Do we need to learn how to play?

Last week, I wrote this blog post about my experience facilitating a couple of sessions at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. The post generated a lot of discussion, and even a mention in Doug Peterson‘s weekly Ontario Edubloggers post. I think it was Doug’s post that led Andrea to my original blog post, and inspired this comment that has been on my mind ever since.

Here’s the problem: as much as we may talk about the value of the constructivist approach, discuss play-based and inquiry-based learning ad nauseam, and even have an updated Kindergarten Program Document that emphasizes the importance of play and our latest Social Studies Curriculum that instructs us to inquire with our students, the truth is that for most of us, free play is a terrifying concept. We don’t see it as learning. We see it in addition to learning, and supplemented by the direct instruction that we give in a more structured program. There. I said it. And I said it because these are the same fears that I’ve heard expressed from numerous educators across school, Board, and through outside professional development activities for years now. The concerns vary.

  • Will I have enough time to cover all of the expectations?
  • How do I know that the student interests will align with the expectations?
  • How will I get to everyone?
  • How will children be ready for Grade ___ (this is not just a Kindergarten concern) if I teach in this way?
  • How will students learn to sit and listen?
  • Where’s the activity?
  • How will students learn anything in this “free for all?”

Maybe somewhere, stuck at the heart of all of this, is our own uncertainty around why play matters. While Andrea said it in her comment, I’m sure that she’s not alone in her thinking: Do adults want or need to play when learning? I worry that if we don’t, the reliance is on me, as the presenter, to impart all of the knowledge. But I don’t know everything. Neither do all of the people that attend the sessions.

  • When we play though, we form new ideas.
  • We use materials in ways that others may not have considered.
  • We couple our ideas with the ideas of the other people around us, and we all learn a lot more.

I understand why this play is difficult. 

  • We’re used to instructions, and the materials come without instructions.
  • We’re used to an activity, and there isn’t a specific one.

Now we have longer, unstructured periods of time with less directions, and that’s hard. The outcome seems less clear. And when we’re looking to take back a task to use in the classroom, now our learning is not just task-based. But if we’re willing to let go, get creative, experiment with materials, talk to our colleagues, share ideas, and explore items as our kids may do so, I wonder just how much we’d learn. 

I think back to my sessions last week. Maybe fewer people would have left if I took Doug’s suggestion and “gave more guidance.” If I were to do these sessions again, I still don’t think that I would want to provide question prompts or post activities. You see, if we want our students to engage in “free play,” I wonder if as adults, we have to do so first. Here is what I think I would do instead.

    • I think I would share more photographs and videos of what the children did in the classroom. These can be great for providing a context for the learning and helping people see different uses for the materials.
    • I think that I might tell a few more stories. Stories sometimes inspire exploration. 
    • And I know that I would try to do what Diana mentioned in her comment, and get some more facilitators there to help inspire and extend the play. I would love to have my teaching partner, Paula, there, as she is the one that continues to show and teach me the most about how we can be authentic when playing with kids.

Reflecting now, I can’t help but think about this fabulous video from Dr. Jean Clinton, where she talks about the need to stop “stuffing the duck.”

If this is true for children, what about for adults? If we become more comfortable with playing, what impact might this have on our students? I think it’s time to address that elephant in the room: our documents may speak about the value of “play” and “inquiry,” but do we value both, and if not, is it time to change?  


When A Passing Comment Leads To A Light Bulb Moment

At the end of last week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. After my two presentations, I attended a water cooler session, where I got to sit down with Matthew Oldridge, Royan Lee, and various conference goers to talk about math. This was an informal conversation that touched the most on pedagogical documentation, the learning environment, and how we plan the most effectively for kids. 

I share all of this because my greatest aha moment happened at the beginning of this conversation and before most people arrived. Our water cooler talk was right next door to Jon Orr‘s incredibly popular session, and at first, the only people coming into our room were doing so in order to grab chairs to move next door. This gave Matthew, Mary-Kay Goindi (she helped directionally challenged me find my way to the right room 🙂 ), and I, a few quiet moments to talk. 

The three of us are quite a diverse group of educators. I teach Kindergarten, Matthew supports math educators from Kindergarten to Grade 12, and Mary-Kay is a K-8 teacher librarian, who also teaches Grade 8 math. We don’t appear to have much in common. Our conversation proved otherwise. 

During our talk about math, we started to discuss patterning. I can’t quite remember how this topic came up, but it did. When Mary-Kay started to talk about AB patterns, I was about to mention the simplicity of these types of patterns, and how we encourage students to move from them to more complicated patterns (e.g., ABB or ABBA ones). And then she made the comment that led to my light bulb moment: the important learning that comes from these types of patterns is when students begin to realize that there are the same number of one colour or object as the other one. Just like in ABB patterns, they see that there are twice as many of one colour or object as another one. Of course! This is how patterning connects to algebra (mic drop). In all of my years teaching elementary math, I always emphasized the repetitive nature of patterns … but Mary-Kay’s passing comment made me realize that there’s even bigger learning that comes from patterns.

I’m now starting to think about the questions that we ask around patterning. 

  • What if we helped students see these number relationships instead?
  • What value might this have for them initially and in the long run?

All of a sudden, I see a much stronger connection between patterning and number sense, and I’m re-evaluating how I approach and respond to patterning in the classroom. I can’t wait to talk to my teaching partner about this as we look ahead to next year. 

This experience on Thursday reminded me about the importance of connecting with educators from all grade levels and disciplines. I can’t help but think about my “one word” — perspective — and the value in conversing with people who share different perspectives. You never know when, or from whom, you’re going to learn something new. I wonder how we make these kinds of cross-grade learning opportunities more prevalent at a school and Board level. What have you tried? How has it worked? If we’re open to it — and take that important “learning stance” — I think there’s a lot of potential here. What do you think?


I Packed. I Came. I Shared. And Now I’m Left Wondering.

Yesterday, I had the amazing opportunity to present at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. When Mary-Kay Goindi initially asked me to present, she emphasized that it was important to have hands-on components to the sessions. I decided to facilitate two sessions that were connected togetherone on Math Through Play and one on Documentation. I was excited to bring some “free play” to the conference, and hopefully get people thinking about the math that happens in the everyday and that can be extended through noticing and naming math behaviours. 

As Mary-Kay noted in her tweet yesterday morning, I did not pack light for this conference. 

(Note that the suitcase that’s beside the cart was full of materials as well.)

I’m a big believer in the fact that a Kindergarten classroom provides an optimum learning environment for kids. Math becomes embedded in the whole day, and students really start to see themselves as mathematicians: asking questions, solving problems, and using mathematical vocabulary that we have exposed them to throughout the year. Since I couldn’t bring the people to our classroom, I decided to bring our classroom to the people. 

I really wanted to make this learning authentic, so I chose to present the materials, in much the same way as we present them.

  • There were no signs.
  • There were no posted questions or activities.
  • I told the participants that they could touch everything, move things around, and use items in any way that they wanted. 

For both sessions, I created Padlet walls, where people could add links, ideas, questions, and comments. During the Documentation session, I also printed some documentation examples to include around the room, and encouraged people to document their play: even talking to other educators during the process, as a way to analyze what they observed and discuss and determine some possible next steps. I was so excited about this! I loved the fact that these sessions were not going to be “sit and get” ones, and that as teachers played more, they could discuss different options to link “learning” and “play” in all grades. I’ll admit that in my dream world of how this was all going to come together, we would all get to listen to and participate in rich discussions, ask questions, and leave with new ideas to contemplate and new things to try. 

And while this did happen with a group of participants, something else also happened: in both sessions, the majority of people left early. In the second session, the room almost cleared out completely as soon as I told people that they could “start playing.” In the first session, it took a little longer for this to happen. Some people came to talk to me first, and a few were surprised that our “play time” is our “learning time,” and all tools become “math tools.” Our conversations continued for a little while, but often after talking (and normally without playing), people left. On one hand, I can attribute people leaving to factors such as,

  • this was the second day of the conference, and people were tired.
  • there were lots of interesting sessions happening at the same time, and people wanted to see other ones.
  • my second session was close to lunch, and people were hungry.
  • many people attended both of my sessions, so by the end of the second one, they may have seen and explored everything.
  • people got the ideas and the links to the presentations. Maybe for some people, this was enough.

But on the other hand, I’m left worrying and wondering if there were other reasons for them leaving.

  • Did the sessions not meet their needs? Should I have shown a bigger variety of examples to the full group, and not just have included the links in the Padlets?
  • Did I “release responsibility” too early? Did we need to engage in more playing and documenting as a full group before people went to do so on their own?
  • Was “free play” too “free” for adults? Are we looking for “instructions,” and does this eventually lead students to do the same? How might we change this, and is this something that’s worth changing?
  • “Sit and get” PD is often criticized (I do this as well), but is this what some people wanted? Why? Or did I just need to find a better middle ground?

Criticism is rarely easy to take, but I think that we can learn a lot from all kinds of feedback. I’m making inferences based on my observations from yesterday, and while I did receive some very positive feedback, I also can’t ignore what I saw. Now I’m hoping to hear more. If you were at these sessions, what did you think, and if you weren’t, what might you suggest based on what I shared here? Yesterday, I was excited about the possibilities of “play,” and while some play happened, many materials were left untouched. The learner and questioner in me, needs to find out why.

Can you help?


Learning Among The Trees

As my 16th year of teaching comes to an end, I have so many special memories of my first year at Rousseau. Maybe the cluster of memories that stand out the most though is from our time in the forest. From the end of September to the beginning of June, our students spent at least one hour — almost every day — among the trees. It didn’t matter if it was snowy, cold, rainy, muddy, or any combination of the above: we all dressed for the weather and made it out to this special place that changed all of us!

One more for good measure: a happy way to start the day! #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

I learned a lot from this time in the trees. On the first official day of summer holidays, I need to take this moment to reflect.

I learned that ALL children — even our youngest learners — are capable of supporting each other. I know that numbers are usually a concern when thinking about the Full-Day Kindergarten Program. Even with two adults in the room, how are we supposed to be there for everyone? The forest taught me that I needed to reframe my thinking. There may have only been a couple of adults in the room, but there were 33 little teachers that could support, encourage, and model for each other. We can all be “teachers.”

I learned that time outside — first thing in the morning — makes for a calmer time inside. While many students may be excited to come to school and eager to learn, other students find it hard to leave home. Maybe they miss their moms and dads. Maybe they had a disagreement to start the day and recovering from that is a challenge. Maybe saying goodbye to their siblings is harder than they anticipated. For whatever the reason, sometimes the start of the school day is a sad one … but that changes when we’re outside. Students can have some quiet moments with friends. They can run and play. They can sit and eat a snack, and calm down. They can all do what they need to self-regulate, and that’s what makes the forest truly special!

I learned that new relationships form in this special space. As the year went on, I loved seeing the friendships that occurred outside. While there were groups of students that always played together in the classroom, new interests emerged out in the forest, and with these different interests, came different connections. 

I learned that inquiry often begins in nature. My teaching partner, Paula, and I definitely saw this happening as the year progressed. At the beginning of June, Dr. Jean Clinton came to visit our Kindergarten teams at Rousseau, and on her visit, students found some bramble bushes. This led to an increased interest and lots of thinking around berries and plant growth.

I learned how much new vocabulary can be introduced and reinforced outside. The discussion around brambles (above) is a great example of that. This is where students learned the words “brambles” and “drupelets,” which they then used again when talking to us outside and sharing learning inside. Last summer, I attended an inservice through our Board, which spoke about the connection between vocabulary and reading success. What better way to develop vocabulary than out in nature!

I learned that the outdoors provides so many authentic reasons to read and write. This year, I saw the biggest growth in reading scores than I have ever seen in my teaching career. All of our Senior Kindergarten students learned how to decode — many far above grade level — and many of our Junior Kindergarten students did as well. Most of them learned all of the letter-names, and the majority of letter-sounds, and they did so even with all of our forest time. Why? There are many possible reasons for this growth, but I think that the outdoors made a difference. Our time outside provided so many meaningful reasons to read and write, and students began to see writing as a valuable way to communicate their thinking.

I learned that problem solving happens naturally outside, and children are capable of solving problems in incredible ways. The type of problem solving varies in an outdoor space. Sometimes it’s a building problem. Sometimes it’s a math problem. Sometimes it’s an environmental problem. Sometimes it’s a movement problem. And sometimes it’s a problem of how to get clean. But when we trust kids and give them time to problem solve, their solutions are often quite incredible. It’s as they problem solve that they also learn about the importance of perseverance, and for many of our students, they learned this lesson outside. 

I learned that creativity can happen the most in this outdoor space. We don’t bring items with us out to the forest, so students have to figure out what to do with sticks, rocks, pinecones, flowers, leaves, vines, and trees. This is where “wonderful” happens. I think about the Four Frames of the Kindergarten Program Document, and there is certainly some incredible “innovating” that happens outside.

I learned that if we want others to see this outdoor learning as valuable, then we have to see it as valuable. We have to document it. We have to share it. We have to reflect on it, and make plans for next steps based on what we see. We also need to celebrate it! Outdoor learning is not just recess. It is often “free play,” but as we notice and name this learning, provide new vocabulary, and reinforce the reading, writing, math, and thinking skills that happen naturally in this space, this learning is taken to a whole new level. 

I’ve learned to become a better listener, observer, thinker, and questioner, thanks to this time outside. There are many things that I love about this year, but this time in the forest, changed me. What have you learned thanks to outdoor learning? As our Board works towards meeting its reading target for next year, I wonder if we have to look at the role that outdoor learning can play in this. How might outdoor learning benefit all of us: from emotional well-being to academic success? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories!


What if “free play” was truly “free?”

Just before school started on Wednesday morning, I received this tweet from Doug Peterson.

While I couldn’t listen at the time, I decided to listen to the recording of the show later on that evening. I was interested in knowing what blog post of mine they were discussing and what they had to say about it. At the 13:44 mark, they started talking about this post of mine about play-based learning, supply plans, and the visit from Dr. Jean Clinton. Ultimately though, it was a comment that Doug made at the 17:10 mark that inspired this new post. 

Doug started to discuss what play-based learning means. He mentioned that in this case, play includes,

  • “guided and directed activities.”
  • It’s “not random.”
  • It’s “done to address the curriculum expectations.”

I can’t stop thinking about these three points because I wonder if play in our classroom actually looks and sounds like this. And this is where my blog post becomes a lot more uncomfortable, for you see, when I say that we “play,” we really play.

    • We do not restrict children to certain areas of the room.
    • Our shelves are full of open-ended materials, but students can choose and use any of them.
    • While we do have areas in our classroom, students can bring materials fluidly between these areas. 

    • We do not require students to complete any activity, assignment, project, etc. Students decide where they want to go and what they want to do. 
    • We may make suggestions for calmer options, but now students choose many of these options independently. 
    • We do not put out activity signs explaining how to use the materials that we have around the room: children use them in the way that they want.

    • Students redesign the classroom, on a daily basis, to meet their individual needs. 

  • We do not require anything to remain out throughout the day. Students will ask for certain activities (e.g., the Perler Beads), and we then ask them, “Where could they go?” This leads to children cleaning up and setting up new areas in the room.
  • We let play happen for a very long timeWe are usually outside in the morning for 1-1 1/2 hours. Then we come inside for a group meeting time, followed by a transition to play. This play continues for almost 4 hours. Elements of it change. Students tidy-up certain areas and set them up with new materials. Small groups may leave to go to library, music, or phys-ed, based on their needs and interests. Sometimes, if needed, we will break for a short Brain Break, and then resume playing. Students also choose to sit down at least twice during this time to eat. We do not observe nutrition breaks. In these four hours, we only do one full class clean-up, and it works GREAT!

I realize that reading these bullet points may make people question, “How do your students learn? How do you get to all of them? How is your classroom not chaotic?” I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions, for in fact, our classroom is incredibly calm and the students have made greater gains and met with more academic success than I have ever seen in 16 years of teaching. Here are some of my thoughts as to “why.”

    • Relationships matter. This is ultimately what inspired the original post that Doug and Stephen discussed on VoicEdI think that the classroom environment is a calmer space for everyone when you have these strong connections with each other. As educators, knowing the kids also means knowing the ways to help soothe, comfort, or support students that may need it and/or ultimately intervene before this support is needed. 
    • Routines matter. I know that many would question if we even have a routine considering our long blocks of play, but in fact, we have a schedule that remains consistent every day of the week. We even go outside in the snow, cold, and rain. This regular routine actually helps all of us — educators and students — know what to expect during the day. Even free play can have a predictable pattern that increases comfort for everyone.

    • We have very few transitions. Even when we do transition, it’s slow and based on student needs. Our daybook schedule includes “ish” times, so that we can always be responsive to kids. As someone that’s lived by the bell for over 15 years, this was a BIG change for me, but it is so good for kids. 
    • Forest play matters. First of all, the outdoor time in the morning is calming for so many students. It allows children to slowly transition away from parents. It’s a time that they love, so it’s something that they want to do, and this helps with the transition. The forest also gives every child what he/she needs. This may be a spot to read under a tree, a chance to put on a play or a musical performance, an area for a big run, an opportunity for some heavy lifting, a space for some quiet conversation, an opportunity to climb, a place to build, or a chance for some sensory play. Second of all, the forest inspires risk-taking: safe risks, but still risks. Learning to read requires children to take risks, and this can be hard for many that are accustomed to always looking to an adult for support. It’s out in the forest, that students learned to climb trees, swing from vines, climb up icy hills, get safely down slippery hills, and build things that continue to fall down. They often start with requests for help, but instead of saying, “yes,” we instead ask, “How could you start? What might you do?” Soon students are learning what they can do on their own with hard work and perseverance. I don’t love the word, “grit,” but the forest helps all of us become a little grittier. Finally, the forest inspires inquiry. It’s where students start to wonder. They begin to share theories. They connect with the natural world, and bring this learning back into the classroom. We have introduced so much new vocabulary out in the forest, and it’s wonderful to hear students using this vocabulary again and again. The forest makes this possible. It helps us see the learning in the every day. 

    • Knowing the expectations matters. Both my teaching partner, Paula, and I have read the revised Kindergarten Program Document and know the expectations well. We spend our day watching, listening, and talking with kids, and then we find opportunities to notice and name the learning that’s happening. We look at how to insert the reading, make links to writing, and identify and extend the math. We ask questions, we pose problems, and we give students lots of opportunities to explore. We do a lot of mini-lessons, but instead of doing them with a whole class, we try to tailor these lessons to individuals or small groups. Then every child gets what he/she needs, and all within the context of play. It’s all about the “next best step,” and while this can be a challenging approach at first, the impact on student growth is huge. 

  • A team approach matters. Paula and I know that we both come to the team with different skill-sets. We try to maximize this by engaging in a lot of kid talk, discussing strategies together, and documenting our conversations with students so that we can explore next steps as a team. We are not always in the same space at the same time, and when we are, we do not always see the same thing. Our constant dialogue and team reflection really helps address these needs, and I think, to the benefit of kids. 
  • We have high expectations for students, and they know this. We talk to them about we know they can do, and we celebrate with them when they meet new goals and overcome challenges. Our students understand that play is learning — play is their work — and it’s great to hear them reflecting on their learning during play. 
  • Home connections make a huge difference. We talk a lot with parents. We suggest next steps and learning opportunities for home. We know that parents are talking, reading, writing, and discussing math concepts at home, and even sharing with us what they do, so that we can further extend this learning at school. It’s truly a two-way street. 

I think about all of this now while also thinking back to Doug’s comment in the radio show. 

Just this past week, we were outside one morning, and some of our JK and SK students joined a group of junior students that were sitting around a picnic table with their teacher. Pretty soon their conversation was around math and big numbers. The junior students could not believe what our Kindergartners knew. One of them commented, “How do they know so much when all they do is play all day?” Their teacher replied, “They learn through play.” Why couldn’t this be true for every grade? Free play with a teacher observer, documenter, questioner, and facilitator sounds like it has tremendous potential for ALL students. What do you think?