Play at the Center

What makes a child engage playfully with materials?  Is engagement with open-ended play all self-motivated, or is there something we can do as adults to support children's creative, imaginative play?  Does it matter if a child does not play?  Are we imposing what we consider as "playfulness" onto them?

These are just a few of the reflection questions that we, as a teaching team, have explored over the past few weeks.  They come up organically while we look at photos, videos, and the kids' own visual representations of their play. 

Play Lab exists, now, as an after school program in two public elementary schools, and the spring pilot is winding down over the next three weeks.  Each week, teachers present the group with new materials for open-ended play; the curriculum is emergent.  Throughout the pilot, we have played with different aspects of the program, from including a meeting/gathering/conversation at the beginning of the session, to how much to expect children to play with the materials we provide, to offering children the opportunity to reflect on their own play.  

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The kids have played with loose parts, newspaper, cardboard, blocks, and cardboard tubes + ping pong balls.  We have observed kids deeply engaged with materials, but they are often just as engaged with their peers and the physical space - the materials are not the only thing that defines engagement. 

So, once again, I am circling back to the importance of thinking about how all of these things (people, space, and materials) interact.  I believe we can plan for an engaging process of play, as long as we are prepared to be surprised.

When planning, these individual components overlap - we can't consider materials without considering the people who will be interacting with the materials, or the space where the play will happen.  The more I see different children in different spaces using the same materials, I realize that it is the nuances that we must pay attention to: the time of day, the patterns of behavior and interest we see week after week.

A particularly vivid example of this interaction of people, space, and materials happened with long cardboard tubes in a school library.


The materials for this particular week were cardboard tubes of varying lengths, small pieces of cardboard, string, tape, clothespins, and rubber bands.  A group of boys worked to connect tubes together, becoming more and more impressed by how long the apparatus was.  It was used as a limbo bar, and in the process of moving it around the room, someone noticed that it was long enough to reach the ceiling.  

That feat required multiple people to help support the tubes.

The kids were deeply engaged in the evolving process of using the tubes: manipulating them to connect them with tape; talking into them and manipulating sound; and finally noticing that the length could be vertical.  From the teacher perspective, I fretted about the physical space we were in.  How did the librarians feel about the sound levels?  What happens if we knock over a book, or a whole shelf?  Are we respecting the space in which we are guests?

I said phrases that, upon reflection, I would not have repeated.  I very generically told them to "be careful".  They were so joyful in that moment of lifting the apparatus together to touch it to the ceiling that as they chanted "ceil-ING! ceil-ING!" in unison, I thought about what others might think of such loud behavior in the library.  My comments didn't deter the fun and joy of this exploration because they were so deeply engaged that they continued on - with an awareness that I was asking them to be careful, but with an even greater awareness that they had control over their play and their work.  They were not reckless, they were not destructive.  They were engaged.

This sequence of events (the kids' truly open explorations, my fretting, nothing being destroyed, children's joy) is a pretty typical story of play-based learning.  That is, when we are really letting kids play, it is the norm.  The scale changes, but the story is consistent.  We (adults) put a lot of parameters on children's play based on our expectations, the learning outcomes we want to see, safety, respect, kindness - we step in as adults to support children in the ways we see best.  

We, the adults, are in that PEOPLE category of the Venn diagram above.  It is impossible to plan for children's play in a space and then step back and do absolutely nothing.  We are a piece of the equation as well.  It calls for children to have time and freedom in their play when they are not in our care as well, which is a whole other story.

The two kids who were engaged with the ceiling poking/limbo bar/sound machine object from start to finish, as it changed from one thing into another, drew their representations of it during their reflections at the end of the session.


In these reflections, there are no drawings of adults nagging over their shoulder; there are no books almost being knocked over.  There is no writing that expresses worry about the physical space.  We adults have seen our fair share of accidents, and we see it as our duty to prevent future accidents.  But accidents/mistakes/"oopsies" happen, and we learn from those experiences, too.  I do not suggest we let kids be reckless, but I do suggest we give them the benefit of the doubt for a few extra seconds before we jump in. 

And, if we do jump in, what can we say to raise children's awareness rather than shut down their play?

As this session of the program winds down, I'll be sharing more, specifically about the reflection process, and specific stories of children's play.