Why Every Kindergarten and First-Grade School Day Should Begin with Inquiry and Imaginative Play

Setting the Tone for the Day.

Heinemann Publishing
Jun 5, 2018 · 11 min read

By Olivia Wahl

Photo by Myles Tan

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” -Fred Rogers

I recently attended an opening reception for world-renown artist Simon Dinnerstein’s exhibit The Lasting World: Simon Dinnerstein and the Fulbright Triptych. While I stood surrounded by a phenomenal collection of his art, I was inspired by the emotion each piece evoked, feeling grateful that I was privy to the background stories of various pieces in the exhibit. One of my favorite paintings, called Night, captures a room full of young children with paper bag masks, each interacting with their mask in different ways. This painting has lingered with me since . . . thinking about how children innately transform inanimate objects into their storytelling props with the power of their imaginations.

The same evening, I also had the privilege of meeting one of my mentors, Renée Dinnerstein, a leader in early childhood education and inquiry-based, guided play. Her book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK–2, was published by Heinemann in August 2016, yet I have read and followed Renée’s blog, Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play, for years. She has an endless passion for children exploring and learning about the world around them through choice time. Renée’s charge has fueled me to reach out to school districts I support, advocating for more time within the school day to be carved and prioritized where children can experience this kind of learning. Play is learning. Children’s choices are their voices.

I am writing this article to validate and be a voice for like-minded educators and families who want their children to have more time during the school day for inquiry and imaginative play. There are copious amounts of research to support the importance of brain development through play-based learning. I include a list of favorite articles, blogs, videos, and documents at the end of this article. We need to take the mission of ensuring there is time for play to the next level, though. I propose our children’s school days begin with inquiry and play in the classroom — setting the tone for the day.

Imagine our youngest learners’ days beginning with time to “develop self-regulation; language; cognition; social competence; opportunities to explore the world safely; emotional control; symbolic and problem-solving abilities; emerging skills . . . play is the engine that drives their learning” (NAEYC2009). When I taught kindergarten, I would always hold an hour for imaginative play at the end of each day. Now, in retrospect, I hear Renée’s voice. She shared with me that she always began her days with choice time and play for many reasons but especially because she never wanted to hold that time over a child as a possibility to lose depending on their choices as the day evolved. How beautiful would it have been for my kindergartners (who were also all English language learners) to begin each day developing their voices and using this time as a springboard for writing ideas later in the day?

As a mom, I lived the nightmare of my older son having an incredibly rich play-based prekindergarten experience, only to go on to kindergarten being expected to sit still and comply with filling in worksheets at a desk or sitting for extensive periods. An article, written by Bill Murphy Jr. in early 2017 explains.

Now researchers say that mistake leads up into a three-pronged, perfect-storm of problems:

  • We overprotect kids, trying to keep them safe from all physical dangers — which ultimately increases their likelihood of real health issues.
  • We inhibit children’s academic growth (especially among boys), because the lack of physical activity makes it harder for them to concentrate.
  • When they fail to conform quietly to this low-energy paradigm, we over-diagnose or even punish kids for reacting the way they’re naturally built to react.

We must have a mindset shift in this country. A shift from seeing schools as buildings that children attend to understand reading, writing, math, and social sciences to schools as part of our communities where children develop understandings of the world around them and social-emotional skills that will help them thrive and communicate their ideas with others. I truly believe if there is not ample time allotted for our children to begin every day exploring, playing, and building social awareness, we are failing them.

I ask — is our goal as educators to develop and nurture our youth to become curious, empathetic, imaginative, flexible, resilient people or products of a program-based, test-driven society, where individuality and questioning are sometimes labeled as “behavior problems”? Deborah Meier’s words could not ring truer for me: “You cannot prepare kids for democracy unless they experience living in a democracy.” If we know a concentrated amount of uninterrupted time for exploratory play is crucial to young learners’ development and understanding of democracy in action, how can we ensure it occurs daily? A group of phenomenal educators speak to the value of play-based learning in a video clip entitled “Creating Citizens for the World — Early Educators Speak Out.”

In December 2017, Susan Ochshorn, joined the Network for Public Education (NPE) Board of Directors. Susan’s bio describes her as “a writer, policy analyst, and one of the nation’s leading activists for the whole child.” In her recent article “A Battle for the Heart and Soul of Public Education,” she recounts that over time, “Drills, scripted teaching and standardized testing threatened our national genius for inventiveness. We had entered risky terrain, five-year-olds deemed failures before they reached kindergarten. We knew that flexibility, perseverance, empathy, curiosity, social awareness, and resilience are best developed in exploratory play, yet these qualities were now missing from the lives of growing numbers of our youngest citizens.”

With all of this said, my youngest son, his classmates, and I have a gift this school year — the gift of learning from and with a magnificent kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Mary Anne Camel. Mary Anne is an educator who honors each child in her classroom community for their strengths and coaches them with her sharp wit, humor, and soft kindness all at the same time. She recognizes that children grow and develop through conversation and unstructured play and builds just over an hour a day of choice time, or as she calls it, “I can” time, into each morning.

After morning meeting, children gather around the meeting area rug waiting to decide where their “I can” journey will begin. They pick and choose the play area they want to visit and explore based on whether there are popsicle sticks left in the pocket with a picture of the center (see Figure 1). Children are grouped by weather features in case Mary Anne wants to work with them around a particular need during that time in a small group.

Figure 1

I was beyond impressed to observe children negotiating with each other when there was a play area they wanted to visit that did not have popsicle sticks available. The children use “I messages” to share how they are feeling and why they would like to explore that area (e.g., I feel . . . when . . . ). Children often used the clock as a tool saying, “I will switch stations when the big hand is on the six from being on the five now.” Of course, there were times when a child did not want to leave for another and most often acceptance followed. The time and care that Mary Anne invests into coaching the children around negotiating, sharing, and sacrificing at times for the greater good of the whole is an investment that will stay with them the rest of their lives.

Mary Anne’s wonderful play offerings change over the year and coach into life lessons. Some of them have included:

  • Play Area: Veterinary Clinic (Figures 2–5) Life Lesson: All creatures need to be cared for.
Figure 2
Figures 3–5
  • Play Area: Creating Art Like Our Favorite Illustrators (Figures 6–7) Life Lesson: We can reduce, reuse, and recycle to create art
Figures 6–7
  • Play Area: Creating Buildings Like Architects (Figures 8–9) Life Lessons: Per-se-ver-ance… try, try, try again!
Figure 8
Figure 9
  • Play Area: Rereading and Retelling Favorite Books (Figure 10) Life Lesson: A good book can be reread many times and should be shared.
Figure 10
  • Play Area: Word Study (Figure 11) Life Lesson: Letters build words and words build sentences to share our messages with readers.
Figure 11
  • Area: Calm Down Space (Figure 12) Life Lesson: Keep calm, carry on, and just breathe.
Figure 12
  • Area: Snack (Figure 13) Life Lesson: Breaking bread with good friends and conversation makes life taste sweeter.
Figure 13

I believe the entirety of a prekindergartner’s day should be based on inquiry and imaginative play-based learning experiences, yet how can we also make this a reality for other young learners within elementary schools?

The table below represents how I may design a six-and-a-half-hour kindergarten and first-grade day:

I end where I began, hoping you will join me on this journey with many others that believe our kindergarteners’ and first graders’ days should begin with inquiry and imaginative play as an early foundation fabricated from life’s lessons. And, it is with both awe and deep gratitude that I say thank you. Thank you to Mary Anne Camel and to all other educators that hold beginning our youngest learners’ days with imaginative play and choice time sacred. You alone are helping the next generation develop their voices and become the compassionate, inclusive, curious, and loving adults we need now in this world more than ever.

Below find some of my favorite resources to support imaginative play and inquiry in your school communities:



Video Clips


PDF Files

Works Cited

Dinnerstein, Renée. 2016. Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK–2. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ochshorn, Susan. 2017. “A Battle for the Heart and Soul of Public Education: Dueling Memoirs Offer Contrasting Visions of Public Schools, Childhood and the Importance of Democracy.” AlterNet, December 15, 2017. https://www.alternet.org/battle-heart-and-soul-public-education.

Gordon Biddle, Kimberly A., Ana G. Garcia-Nevarez, Wanda J. Roundtree Henderson, and Alicia Valero-Kerrick. 2013. “Play and Learning Environment.” In Early Childhood Education: Becoming a Professional. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2009. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/PSDAP.pdf

Murphy Jr., Bill. 2017. “Want to Raise Successful Boys? Science Says Do This (but Their Schools Probably Won’t).” Inc., January 6, 2017. https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/want-to-raise-successful-boys-science-says-do-this-but-their-schools-probably-wo.html

Olivia Wahl

Olivia Wahl has been an educator for over twenty years. She provides PreK-8 staff development in literacy instruction, focusing much of her time in school districts in New York, New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina and Washington. Olivia has participated in coaching groups with the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. Olivia has led institutes for teachers nationwide. Institutes have focused on helping teachers establish structures and routines needed for successful launching and sustainability of reader’s and writer’s workshops. She supports teachers with matching students to texts, conferring and using assessments to drive instruction and support responsive teaching. Olivia advocates for planning immersion through various balanced literacy components and reconceptualizing the Gradual Release of Responsibility to enhance student voice and engagement.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store