There has been a lot of controversy in recent years about play time in school, especially in kindergarten and first grade. Many schools have changed from two daily recess periods to one. Some schools have done away with recess in favor of more structured P.E. classes. Others skip recess altogether in order to have more classroom time.
Many kindergarten classrooms no longer contain traditional centers such as dramatic play (home, kitchen, whatever you want to call them), blocks, art, sand and water, science, etc. The excuse is that the students who play in centers are “too noisy and rowdy” and that center time takes away from more important activities such as small group reading instruction.
I’ve also heard teachers say that they no longer let students use basic art supplies such as paint, chalk, or markers because of the mess. The use of glue is closely monitored and many classrooms use only glue sticks. Play dough is a “no-no”. I’ve even heard bad words about puzzles. Come on, folks, what are we trying to do?
My parents and colleagues consider me to be a very disciplined, structured, organized, “academic” teacher. I am obsessive about control and I’ll be the first to admit it. I want my students on task and quiet when I ask them to be on task and quiet. I also have high expectations for my students. I want them to learn to read by March. I want them to know how to add and subtract before they leave my classroom. I want them to be able to work neatly, follow instructions, listen to a story and tell me what it was about, behave well with others, and be respectful. I have a list of one hundred words I want them to recognize. I could go on…
Thursday, at the end of our horrible day, I told my students we “will NOT have center time tomorrow!” Friday they were on task and quiet during handwriting and phonics. They were great during our math lesson. They were wonderful during Thanksgiving lunch with their parents. When we returned from lunch I let them go straight to centers. After about five minutes one of my bright little girls smiled and said “Mrs. Maurer, I thought you said no centers today.” “I’m a softie," I replied. She beamed. “I love this class, don’t you?”
My point is that these are five and six year old children! They need play. They need flexibility. They need understanding. They need someone to cut them a little slack once in a while. I think we’ve forgotten that.
My children play at recess at least once a day, twice if the morning weather is nice and we can get our act together. Sometimes math lesson runs long and we do miss part of the morning recess. And I have some health issues in my class this year that make it safer if we don’t venture out on really cold days. But we’ll go out in the afternoon, even if we just run around the playground once and return. (On rainy days we play with balls in the gym.) Recess gives my students a chance to interact with the other two kindergarten classes and make more friends. It gives them a chance to be as loud as they want, and of course gives them the opportunity to run, jump, swing, and play games. It also gives me a chance to see them being totally natural. I watch them play. I pay attention to their choice of playmates. I listen to conversations. Recess gives me insight into their personality and home life that I would never get during lessons.
“Hey! I said get me a beer!” About four years ago I was listening to a conversation in our “home center” and that was the command I heard from one of my little boys. Of course we had to have a little discussion about polite requests and things we don’t talk about at school, etc. But that one statement, and the way it was uttered, told me a lot about the relationship of his parents and the dynamics of his home. I’m not saying that I would ever judge my parents by one statement from their kid. I always tell them “If you’ll only believe half of what they say about me, I’ll only believe half of what they say about you!”LOL However, the point is the student didn’t say anything about his parents. He modeled how things are done in his home! When I combined that with conversations with his parents, observations of his actions, and his performance in class, it gave me much more of the “big picture” of his life.
That statement and others would never be a part of reading or math or science. Things like that only occur in the relaxed atmosphere of free-choice center time. Here are some other things that have happened:
- One of my boys made an elaborate paper robot in art center.
- A boy and a girl worked together in block center to make a building with over fifty blocks. The balance and symmetry was wonderful.
- One of my girls showed me how she felt about her baby brother by demonstrating with our doll. She put it on the kitchen table, hit it, and then threw it on the floor. We talked for days about that, and I talked with her parents and our counselor about it. We were able to help her work through some fear and anger that might not have been noticed without that play time action.
- Two of my students used our puppets to act out Sleeping Beauty and others watched the performance. That told me they knew the story, enjoyed it, and could retell it quite accurately.
- One of my students from a previous class could work a puzzle upside down, sideways, or even turned over. He had an amazing understanding of spatial relationships and an eye for details. I learned that by watching him during center time.
- A previous student, whose mother died just before the beginning of school, didn’t speak for months. But he drew elaborate, dark pictures with his markers each and every day. Sometimes he would make as many as four copies of the same picture. I truly believe that as he drew he was working through his grief.
Play is an essential part of life. Whether we are six or sixty, we need some time that is our very own. We need some time to do what we want and think what we want, without structure and plans and purpose. If I had to be in my classroom 24/7 or even inside 24/7, I’d be a basket case. I need to be in my garden. I need to feed the birds. I need to take photographs. I need to draw and paint. I need to write. I need to walk aimlessly across the yard and look at the water move across the pond. That serves no purpose whatsoever, except that it makes me feel good!
We can’t do away with play, in life, or in the classroom. Kindergarten children need time to be relaxed, creative, interactive, and energetic. And if we give them that, they will be on task and quiet when we ask them to do so. At least most of the time…LOL