Another Mindset that Matters: Being Playful

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Play is in danger of disappearing from primary classrooms, and it shouldn’t be. But I’d like to raise an alarm bell that play is extinct in classrooms for every American child over the age of seven. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this, but not too many.

It seems that play is something policy makers think kids need because they’re kids, and they can still get a lot of it outside of school. They may claim that more “rigor” is necessary for college and career readiness. I argue that play has unique benefits to learning and life success, which cannot be found in strictly academic settings.

Imagine this: You’re an upper elementary or middle school teacher, and somehow you find yourself walking in the primary hallway or wing of a school.

You stop to peek into a kindergarten classroom during that magical event known as choice time. You know you’re supposed to go copy a very important practice sheet for the state test, or maybe you need to grade that giant stack of literary essays. But from inside the classroom a tiny face catches your eye.

“Are you hungry?” the little boy asks. He’s working with a few other impossibly small children in a play kitchen area.

“What do you have?” You ask. A girl comes over and hands you a paper labeled, “menu.” There are some pictures of food labeled with a few letters.

“Today we’re serving clams and oatmeal.”

“Wow! I’ll have some of each,” you say. She writes your order on a small pad and asks what you’ll have to drink. “Hot chocolate? Or orange juice?”

“That’s a tough one. They’re both so good with clams. I guess I’ll go for the hot chocolate, though.”

The kids work as a team to get plates and a cup, serve from the pots on the stove, and pour from a teakettle. They bring your order and you eat it with your hands. The boy gives you a cloth napkin, which you use to wipe the imaginary food from your hands and face.

“That was amazing! I’m going to go write a Yelp review of this place right now!” you say.

The kids look at you quizzically as you return the dishes and make your way back to your very important work.

You just played! Sure, it was fun and cute, but you also did something really important for your brain. You adopted a playful mindset. You just created space for possibilities you hadn’t imagined before. Clams and oatmeal on the same menu, a meal consisting of these paired with hot chocolate. Dining with no utensils, but, somehow, a cloth napkin. 15 minutes ago this combination of variables didn’t exist in your vision of how things tend to go, but now it does. Congratulations! This micro-expansion of your worldview happens every time your vision of what’s possible takes in something new. “Clams and hot chocolate. Of course!” You were willing to try something in your imagination that you not only wouldn’t have tried, but— and this is the crucial piece— it was something that wouldn’t even have occurred to you to try.

Experiences like these create pathways in the brain that enable us to consider more readily unusual, inventive, creative, resourceful ways of doing the things we need to do. These are also the pathways needed to solve problems that haven’t been solved before and to create things that didn’t exist before. These benefits combine and work together to feed a mindset that is flexible, creative and courageous.

 This is my claim: A playful mindset is not just helpful for college and career (and life, adulthood, relationship and happiness) readiness, it’s necessary. Necessary. I had to say that twice.

Reflecting on Student Engagement: What are some of the conditions that make it happen?

I got to spend a gorgeous three days of Fall with about 95 sixth graders at the Pocono Environmental Education Center. OK, I’m going to say up-front that I wanted a cocktail about seven times a day for the three days we were there. It was pretty exhausting.

It was also amazing to see my city-kid students engaging with nature and with each other in such playful ways.

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This is where we were.  Continue reading

Can We Play in a Writer’s Notebook?

I’m back from a year off of posting. Long story.

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Why are some kids tortured by writers’ notebooks?

I got an email from a parent the other day, at her wits’ end because she said that getting her son to write entries in his notebook was like pulling teeth. It was miserable for them both. Now that’s not the feeling I want to encourage in young writers!

Later that day, I sat down with my own third grader to write an entry in his notebook, which had been assigned for the next day. It was the first entry of the year he’d be writing at home rather than in school. He’d been putting it off.

He whined a bit, and complained that he had nothing to say. He tried to bargain with me. Then he got angry. I thought about letting him just not write the entry and take the consequences at school. It was an important moment, though, and I wanted to have some input into how his attitude toward writing would be affected, negatively or positively, by this experience. So I held firm. I saw an entry he’d done in class, which was a page full of small drawings of memorable experiences he had had. His teachers had clearly taught the class that this was a tool they could use to generate ideas in times such as this, when they can’t think of anything to write. We looked at all the pictures, and he told me the stories contained in them. He chose one to write, and then wrote it. The tool worked. Continue reading

Colonizing the Block Room: Barn, Garden and Farm, Church, and House

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We spent two weeks in the block room. We built a settlement of sorts, referring to a large selection of books to help us design, build, furnish, and outfit the structures. The settlement included a farm/garden area, a barn, a church, a house, a close-up of a kitchen, a smokehouse and food storage area, a grist mill, a government buildings complex, and an overview of the settlement highlighting protection from internal and external threats.

In this post, you’ll see the first few of these. Continue reading

Fourth Grade Play-to-Learn: Colonizing the Block Room

Well, it’s the New York State math test this week, so I signed up for the block room again.

This time it’s a little different though. We’ve just started learning about colonial America. On Monday we looked at a painting of the Speedwell, talking about the people and the journey they were about to make, and the story the painting might be telling. That got us talking about how a group of people might need to set things up when they get to a new place that’s totally unfamiliar, lacks the resources they’ve come to take for granted, has resources they might not know how to use, and is home to very unfamiliar people.

This is about when my own personal line of inquiry about learning through play popped into my head. Of course history provides wonderful content that can be accessed through play. I had been thinking with my grade-level colleagues about how to make the beginning of the study feel more active and exploratory- more of a way to stimulate curiosity. I had already signed up for the block room several weeks ago, and it just seemed like a perfect match.

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Continue reading