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August 27, 2008

"Oh, so they just play..."

Yesterday, my friend introduced me to one of her coworkers and we started talking about our jobs.  I told her that I teach pre-kindergarten, and before I could explain anything more she proclaimed, “Oh, so you don’t really teach anything.  You just let the kids play all day.”

I was, quite honestly, a bit offended.  I have long been an advocate of high-quality pre-k and have explained the benefits of high-quality pre-k to countless people; I know that people have misconceptions about pre-k, but I still find them hard to address.

On the one hand, this woman was right: my students do spend a significant portion of their day working in free play centers such as dramatic play, blocks, art, and library. My students learn best in these child-directed settings – they have the opportunity to apply and make meaning of everything that they’ve been learning in school and at home, and this is truly how they acquire deeper understandings of the world.

On the other hand, what this woman failed to recognize is that there is a tremendous amount of teaching and learning that goes on while my students are playing.  First, I am constantly observing my students and reflecting on how I can best meet their needs and promote their development.  I plan what I want to accomplish each day with my students, and I work to teach them naturally through their own play.  This can mean anything from providing new vocabulary cards for Jasmine and her magnetic letters to working with Erick and encouraging him to count as he builds a block tower.  Each of my students needs something different every day, and it is my responsibility to meet my students where they are and provide opportunities for them to move to the next level of development.  To say that I’m not teaching at any point in the day is just plain wrong!

Also, my students learn a great deal from one another throughout the day.  Whether it is Stephen showing Anna how to read The Grouchy Ladybug from front to back or Makiera explaining the rules of her dramatic play game to Aaliyah, my students are constantly interacting and learning both academic and social skills from one another as they play.

All in all, yes, my kids play for a significant portion of every day.  But contrary to this woman’s perception, there is a tremendous amount of teaching and learning that goes into every single one of those play episodes, and the significance of my students’ play should not be underestimated!




I completely agree and just wanted to add how students often make connections from whole group discussions and read alouds during play. Here are a few examples of how my students exhibited growth in that important listening skill. Play can therefore be a great time to assess student growth in an authentic way.

I will use their initials for the purposes of anonymity.

MP: built a house in blocks and shouted, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." I came over a few minutes later and said, "Can I come in?". MP then responded by saying, "only if you will not eat us."

MT: used his name card and a toy plane during centers to show me what he learned about how a plane takes off after we sang a song in whole group time.

ACJ: we were pretending to fly an airplane in Dramatic Play when ACJ pointed out how this was like what we learned about how geese and ducks and the differences between how they raise themselves up in the air.

TC: after a month of not talking much at circle time except to ask for her mommy, TC pointed out that the "M" in microscope was like the "M" in Michael's name while we were in the Discovery area.

MH: after we read about spiders on the rug, MH made a spider web out of clay in the Art area and showed me how a spider would catch a fly in it.

Sophia --
Such a good point! Today we had indoor recess and I set up a "bridge" (hardwood blocks lined up end to end) for my students to walk over. As soon as I told my students that we were going to be walking over the bridge, Aaliyah (who was in my class last year) piped up, "Like the Three Billy Goats Gruff! Trip trap trip trap, whose that tripping over my bridge? It's me, the little billy goat! I'm gonna gobble you up!" We read the Three Billy Goats Gruff last April as part of our folktales unit, and I was so impressed that she still remembered it! Soon the rest of my veteran students were chiming in different parts of the story, and my new students were getting excited too. I hadn't anticipated this connection, but it brought a whole new type of meaning to the activity!

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