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How We Play (& Learn!)

Look into the Pre-K or Kindergarten classrooms at TSCS, and you will notice something that may not be as prevalent in your average elementary classroom: we play (a lot)!

Sure, we play outside. In fact, we have multiple recesses a day for our youngest students. We may spend a quarter or more of the day outside. You’ve heard about our natural playground and the importance of creating a space where children can take risks and grow in strength, confidence, and problem-solving. But I want to talk about classroom play and what it looks like in our school.

Play (make believe, pretend, etc.) is a vital part of the early childhood classroom. Yet, it is a quickly disappearing facet of elementary education. In a country where state testing mandates have crept down into the lowest grade levels and academic success is dictated by satisfactory test scores, it’s no wonder “free play” has been relegated to the little outside time most students are given.

While there have been movements in curriculum development and education colleges toward using play as a vehicle for math or phonics instruction (a strategy I use in my own classroom), these instances of learning through play cannot substitute child-led play.

Any parent knows that a child left to their own devices with nothing to “entertain” them will make up their own entertainment! This kind of “entertainment” is the play I am talking about. It’s loud (to the adult ear, but not always), informed by the environment, and straight from the child’s own imagination. It may or may not include scenarios related to the child’s life experiences.

World-building, make-believe play is an important marker in a child’s development. Research indicates that this type of play increases a child’s language development and social skills. Children who engage in pretend play with peers experience increased ability to understand that others’ thoughts differ from their own—a precursor to the development of empathy—and other self-regulatory capacities (aggression, delayed gratification, etc).

Parents of young children often worry about whether their child is on the right academic track. They may wonder extensively about when their child will begin to read, show interest in writing or other fine motor tasks, and understand addition and subtraction. I have never had a parent ask me whether their child plays pretend, makes up games without the teacher’s supervision, or dictates fictitious stories (or when they will develop those skills). However, these skills are just as important as literacy, numeracy, and fine motor development!

Charlotte Mason advocated for the value of play in her recommendation that most young students spend mornings in academic study and afternoons in play (outside or inside). Most adults associate play with the outdoors. As a child, I was turned out of the house after school and homework were complete to play with neighborhood children until dinner. This was in a major city in the 1990s—not that long ago! Yet, the last decade has brought about a distinct change in how we perceive children and play.

As a society, we have curtailed free play in favor of screen time and organized games to keep things quiet, to keep the house clean, and to squash the creative and developing minds of children, however inadvertently. In short, adults have meddled where they should not have to the detriment of our children.

We are by no means doing everything right in the earliest grade school years of TSCS. But, if we are doing one thing right, it is that we place a lot of value on play in the classroom (just as much as out of the classroom). It is sometimes loud and may look like chaos to outsiders. It may mean extra clean up and work, but it is good.

We make all the time in the world for work. For young children with their life ahead of them, work will come. The work of the child is play. It is a shame that most early childhood education teachers must justify play in their classroom. They truss it up with some academics so it will pass muster or frame it as recess time or a movement break. When children are at school six to seven hours per day, we cannot assume they have the chance for make-believe play at home. It must be a part of the curriculum.

Recently, someone asked me (in a conversation about subjects that my students study) whether Kindergarten age students are able to connect ancient history to their own lives. It was an interesting question. The short answer is yes, they do. But, the longer answer is that connections to a child’s personal life are not a necessary outcome of instruction in ancient history for children so young.

With any subject taught, or even just a good book, the contents become the fertile ground for imagination’s growth. If my students end the year and can’t tell me where Sumer was or facts about the Peloponnesian War, but they enjoy reenacting battles and pretending to visit ancient China, then I will count that as a success.

The spirit of this age is to stop childhood as quickly as possible and get about the business of being adults. I am thankful we have a space where kids can be kids, where play is valued, and where children can feel free from the pressure to succeed. May The Saint Constantine School, God willing, always be such a place—a protector of childhood.