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Play is the way we learn now

Jennifer Wong-Powell, PYP early years teacher, Vilnius International School, Lithuania

Jennifer Wong-Powell, PYP early years teacher, Vilnius International School, Lithuania

This article discusses the importance of play in schools. Not only is play the way our young students learn and develop, but play has a place in student learning for the older students, too.

Early learning and development in the PYP supports the notion that students learn best through exploration and discovery of their environment. Play is the way young learners develop and extend on their knowledge about the world in addition to practice and elaborate on the strategies and tools needed for further learning.

The invaluable place of play in the classroom has been the motivation behind our commitment to play at Vilnius International School (VIS). However the place for play at VIS does not stop at our young learners. We recognize that play is the way we learn throughout the school.

Our commitment towards play at VIS in the learning and development of our students has involved a redefinition of play and what play means for us. We also inquired into who we are as early childhood teachers, rethinking our facilitative roles during children’s play. Stemming from a genuine interest and passion towards play, we were ready to share with our parent community and colleagues. So, we asked ourselves: what can we do to make an impact? 

Taking action

In February 2016, our students from the primary and middle years as well as staff participated in a major undertaking – DROP EVERYTHING AND PLAY! Coinciding with an international effort to raise awareness about the importance of play in schools, over 300 individuals at VIS gathered together to play. The power of our participation was resonated in the responses and reflections of our students and teachers, weaving together the essential elements of student learning. 

Reflections from one of our second grade class:

  • We shared.
  • I practiced my reading.
  • I got to teach others how to play games.
  • I practiced making new friends from another class and from the Middle Years Programme (MYP).

The benefits of play from teacher reflections:

  • The students learned different strategies for problem solving.
  • MYP students practiced their word choice as they were challenged to find the right vocabulary to explain games to the primary students.

Play is serious

Evident in the responses and reflections from our students and teachers, the place for play in school extends beyond the early years. Play is the way we learn now.

Returning to the question of how we can make an impact, we extended our play experience to a more thought-provoking discussion: how does play help develop confident and competent writers, not only in the early years but for the older student in PYP and MYP?

In the early years, students build the foundation for understanding the structures of written language through their imaginary play. As children play, the different roles they take on and the dialogue between each other during their play constitutes the characters and narratives in writing. Students use a similar representational process during imaginary play as they do when they are writing.

For an older PYP student, the writing process can be supported through block play. When given blocks, students begin to develop an idea about what to create (planning). As they begin constructing (drafting), dialogue with their peers (refining) results in additions or omissions (editing) to their creations. When the creations are completed, students step back to enjoy their masterpiece (publishing). Through block play, students can internalize the steps for producing a piece of writing.

In MYP, strategic board games help facilitate the development of the traits of writing. As students get to know the theme of the game, the ideas trait is supported as players find out the main message of the game. When students come up with a gameplay to outwit the other players, the students develop the trait of organization as they follow the sequence of their plan. The dialogue between players supports the development of conventions, practicing features including sentence formation. Students also impart a personal tone (voice) as they follow the gameplay and they use precise language surrounding the game (word choice). The cadence and power in the way players strategically interact with each other develop the trait of sentence fluency. Playing strategic games supports and develops features for quality writing.

What we have learned from our experience with DROP EVERYTHING AND PLAY and our discussion about play and writing is that “an emphasis on play does not detract from academic learning but actually enables students to learn” (Bodrova & Leong, 2003, p. 16). And as one of our fourth grade student concluded: “This is the best day of my life! We got to play.”

Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2003). Chopsticks and Counting Chips: Do Play and Foundational Skills Need To Compete for the Teacher’s Attention in an Early Childhood Classroom? Young Children, 58(3), 10-17.

Jennifer is an early years teacher who has taught in international schools in Asia and Europe. Outside of the classroom, Jennifer is completing her PhD where she is investigating into the diverse factors that impact children’s play in early childhood classrooms.  Jennifer is passionate about unearthing the complexities of play through collaboration and conversation, striving to develop a shared way for thinking, communicating and implementing play in early childhood education at an international level.