By Molly Ziegelstein
Life for kindergartners is not as simple as it used to be. More rigorous learning standards require the five and six year olds in our community to comprehend concepts at more advanced levels than previously required. Teachers are tasked with starting kindergartners on a path to becoming 21st-century learners through the use of target assessments with defined benchmarks. The bar has been raised, as the growing demands placed on our little ones make it more challenging for them to experience a stress-free childhood.
As a kindergarten teacher at Fernbrook Elementary in the Randolph Township School District, I am fortunate to be part of a team that focuses on promoting student achievement while also supporting students in their social-emotional growth. Our district believes that there is a need to educate the whole child, with social-emotional learning at the forefront. With the support of my superintendent, principal and instructional coach, I was empowered to pilot a program that advanced student learning through the use of cooperative play.
The idea of “Play in K” originated organically through conversations with my instructional coach, Laurie Pandorf. I began teaching kindergarten in September 2015, and spent a lot of time developing best practices and cultivating my core beliefs about pedagogy with my instructional coach. We decided that it was crucial to create a student-centered learning environment that promoted developmentally appropriate instruction. I believe that this type of classroom fosters a lifelong love of learning among students, as the environment enables them to be themselves and explore content through authentic hands-on experiences. Although I was confident in my teaching abilities, I knew it would be challenging to incorporate playtime into the previously regimented academic schedule.
Luckily for me, the year I began teaching kindergarten was the same year that Randolph Township School District implemented a full-day kindergarten program. The additional time in the schedule provided me with opportunities to take risks and experiment with teaching strategies that our team felt could enhance student learning. To develop instructional methods, the team studied past research about the incorporation of playtime in the classroom. We focused on the findings of Lev Vygotsky, who is regarded as a pioneer in the field of early childhood development.
Much of our philosophy was based on Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development. In Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child, Vygotsky proposed, “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior.”
Vygotsky also asserted that make-believe play has three features: children create an imaginary situation, take on and act out roles and follow a set of rules determined by those specific roles. Vygotsky concluded that human beings learn how to collaborate, assert themselves and resolve differences through play. Play is a necessity in my classroom, as I want to provide students with chances to develop life skills, discover themselves and simply be kids. This flexibility provides children with the time they need to develop their brains at an appropriate pace.
The team also studied the findings of Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz, authors of A Mindset for Learning. Mraz and Hertz observed both increased signs of distress in children alongside the need for students to develop skills of risk and resilience. The premise of their study encompassed the belief that without play, children may not be able to acquire the knowledge needed to navigate 21st-century skills. Having experienced similar trends in our district, we decided play in kindergarten was something we wanted to explore in our classrooms.
In order to implement play, our team utilized the ideas from Alison Porcelli and Cheryl Tyler’s A Quick Guide to Boosting English Acquisition in Choice Time. While reading their book was enlightening, seeing their work come to life in Mraz’s classroom inspired our commitment to incorporate play throughout daily instruction. Only by observing Mraz’s students did we reach our most significant conclusion—play is productive work!
Children in Mraz’s class were learning to be engineers, artists and designers. They were learning to think critically, analyze various situations and collaborate with peers. Upon seeing the positive impact of play on student outcomes, we decided to rearrange our daily teaching schedule so that it included an hour of play each day. This hour would be called “Choice Time.”
Laurie and I invested much of our energy into developing what Choice Time should look like in my classroom. In order to ensure that students collaborate, plan, problem-solve and reflect within the allotted amount of playtime, we decided that Choice Time must be composed of four stages: choose, plan, play and proud share. Each piece of Choice Time is essential for developing life skills.
While the choose process gives students a choice in what they do, they are often confronted with tough choices, such as deciding with whom they want to play and where they want to play. Giving students time to work out these differences helps them develop language and conflict resolution skills.
After making their choice, students plan their Choice Time. This step is the most critical piece of the puzzle, as students work in groups to outline the materials they will need, the roles each member will take on, and how they will build their Choice Time center. During the planning stage, students are forced to develop their skills in organization, communication and collaboration. Then the magic happens and play begins!
During play, I walk around the classroom and spend time with each group. Sometimes I observe, coach or join in the play. Observing enables me to understand the social-emotional needs of each student. I use the observational data I collect when coaching playgroups, as this enables me to support students in learning how to take turns, speak up for themselves and share. Finally, joining in the children’s play helps me foster individual relationships with each of my students and enables me to experience how their brains are evolving.
The last piece of the Choice Time workshop is called proud share. This is the time when each group reflects on what they accomplished that day. First, groups are asked to discuss among themselves what they would like to present to the class. Then, the students make a presentation with the group of peers they played with during Choice Time. At the end of each presentation, other members of the class give the group feedback on their share. Groups may discuss conflicts that arose during the period, and we use these scenarios to reflect on solutions that might make their play better in the future.
Today, Choice Time is an integral part of our kindergarten curriculum at Fernbrook Elementary. Across all classes, students engage in purposeful play and learn to apply the executive functioning skills they have developed throughout their classroom experiences and interactions with peers.
In some instances, students identify a real problem in their daily lives and propose a plan and solution through dramatic play. For example, we noticed that as students in our classes embarked on their purposeful play journeys, a problem frequently presented itself. The children were having trouble organizing the “beautiful things” (items they used for imaginative play) they wanted to use at their Choice Time centers. Some of these beautiful things included recycled bottles, cardboard boxes, old toys and craft supplies. As you can imagine, these items were taking up more space in the classrooms than we actually had.
During our discussions on how to organize the beautiful things, our five-year-old problem solvers noticed there was an empty classroom down the hall that would be the perfect home for their “Beautiful Things Store.”
From there, the students used persuasive writing techniques to convince our principal to allow them to utilize this room for their new store. Now, you will find students collaborating within the store’s walls to determine which materials they need in order to make their Choice Time a success. In addition to being empowered to find a solution to their problem, these kindergartners created and managed a functioning store.
The benefits of Choice Time are limitless and stem from real-world experiences. Choice Time engages all students, as they can vary Choice Time areas in an infinite number of ways if they use their imaginations and interests to alter the areas where they play. Students have established areas to represent restaurants and rock bands, and then changed them to depict pet shops or magic shows.
One of my favorite moments was when students felt compelled to build a fire station after the school executed a routine fire drill. The students naturally assigned roles in small groups, determined which materials they needed from the Beautiful Things Store, and made their solution come to life by drawing pictures and creating signs. Play in Choice Time centers allows each child to progress at his or her own pace, explore his or her interests, and reinforce the important content knowledge obtained throughout the rest of the curriculum.
The journey to play in kindergarten was exciting, ambitious and invigorating. Life for our five year olds has become more complex. Today, I rely on play to give my students an outlet to just be kids. I believe we are able to increase academic rigor because our students have time to play, explore and investigate. While you may not be able to create a space for a Beautiful Things Store, I challenge you to create time in your day to allow students to discover themselves in a way that deviates from traditional academic work. We owe it to our students to establish a safe, stress-reducing and academically enriching environment!
Molly Ziegelstein is a kindergarten teacher at Fernbrook Elementary School in Randolph. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @mollymziggy.