encourage creative thinking and vocabulary development: Hide small objects like coins, paper clips, blocks, and stickers in a bowl of rice. Ask your child to pull out two items and say what makes the items similar and/or different, or ask which one of the two items they like best. Ask about why they made the connections they did, and encourage them to add as many details as possible to practice building their vocabulary. Have fun! The more creative the response the better! 
    • Cooking and baking provide a great opportunity to play and learn math concepts! Give your child the opportunity to choose a recipe and then help with the measuring. Ask them to estimate how many scoops of flour it takes to fill a measuring cup, and see how close they came. Talk about what they discovered. Oh, and enjoy eating the results together. Tasty playful learning was one of my own kids’ favorites!
  • Read: Check out this article on Edutopia about the false distinction between learning and play, the lifelong benefits of play, and the danger of “trapping young kids in educational spaces that too often feel dreary, joyless, and alienating.”  

Joanne Bailey-Boorsma contributed to this column

What Do You Want to Know about Schools? 

School News Network values and desires your input. What do you wonder about how schools work? What questions do you have about the world of education? I’ll review your ideas and hope to address many of them in a future column. Please email me at carollautenbach@snnkent.org

Read more from SNN about playful learning: 
Positive energy as bright as spring sunshine
‘I like to keep kindergarten playful and academic’

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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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