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Play Helps Students Learn

Play is an essential part of development – it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.  It is one of the ways humans learn. According to Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child, play is like a ladder of social competencies that are vital to building deep emotional bonds and learning social rules. It begins with ‘goo-gooing’ to the infant, evolving to playing ‘peek a boo’ and then to imaginative play and board games. It involves discovery and brings a sense of joy.  Play is often missing for many children who live with toxic stress or chronic trauma. It is often eliminated in school, even in primary grades, because of increased academic pressure. Many children also spend time “playing” in front of a screen and are missing the experience of playing with other children in real time.  As students play, their brains release the chemical neurotransmitters that support learning, and the ability to feel joy.  Teachers can foster that joy in learning as you build a sense of curiosity, joy and play in the academic and social opportunities you create in your classroom. Here are some ideas.

  • Be excited about learning. Your enthusiasm for your work invites playful engagement.
  • Provide opportunities for students to create and discover together. This can be an opened ended task with a set of manipulatives, a cooperative challenge, or a puzzle to solve.
  • Create a routine for play. Make sure that structured play has a beginning, middle and end.  Use a timer for games.  Explain that when the timer rings, the game is over.  Establish a process for gathering materials and organizing space for play. Use music or sing a song to indicate time to clean up. This helps students understand the order of things and helps with self-regulation.
  • Play with feelings. Facilitate activities and/or role play situations that involve reading the emotions of others, way. Children who have not been exposed to adequate play, have a limited ability to read social cues.
  • Use class meetings. Finish each class meeting with a short interactive game.