This Summer I had the opportunity to participate in an online professional development conference called the Pedagogy of Play hosted by Sally Haughey, founder of Fairy Dust Teaching. It was over 15 hours of training from 14 different play experts across the globe. I’m excited to share with you some of what I learned.
The play workers movement in the U.K. defines play as “a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” In play, children are in control of the content and intent of their play (Haughey). Put another way, “play is defined as any activity characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activity itself (Bruno Bettelheim).”
These definitions rang true for me and what we do at Mountain Sprouts. It can be challenging to embrace true play based education in light of looming academic pressures, but I was reminded that children at this age really do learn best through play. When we allow kids to explore, experiment, and create on their own terms, they learn so much more than we could ever teach them. Our job is to support their learning by providing an appropriate environment and supplies, to create safe spaces for them to take risks, and to reflect back the investigations they’re working on. This leads me to my next point…
When we bombard children with questions or assumptions about what they are doing, we interrupt and draw them out of their deep play. Who knows what learning or inquiry we interrupted or cut off too soon? It’s easy to think that we should be interacting with, or more accurately entertaining, kids all day, but it does them a disservice. Check out this article by Teacher Tom (a Seattleite!) to see the benefit of leaving kids alone.
Conflict in the Classroom
As adults, a lot of us feel uncomfortable with conflict, but learning to handle it is an important skill that kids need to learn early. Our classrooms are a safe space for kids to express emotions, explain feelings and decisions, and find solutions together. Children experiment and play socially just like they do with physical materials. When a child repeatedly builds with blocks and then knocks them down, it’s part of their learning about blocks: building, cause and effect, patterns. gravity, etc... In social play, children learn how to interact with each other; they’re learning the cause and effect of words, emotions, and actions. When a child tells another child, “you’re not invited to my birthday party!” they’re testing to see what will happen just like they want to see what happens when they push a block tower over.
When dealing with conflict in the classroom, adult involvement should be minimal. A teacher should absolutely step in if a child is going to be hurt physically or emotionally, but we have to be careful not to insert too much adult authority. When adults bring their power into a situation, it can send behaviors underground and kids will wait until we’re not paying attention to act up again (Michael Leeman, presenter). Instead, we teach children who feel victimized to express themselves. This empowers them while building compassion and empathy in the offenders. We teach kids to advocate for themselves by encouraging them to say things like, “that’s not okay with me,” “I don’t want to play with you when _____,” and “ stop. I don’t like that.” Empowering children to use phrases like these also brings in real world consequences for their classmates. Children are impacted more by hearing a friend tell them to stop than by being told what to do by a teacher because of the possibility that classmates may not want to play with them if they continue their behavior. When we give children social tools and refrain from stepping in (that is, being more comfortable with appropriate conflict in our classrooms), we support their social health.They’ll have faith in their ability to handle conflict because they’ll have practiced responsibility for their own life and experience.
Ditch the Plastic
Kids learn and experience more when they have access to a variety of loose materials, especially natural materials, rather than plastic toys. Even shaped differently, plastic often looks, feels, and smells the same. Plastic toys are often over stimulating with excessive use of sound and lights. We live in a synthetic world where many things are made from or covered in plastic. These types of toys usually have one purpose or goal so children don’t have to be creative in how they’re going to play with it. Children need authentic, natural, and varied experiences (Curiosity Approach). Open ended materials encourage creativity, imagination, and thinking outside the box. Many of the trainings in this conference shared creative ideas for using found objects, natural materials, and recycled props. Here are two that I recommend checking out: