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Learning in a Context of Play

As teachers, we are accountable for many things and to many people. As we start this next school year, it is important for us to keep children's learning at the heart of our planning and conversations.

To watch children at play is to watch them learn. As teachers, we notice children's play for what it reveals about what children know about the material world and the social world around them. To some, these may seem like simple tasks: to play and to notice. But such a view glosses over the layers of complexity found inside children's play and in the sophisticated work of teacher noticing to inform choices about where to nudge children next.

As a teacher of children ages 3-8 for the past 18 years, it never ceases to amaze me how many people view play as a bad word in the classroom. Thus, as teachers, we must do more than create spaces for play in our classrooms, we must do more than know how to engage children in learning through such play, we must also be able to talk about play to various audiences in ways that justify its importance for children's social, language and conceptual development. I believe the new Common Core Standards (starting in Kindergarten) provide an excellent opportunity for us to weave our advocacy for play into conversations about the kinds of learning contexts that best support young children's growth as learners.

When we look at the expectations for learning that come with the new Common Core Standards, there is an increased focus on conceptual development and practices (habits) of learning. It is ever more important for children to develop the practices of speaking precisely, of using persistence to struggle with a task over time, to reflect on and revise their thinking, to collaborate with others, to build models and express them in different ways, to connect ideas and ask questions in order to challenge the thinking of others, to find connections between more than one context of learning, and to be inspired to create and discover.

In order for children to practice such approaches to learning, they must play. To play is to explore, imagine, design, test, reflect, revise, talk, connect, create. This is the social world of children and it is here where they learn to negotiate space and ideas, where they learn to notice and wonder, where they realize their own agency to create something new in the world.

This year I have the pleasure of being a Resident Teacher at Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. As part of my work, I co-facilitate opportunities for children to play with raw materials. Then, with my colleagues, we watch what children do and say inside their play. As we notice, we take notes, talk, find new ways to frame learning spaces and think of new materials to introduce. We listen and find new layers of questions.

And we don't start with expensive materials or overly-structured spaces. We start with an open floor and a pile of recycled materials: pieces of cardboard, plastic and paper, fragments of thread, sections of aluminum foil, old buttons and displaced parts.

One teacher commented after our first session, "I thought they'd be bored," but we have found that children from age 3 in preK to age 8 in grade 2 have all been highly engaged in this open-ended exploration of materials.

We are learning that the types of questions we ask matter significantly to how children engage with and talk about materials. We know not to ask: "What is it?" or "What are you making?" because these questions close down possibilities for language and imagination. We have learned to ask "What do you notice?" and "What do you wonder?" to create a space for naming and a space for asking. We have learned to create scaffolds for the "What do you notice?" question for our younger students, such as "What do you see?", "How does it feel?", "What does it look like?" When children respond to such questions with "It's a bed" or "It's a TV" or "I'm doing water," we bring the conversation back to the material: "What makes it a bed?" When children point to a part of what they are calling a bed and push the material down, we give them words: "It's soft and squishy... what else?" If they have trouble using those words in other contexts, we use sign language for those words to bring them back to the tactile experience of touching the materials. When we notice children playing alone, we connect children to other children: "Can you find a friend who is also working with a material that is soft and squishy?"

Inside contexts of play, children find their own intentions for their work, they define their own purposes. "I'm making a sculpture" - "This one bends and this is pointy" - "We are playing house, we have this room, this room and this is a big room" - "I twisted it and put it into his straw": All of these layers of work and talk happen alongside each other and inform the collaborative and social learning of the space. Inside this space, this context of play, is where children produce their own meanings.

Without this-- in spaces that segment children's learning by discipline or skill, or overly define tasks for their work, or otherwise structure spaces away from play-- children are denied opportunities to grow conceptual understandings and the language to express such understandings. Such understandings are the basis for human agency and expression. Play is what allows children to create their own constructs in and for the world. When I recently asked a group of 6-year olds "How can it be a good thing to not know exactly what you are doing?," one of them replied: "Because then you can imagine something."

~Melissa Butler
Kindergarten Teacher, Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5
Resident Teacher, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh (2012-2013)

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