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Play is important work for learning

By Cathy Jordan

Last month a New York elementary school cancelled its annual kindergarten spring play because the kids needed to continue working to be college and career ready. Really?

I was saddened and frustrated to read about this. I have fond memories of kindergarten. I remember the academic part - learning to count to 100, memorizing colors, learning sound-letter combinations, learning to print letters and numbers, etc. I also remember the "fun" stuff - songs, games, story time, playing dress up, creating skits, and playing "house" and other role-playing games in the maze of boulders and trees along the edge of the playground. Those "fun" activities were seen as critical parts of our school day.

These activities were not just enjoyable. They were chock full of learning opportunities - learning to listen, work collaboratively as well as independently, communicate, share, problem solve, and create. Sometimes these fun activities tapped our early reading, writing and numeracy skills as well - creating dialogue for a short program, writing invitations to our parents, counting how many rows of chairs we might need to seat all of our parents at the holiday program. What fertile opportunities to educate the whole child.

The note from Harley Avenue Primary School administrators to parents said they were preparing "children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills." The note went on to say "we can do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers." I agree that those lifelong skills are critical for college and career readiness. I completely disagree that children needed "seat time" in order to achieve those goals.

The importance of non-academic endeavors, including play and social interaction, to learning and development has been documented and addressed by numerous authorities, from the American Academy of Pediatrics to legendary education researchers and theorists, such as Dewey, Vygotsky and Kohn.

I believe this New York school lost a great opportunity to engage these youngest of students in a fun learning task that could have offered rich opportunities to work on those life-long skills of literacy, writing, collaboration and problem solving. Students might have worked in teams to come up with the show's theme. Teachers could have helped students reflect on how their collaborative process facilitated or created barriers to their learning. Disagreements and social dynamics could have provided the context for working on problem-solving, conflict management, communication, and sharing. Leadership and followship skills would have emerged.

With teacher help, students could have written (or at least dictated) their script. Learning their lines would have helped students practice sight reading. Costume and prop design and creation might have promoted visual motor development and art skills and offered outlets for artistic expression. And not to be underestimated -- children might have taken pride in their effort and their ability to work with each other to achieve their goals and they would have experienced the validation of their proud parents' and teachers' applause and praise.

Perhaps this was exactly what teachers engaged the children in doing in preparation for the kindergarten show. If so, it's unfortunate that someone did not recognize the educational value of this beloved tradition.

How does this extend to upper grades? What might "fun" learning activities look like in the upper elementary grades? In middle school? In high school? In youth programs? How do you make fun activities, or "recreational" activities, educational? What lifelong skills are you attempting to address in the process? If you were an educator and faced with a similar situation, what decision would you have made?

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  1. Cathy, thank you so much for this great topic! I agree with you that it seems that the educators missed a truly important opportunity. In 4-H, we strongly believe that when young people cultivate one aspect of learning--their ability to design Lego robots, or to sing and dance in Arts In, or to raise a goat--they are learning critical skills that apply to all of life, and which prepare the whole young person for a life that is highly interconnected. The way that our brains learn best is when we are highly socially interconnected, and opportunities such as a school play are ideal for fostering that kind of learning.

  2. Kathryn - That's what I love about 4H! The world has much to learn 4H's best practices. i totally agree that learning in a social context is highly effective. Not only does learning of whatever the content is happen more deeply, but children are also learning other critical skills related to collaboration, problem solving, conflict management, assertiveness, etc. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Cathy,
    Thanks for writing this article. As a non-formal educator I understand the struggle of balancing quality lessons with fun lessons. In my experience it takes more time to prepare a lesson that is both fun and educational.
    As a system we have a unique strength of being able to draw on resources that take this into consideration when the curriculum is being developed. Although adaptations will be needed it is easier to modify than create. One of my favorites is the 4-H Photography series.
    What are your feelings on using/modifying established curriculum to support a fun learning environment?

  4. Why recreate the wheel? If there is a relevant established curriculum, and there aren't ethical, legal or validity reason to avoid making changes to the curriculum, I think building off of something that already exists is a great way to spark your own creativity as an educator and to be efficient. But I do caution that when we make changes to a curriculum, it is no longer the same curriculum and we can't claim that it should have the same impact or validity as the original.
    I think doing the reverse is also really important too - take that "fun" activity and build more learning (academic and social-emotional) into it, weave in more ways to address the standards in specific subjects, etc. Weave the fun activities into your curriculum.


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