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Play as self-directed inquiry

In this article you will learn what it is like to be a creative and confident child who loves playing in sandboxes. When adults step back and observe students at play, beautiful, cooperative learning can be observed.

One cool morning in early September a group of students gathered around our school preparing to start their day. A first grade student eagerly showed me an empty bottle that once held vanilla extract. She explained it would soon contain a “secret sauce”. Standing next to her was a third grade student holding a small box. The box had been transformed into a cash register with a homemade sign reading Old Oak Bakery. She explained, “Today we will be baking cakes, muffins and pies during recess. Do you want to come and see?” Of course I did, and more than sample a few items, I wanted to know how the students created this shared experience. What were their goals? Who was involved? How did they manage to collaborate with one another when their break times did not? Later that morning, I joined their play and observed them engaged in self-directed inquiry.

Approximately twenty upper primary students were digging, raking, patting, rolling, pressing, sprinkling, spreading and scooping sand. They were industrious workers at the Old Oak Bakery, each person playing a role in the creation of tasty delicacies. With much enthusiasm, students transformed balls of mud into bonbons, jelly rolls and bread rolls. In a section of the sandbox referred to as “the kitchen”, a child sprinkled flour onto a cement surface so the cookies would not stick to the pretend baking sheet. A couple other students pretended to be miners, grating clumps of sand into golden sprinkles which were collected and used to decorate cupcakes. At the entrance of the bakery a cashier served a line of eager customers, accepting fallen leaves as a form of payment. Twenty minutes later, an energetic group of lower primary students took over the space and began the second shift in the bakery. Their older peers explained what was created during their play and how the younger students could proceed with the work.

I was in awe of this creative and collaborative play that spanned between age levels and different times during the day. In this authentic, child-created context, students approached their learning with enthusiasm. In addition to developing their fine motor skills, our students communicated effectively, relying on their social skills as they worked courteously with one another. They assumed different roles, such as lead baker or cashier, to ensure the smooth running of the bakery.

At American International School Lusaka we believe students need to have regular opportunities to engage in tactile, sensory experiences in their natural surroundings. Upon student request, last year we built a large sandbox measuring 16 square meters around an old tree, providing shade as students play. In this space students experience intrinsic satisfaction and form positive relationships with peers. Adults rarely intervene to settle disputes, rather students self-regulate and support each other when there is conflict. Conflict, for example, when someone accidentally splatters mud on a friend or breaks another child’s mud sculpture. Students are conscious of their actions and consider how their movements and decisions could impact others. Our students demonstrate they are capable and confident learners who enjoy engaging in self-initiated and very messy play. During each of the break times, and even after school, students imagine, design, collaborate, regulate their behavior, and have fun at the Old Oak Bakery.

Chye is currently the PYP coordinator and assistant principal at the American International School Lusaka in Zambia. She has taught at IB world schools in Leipzig, Germany, Dhaka, Bangladesh and is in her ninth year in Africa. She is passionate about inquiry based learning and is inspired by children’s creative instincts, especially when they engage in their natural surroundings. You can follow her on Twitter @ c_deryckel.