ETFO (The Elementary Teacher's Federation of Ontario) has recently released a pamphlet entitled "Playing is Learning" that shows a refreshing approach to structuring (or 'unstructuring') the learning environment. The importance of incorporating opportunities for play in the classroom is not a new idea, but it is an exciting one. If you google "promoting play in the classroom" there are a number of studies and articles that have been written on the merits of giving students time to play. I will explore some of the benefits of providing play time at school.
"Play is the Work of Children"
Before life responsibilities and commitments enter our lives, we spend our time engaged in play. By undertaking unstructured activities, we create meaning about our environment and come to understand aspects of life - all the while having fun when we do it. Our students have many years to spend in a classroom. In fact, they spend the majority of their "childhood innocence" under our watch as teachers. Many of our classrooms have become so structured and regimented towards the accomplishment of curriculum obligations, that we are neglecting to tap into the rich resource of "play." During these times, the students emerge as individuals who have interests, ambitions and unique characteristics, and while solid programming will still reveal these things - play is the perfect stage for presenting them to you (as the teacher).
"Play is Training for the Unexpected"
Valuable learning takes place when children design and improvise an activity. Watching my son (aged 3) play cars or transformers or emergency rescue is intriguing. There are often no limits to the creative situations that those cars or characters find themselves in. "He fell into the ditch!" We'd better get the tow truck to get him out. "The building caught on fire!" We'd better call the fire department to save the day. "Megatron isn't being nice to the other Transformers!" Well, I guess Megatron needs to learn how to play nicer and use his manners. I mean, these are valuable and life-specific events, except he is learning about them through free time - not as a sit down lecture or conversation. Kids can learn about the world when they pretend things happen and then problem solve how to deal with it.
"Play is our Brain's Favourite Way of Learning"
When we give students choice of what they would like to do - they thrive. Free time, reward time, "golden time," whatever you want to call it - it works! Save for a few situations when it can become overwhelming or difficult to carry out, students are engaged and happy when they dictate what they do and know that it is simply for fun. Think about how many academic-type tasks a student in your class will carry out today. How many does that amount to in an entire academic year? Now consider how many of those were designed or chosen by the students. Finding a way to make work look like play is the key to success when motivating students. Just like the best career advice you can give...
"Find something that you love to do and turn it into a career that will pay you to do it"
If students are enjoying what they're doing, the learning will happen in a meaningful way. People don't want to feel that they are doing work - they want to play and yet still accomplish what needs to be done.
Keep playing in the classrooms. Board games, puzzles, computer games, cooperative games, charades, "house," block-building; whatever it is, students are enjoying themselves while learning. Of course, don't tell them that.