And then, in a workshop, I heard a teacher ask "But isn't a worksheet just as good?" And it hit me that there is a LOT of work to be done, if there are still teachers who can't see the benefits of hands-on-learning over worksheets. If we as teachers don't see, or can't explain, the value of play-based learning, how do we expect parents or administrators to see it?
This is my version of a quote from Plato, I think he would have agreed with the sentiment ;)
Center Signs. I use the signs to mark each center and as a center management tool. At the bottom of my signs I place small stickers. Those stickers correspond to the maximum number of students allowed in that particular center - generally either 2 or 4. When the children get to the center, they use their clothespin to cover up a sticker. When all the stickers are covered, the other children know that the center is full and they have to find another center to play in.
Center Signs is because each one has a section of "I am:" statements describing the learning taking place in that individual center. If you've ever had a discussion and then later on thought, "Oh! I wish I had remembered to say this." or "If only I had told them that." you'll know why I have those "I am" statements on my signs. They're my own little cheat sheets.
Center Signs helps me make sure that whenever someone asks about what the children are doing at a center, I can put together an articulate answer that will at least give them something to think about before declaring that my students shouldn't be doing so much "playing."
The other thing I think we need to do, as educators, is to examine the play we see in our classrooms and identify the learning taking place for ourselves. This is great for anecdotal records and informal documentation. Instead of writing "Timmy played at Block Center today." which gives absolutely no indication that any learning took place, instead you have to be able to observe and then record exactly what was going on.
To help myself with that skill this summer, I've been watching my youngest son (22 months) play. I try to catch him when he's absorbed in self-directed play so that I can see what ideas and skills he's trying on his own. I took the following video and then picked it apart:
What would I be able to tell an administrator who came to me wanting justification of why I let Sully play instead of trying to teach him letters and sounds?
He's also experimenting with gravity - he's learned that if he drops something, it falls, and thus he has his figures "jump" off the stand. He repeats the jumping several times, with one and two figures, learning that gravity is constant. He knows that when he drops the figures they will land on the shelf below, and thus looks at the shelf and claps when the figures do what he expects them to do. At the 1:30 mark he drops a figure and it bounces to the floor. He briefly takes a seat to consider this surprise, and then stands up to experiment again.
He's developing his fine motor skills while manipulating the figures into and out of the cockpit and grasping them in his fingers as he moves them around. He's also developing gross motor skills - squatting, sitting, stretching, reaching - building strong core muscles as well as fine tuning control of his arms and legs.
He's increasing his vocabulary and story-telling abilities too. Although it's a simple story - men getting out of a ship and jumping off a cliff, he's practicing lots of the phrases that he knows. "Ready, go!" is one of his favorites. He's using his imagination by making up dialogue for his "bad guy" and "Dobby". As he has the figures fight about some issue, he's also exploring relationships and power dynamics - will the bad guy win or will "Dobby" prevail?
He even pauses for a moment to check on the hermit crabs - noticing that they're moving and commenting with "Crabs?" to verify that these creatures are indeed called "crabs". Although I try to coax him into a further interaction with the crabs, once I confirm the name, he loses interest. (The crabs spend the school year in my classroom, so they've only been home a few weeks.) Although he was distracted by the crabs, he quickly refocuses on the task at hand and continues with what he was doing before the interruption thus showing he is able to sustain his attention.
Although Sully's play isn't as sophisticated as the play you will see in a pre-k or K classroom, I think you get the basic idea. It's important to be able to watch children at play and be able to pick out the various skills that they are working on. If you can't do that, then when someone says "Isn't a worksheet just as good?" you'll be hard pressed to defend play. It's also a good idea to videotape each of your centers at some point (I recommend not letting students know you're taping them to make sure you're recording authentic play - Sully is too young to care about the camera, but older children might change their play if they know the teacher is filming).
First and foremost you should tape so that you know that the purpose of your center is being met even when you are not standing right there. Your students in Listening Center should be listening to, and discussing, a story - not talking about what movie they want to go see. Once you're assured that students are engaged in the kind of play you envisioned, make sure that you can identify all of the learning involved in that center. Practice justifying it to an imaginary administrator.
It is incredibly important to read the articles and know that play-based learning is backed by research, but handing an administrator an article is probably not going to convince him or her that your students need more center time and less teacher-led instruction time. However, being able to show that administrator what play-based learning looks like in your classroom and being able to tell him what is being learned at any given center, may make all the difference! If we want to keep play in the classroom, we have to be able to defend it!