What's the Plus?
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What's the Plus?

Creating a Play-Based Learning Environment to Make Learning Accessible for All

By Alli Bizon

“So, what do we know about the ocean?” I asked my group of kindergarteners from the West Side of Chicago. We were about to learn about marine life, and I wanted to gauge their background knowledge. “I dunno. I’ve never been to the ocean … not even the lake,” Tyler said, referring to Lake Michigan, located just a few miles from our school. I looked to the other children who were nodding in agreement. My school serves 95% low-income families, and this was not the first time that the children in my class had little background experience with the content we were studying.

It was clear to me at that moment that what they needed was to get a sense of the deep blue sea through hands-on exploration. What better way to do that than through play? Young children learn best when they can construct their learning of new concepts through joyful investigation. A few days later, I observed Taliyah and Jackie looking at the ocean books I placed in the dance area. Jackie picked up the play scarves, twirling them around her body. “Look, look at my long arms,” she said as Taliyah pointed to the jellyfish in the book. I picked up multiple scarves and joined in, “My tentacles are floating in the ocean,” embedding the language into our play. I then gave my students photographs of various marine life and placed them in the art center. As we studied the colors and shapes in the picture, I provided more language to connect to their illustrations. “Oh, I see you added those long lines for the jellyfish, just like the tentacles in these photographs.”

Despite years of research demonstrating the long-term beneficial effects of play-based learning, this type of learning environment is not always available for all children. This is especially true in schools serving low-income children. It’s time we rethought our approach to play. In a recently published brief, Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellows recommend bringing play based learning into all kindergarten classrooms in Illinois, structuring an hour of uninterrupted self-initiated play by the child and an hour of guided play directed by the educator.

Through play, young children learn how to get along and interact with others, skills necessary for school readiness. They build positive relationships among peers and with their teacher, growing their social emotional skills. With my guidance, the children in my classroom also learn how to build impulse control and problem-solve, skills known to bring long term academic achievement. Through play, I model how to identify feelings and react to conflicts by posing questions and teaching students to foster finding solutions and develop coping skills. Through play, my students also expand their mathematical and spatial skills. They build patience, understand cause and effect, and resilience, all skills needed for the academic learning process beyond kindergarten.

While play-based learning may seem daunting to implement, schools and teachers foster success with a few practices.

  • Ensure that play-based learning incorporates a mixture of child-directed activities, where the educator serves as observer and play partner, learning about the children’s interests, designing lessons based on this play, and then directing activities in small or whole groups aligned to learning objectives.
  • Put in place ongoing training that offers research-based practices for implementing play-based learning including setting goals for the children and creating appropriate observational recordkeeping. This will ensure that teachers are able to facilitate practices with support of the administrators.
  • Create a classroom environment that provides opportunities for inquiry-based learning including manipulatives, relevant picture books, and open-ended materials for construction, experiments, and art extensions. This could include out of classroom engagement such as field trips, guest speakers, and home projects.
  • Engage students in conversations driven by open-ended questions and with ample time to pause for students to process and providing vocabulary facilitates language development.

Despite living 800 miles from the ocean, my students developed real connections to their learning through the power of play, the best tool for educators to use to make learning accessible for all.

Alli Bizon teaches 1st-3rd grade at Suder Montessori Magnet School in Chicago. She is a 2021–2022 Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Policy Fellow.

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