For the majority, I believe as teachers there are those fleeting moments where we think, “Did I do enough today?”  Of course, the answer is YES and most likely beyond.  I had a real wakeup call when I went from older elementary students to three-year olds.  Some days I have been able to successfully complete work with teacher sessions, circle time, calm center time and in individualized goals.  And then there are the other days when the crying won’t stop, I am running back for a missing harness bus strap, someone takes their shoes off moments before we walk out the door and there is wet noodling onto the floor. I sit down to eat lunch only to have a transition object I’ve shoved in my back pocket leave a nice bruise and only 8 minutes to scarf down food.  On those particularly challenging days I always reflect wondering where I can maximize my students’ learning.

This month we are focusing on play and leisure.  The importance of play at any age should not be forgotten!  Even as adults that buzz word of self-care is transitional to the play element in younger students.  When we look at early childhood programs, play is an incredibly imperative part of a child’s development.  Play allows for natural peer communication and social emotional interactions to occur. However!  It is also very important to note that appropriate play skills do not come naturally to all and must be taught through modeling.  As with everything in my classroom, I try and make each area as efficient and maximized with skills as possible.  

Scheduling Play Time

I feel like more and more play time is dwindling because of the pressures and push of additional academic times.  My young kiddos are only with me for three hours in the morning so trying to fit it all in can be a challenge. I like to schedule in multiple times of play throughout the morning to ensure they are getting enough time.  I have choose time, outdoor recess (and activities for indoor for inclement weather), and centers.

Choose time (between 25-30 minutes as students finish breakfast, bathroom, unpack)

When students first arrive in the morning, they have the choice to eat breakfast and then engage in choose time which is a period where select toys are available.  I try to switch these up when needed but in general, they are quick basket toys, chalk for our table, puzzles, books, and two small play houses.  They’re easy to clean up and several students can use them at a time.  I like this time of morning because it allows the kiddos to settle, freely interact and have some extra fun before the day really begins.

Outdoor recess (between 30-40 minutes):

While self-explanatory, this period in our day is so incredibly golden to us.  If it doesn’t happen due to inclement weather my kiddos seem to crawl out of their skin, and everything seems a bit more heightened. We go outside for at least 30 minutes if not longer if it’s beautiful weather.  I love getting to work with kids on the playground, it’s not just about using the equipment.  We model how to chase each other, ask others to play, patience using the equipment and conflict resolution.  It is amazing to see how far they have come since September.  I now have students who make eye contact with me and others as way to ask to be chased.  I have one little girl who now runs after the other little girls and will say “Whee” down the slide.  One other student will now count down and wait to take his turn instead of pushing others off of the equipment.  This came with SO much modeling of turn taking, communication and appropriate play.  For students who are currently nonverbal, it’s important to say out loud what you think they would be saying.  For example, if a student approaches me on the playground and takes me to the slide, instead of asking, “What do you want to play?”, I say, “Oh you want to go DOWN the slide!” Before we go down, I might say, “go go go!” and then “wheeeeeee or down we go”.  Over time our students started imitating and then spontaneously saying these cues.   I also make sure that I try and pair my peer models with my students with needs to make sure they’re really playing together for at least 10-15 minutes daily.     

Centers (between 25-30 minutes)

The structure of my centers time has changed multiple times because the need in my classroom has increased. Thanks to an outside pair of eyes, we realized that our students were not truly interacting with each other and some were floating around.  We now pair them up and choose a center.  An adult will float between a few centers making sure students are interacting with each other.  We model asking for toys instead of snatching and pushing, how to play with the toys and communicating with others (ie: I like your painting, Knock down tower, Open the doors!)

 Setting Up Play Areas

Just like my centers, my play areas have changed based on need.  September 3rd, I had beautifully lined shelves of toys, pristine books and gorgeous natural wooden blocks. By September 3rd at 8:25am I learned that was a little over ambitious.  I had to scale way back, add way more structure and rethink the toys I had out.  If you find that toys are just being dumped, thrown, stepped on and not being used properly think about providing only the bare minimum for a while.  I now only have two small baskets of kitchen supplies, a few dress up outfits, a small basket of blocks, Legos and dinosaurs and a wooden train spot.  I also spread them out more as our class size grew and kids were stepping over each other which never ends well!  If you’re having issues, check your space, type of toys and always teach kiddos how to use them before just handing them out.

Connecting Standards to Play

Next time I will dive deeper into social foundations and connecting them to play.  For now, allowing kids to have free play is so important however there is no reason why you cannot spiral some skill building into those times.  If you look at the earliest level of development in the Early Learning Standards, they revolve around the skill of attending.  We have two kiddos who tend to float around centers and not really engage with others.  It is important to find a way to include all kids and teach them how to attend to others. With those students I will have them knock over a block tower or use my core board to model certain words within a center.  Model early learning skills such as colors and shapes… “look at me! I put the red block on the blue block”, “Wow that is a BIG tower”.  Some days it may feel like they are not listening or soaking in the modeling but they are, keep doing it over and over!    

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed

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