Saturday, November 6, 2010

To Play or Not to Play?

Here are some pictures of my students on our first neighborhood walk the other day.

This is what I love about teaching.  Besides good conversations, exciting discoveries, and having fun together, my favorite moments are when we are outside, exploring and discovering, or inside, creating and building. 

Don't get me wrong.  I also love teaching math and reading.  I love watching skills and ideas build and crest and expand.  I love seeing those little, measurable things that kids get better at: subtracting, or reading two-syllable words, or spelling.  That stuff is fun too.

But exploring and creating and discovering and communicating and collaborating -- that is where it's at.

Here's the thing, though.  At my school, we do a lot of traditional teaching.  And we also teach about social justice, and the community, and the environment, and we get kids outside, doing hands-on science and social studies.

But, our kids don't do well on the standardized tests.  They don't do the worst ever, but they don't do well, not by a long shot.  And this despite the fact that we, the teachers, are pretty much killing ourselves trying to find the best ways to teach them.

Here's where it gets tricky.  Our theory is that hands-on, interdisciplinary lessons will make kids want to learn.  It will engage them, and then when we embed writing and reading and math into those units of study, they will be more meaningful, and students will learn and achieve more.

But it doesn't really seem like it's happening.  At least not yet. Now, maybe too many teachers are too new at our school to be good enough at it.  And maybe the problem is that the tests are not measuring what we wish they would measure or what we think is most important.  But the fact remains that the tests must be taken, and the tests must be passed, and more schools are being closed every year in Boston, and the schools being closed are the ones not doing well on the tests. 

Our principal has been suggesting to different teachers, especially those with really struggling classes, that we do less science and social studies.  She's scared and freaked out about the tests.  She's scared into thinking we need to spend more time on traditional teaching of the 3 Rs, which is not where her heart is as an educator.

Meanwhile, I've been learning a lot about self-regulation from a program I'm working for called Tools of the Mind.  Tools believes that kids should have pretty solid self-regulation skills by the middle or end of kindergarten.

Self-regulation means that students can inhibit themselves in order to reach a goal or follow a rule.  It means they can remember things on purpose, and learn strategies to help their brains work better.  It means they understand why there are rules and ways of doing things in a community, and they follow those rules.

There is a lot of research about how students develop self-regulation.  A lot of it comes from make believe play.  When little kids play, they learn to follow rules according to the roles they take on.  They learn to remember things and act in certain ways according to their characters.  They learn language and communication skills from interacting with other children.

The problem is that these days, kids don't play much anymore.  We used to play in our neighborhoods, and have older kids who "mentored" younger kids in how to do good, imaginative play.  Now kids don't play much in their neighborhoods, and they don't do a lot of imagining.  They do a lot of looking at screens.

So Tools of the Mind has kids play, a lot.  In pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, they get a lot of practice with playing, from less- to more-structured play opportunities.  This helps them develop the self-regulation skills that are essential to success in school.

One colleague of mine is skeptical that we should be doing so much science and social studies with our first, second, and third graders when they aren't so good yet at reading and writing and math.  At the same time, she says she thinks our kindergarten is too academic.  She thinks they need to play MORE in pre-K and kindergarten, which would give them more of the academic language and skills they would need to do well in school as they got older.

Her son goes to school in the suburbs.  In his kindergarten, he plays most of the day.  He doesn't do letter sounds or sight words.  Instead, he plays in the kitchen an hour and a half a day, his teacher says.  At first glance, our kindergartners would look to be ahead of him.  But you know that by second grade, he and his classmates will be ahead of our urban students.

There are many reasons they'll be ahead.  A lot of it has to do with exposure to language starting years ago, long before they started school.  But I wonder how much of it has to do with the time they spend playing, too. 

In the second grade, (and third, and fourth, and fifth...) we have many students who don't have self-regulation skills.  They can't manage their emotions or their bodies or their minds.  We are thinking hard about how and what to teach them this year.  Should we do more reading and writing, since they aren't very good at those things?  Or should we do role-playing and building, creating a city (since we study neighborhoods) in our classroom, and then writing about it?

Deep inside, I doubt it is best for kids to spend all day huddled over papers on their desks.  I doubt it is good for teachers either, for any of our souls.  And if it is best for kids to do that, then I can't be their teacher.  My best moments as a teacher are my most relaxed, most improvised, most organic moments, when my students and I connect with each other not just intellectually, but also personally.

The test results of last year's third graders are a dark presence in the corner of my mind, though, as I think through these questions. This year's third grade scores promise to be even lower.  I am sure our kids need to be playing and talking more when they are younger.  The question we are struggling with is what should they be doing more of now?  If it weren't for those tests lurking at the end of next year, I would know my choice.  I don't have a lot of say over what gets tested, though.  Unfortunately, I'm not in charge.


  1. Heidi, I love that you're willing to question how you and your school does things in search of some answers. Hooray for teaching half time and having time to keep up this blog!

  2. These are great questions. There is a lot of research that says kids who get out into nature make better students. That is a little bit peripheral to what you are asking, but it is a parallel.

    Keep questioning. You are good at it.