“But What Do I Do About the Kids Who” … Why Play is the Answer, Not the Problem

The benefits of play for children’s learning and development are well researched and articulated across international literature.  So much so that teachers and play advocates are enthusiastically inspired to establish environments that support child-led play experiences at school and look forward to what will transpire.

But the reality of child-led play means times of conflict, silliness, damage, noise, and mess.  We often meet teachers who have started with great enthusiasm only to have the rose-coloured glasses quickly fog up and swiftly removed.  Complaints include resources being left outside at the time of pack up, or left damaged; children unable to share or negotiate with others; creations failing or breaking leading to upset children, and looks of disdain from colleagues as children whoop and yahoo through the playground during class time.   These frustrations often lead to teachers thinking that their play environment is not working, or that play doesn’t ‘fit’ the school system.  At worst, ongoing challenges lead to play being restricted or even shut down because the children struggle to ‘behave’ in a play setting.

While these complaints highlight challenges that teachers face when supporting child-led learning, they also demonstrate that the environment is providing exactly the kind of learning the children need as they play.  That the very outcomes play provides are occurring in the classroom as children play. In a play-based classroom, opportunities to support the development of executive functioning skills, social interaction, and self-regulation are endless.  In fact, they are kind of the point.  When teachers face challenges, such as children in conflict with others, rather than being viewed as a reason to restrict play opportunities, teachers can celebrate the opportunity to intentionally teach and coach the development of the skills children need to navigate the issue at hand.

Those who understand the power of play recognise that children learn a depth of skill and disposition that traditional classroom programs simply do not have the time to deeply support.  With traditional curriculum foci on core subjects like reading, writing, and maths, and wider subjects such as science and PE, the deliberate, evidence-based teaching of skills such as social problem-solving, emotional regulation, task organisation, negotiation, and self-management have been left to ‘in-the-moment’ teacher responses.  While the New Zealand Curriculum boasts a focus on key competencies and values, alongside the subject learning areas, the nature of a packed curriculum, pressures of assessment and reported outcomes, and time as a precious commodity means that the intentional and thoughtful teaching of these becomes secondary to the requirements of the core subjects.

Every problem or challenge that arises in a play-based classroom should be viewed as the children’s to solve and not that of the teacher.  When a teacher finds themselves frustrated over a repeated pattern of unwanted behaviour in the classroom, time should not be spent on how they, the teacher, will solve it.  Rather, time should be given to how they will present the problem to the class for the children to solve instead.  The more active children are in the problem-solving process, the more ownership they will have in the solutions and consequences of their choices.  When children lead their own learning through play, every interaction is a point of learning – even the not-so-easy moments as well.  When a solution is required from the children – and not the teacher – the environment reflects an important characteristic of well-functioning play spaces.  That the rules and structures of play are established by the players themselves.  And when solutions are established and agreed upon by the children, consequences for not following the agreement are more readily enforced and accepted.

But what about the expectations and rules of the school around these players? How do these fit alongside opportunities for children to create their own rules and expected behaviours in their play?  Why is it not ok to damage property in search for the best tree to climb, or garden to dig up?  Is it ok to make whooping loud siren noises outside classrooms that are working quietly and studiously in another area of the school?

Here lies the role of the teacher in a play setting.  Child-led learning is not the absence of respect or the ignoring of the impact of one’s behaviour on others in the same shared space.  In fact, some of the deepest learning play can offer is both how children can negotiate their own needs and wants while respecting the impact of these on others.  Young children, often still egocentric in their development, find this a difficult and complicated process to navigate.  Teachers in play act as the guide, supporting children to understand others’ points of view or the impact of their choices on others around them.  By coaching young children to walk through various scenarios, or understand the consequences of proposed solutions – over time – the ability to see perspective and develop empathy grows.  When children understand the why behind some of the rules and expectations in their school environment, they are far more likely to accept and follow them than not.

Play by its very nature is the greatest teacher of human social interaction.  Children, in play, get to practice and develop these interaction skills over and over as they grow.  When we choose to foster play opportunities within the school setting, we accept that it won’t always look pretty, tidy, or pleasant amongst the players.  And that this is exactly why we choose for play to occur.  So that our children get a practice run at life, multiple do-overs, and a chance to develop the very skills needed as adults navigating the complicated world of human interaction.  Rather than see challenges as the reason we shouldn’t have play in our classrooms – the arrival of these problems should be the indicator that play is doing the very thing it is designed to do – provide rich and authentic social learning experiences for all students.