On this particular spring morning in Lea Karr’s Primary School class, groups of her five- and six-year old students are given a choice of activities — painting, constructing, decorating, creating — to do together after deciding on a common goal.
One small group decides to decorate the wall with eggs, flowers, grass, and baskets.
“We should put the grass down here, but make sure none of the wall is showing,” says one Grade 1 boy. “Then I think we can put this paper here to make a ledge.” His classmate looks over at him, a bit confused. “No, I don’t think it will work that way,” she says. “It won’t hold anything.” He looks at her, the paper, the wall, and realizes she might be right. “But we could put this egg there instead,” she says.
This is play. And it’s the work of children. Whether it’s blocks, dolls, dirt, or a slide, children will make every attempt to turn anything and everything into a play moment. And it is through play – especially with others – that children learn to be social, communicate, manage time, research, and think.
It is through play – especially with others – that children learn to be social, communicate, manage time, research, and think.
“Children learn so many important ideas, facts, and principles that they transfer into other areas of their lives,” says Gioia Morasch, FIS IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) Coordinator. “There’s lots of research that backs the movement of play, and we are becoming more mindful in addressing the need for play with our young learners.”
In many classrooms around the world, including here in Germany, play is the main focus of early childhood education, incorporating unstructured activities and an abundance of outdoor play. The American Academy of Pediatrics also agrees that play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development, and newly published research by the Lego Foundation suggests children should learn mainly through play until the age of eight.
However, despite the research findings on the importance of play, on a global level, play is decreasing in early childhood education. Educators are concerned about the decline of play. Due to pressures to focus more on academics and an increased use of technology, children are playing less.
FIS Primary School Principal Caroline Joslin-Callahan agrees that play is key to early childhood education. “It’s the natural way that children learn about the world and social relationships. We are creating a setting that values and nurtures children’s play while introducing them to literacy, mathematics and units of inquiry that expand their repertoire in ways they play and learn.”
Do You Want to Play Today?
Ms. Joslin-Callahan and her team first heard about the Global School Play Day last year. Established in 2015, this one day is set aside for unstructured play, with teacher supervision, in order to highlight the importance of play in children’s development. This past February, the FIS Primary School joined over half a million students from 72 nations for the Global Play Day. During the morning-long session, Primary School children chose how to structure their time – where, with whom, and for how long to play. Teachers were silent observers or moderators within the school and outside on the playground.
“We had two main goals,” said Ms. Joslin-Callahan,”To provide the opportunity for children to make decisions and allow them to play across age groups.” In planning their time, the children had to consider when to get their snacks, go to the toilet, and get outdoor clothes on for the playground. It was clear that the children are far more independent than we give them credit for.”
The students could decide between technology and construction activities in the Makerspace, German board games and puzzles in the German classrooms, stories in the library, Lunar New Year activities in the Learning Center, obstacle courses in the gym, and many other open-ended opportunities across the Primary School. “There was an initial burst of activity when the Play Day started and children made their choices, but it soon settled into currents of movement with children deciding on their next stations,” Ms. Joslin-Callahan said.
Let’s Play Every Day
Student feedback for Play Days has been a mix of enthusiasm and excitement and Ms. Joslin-Callahan says students continually ask her when the next Play Day will take place.
“I loved Play Day,” said Grade 1 student Rowan Foehrkolb. “We got to go wherever we wanted. It’s important to test out new things.” Rowan’s classmate, Carolina Schwarz, added, “I liked [Play Day] because I could play the whole day with Valentina,” her sister who is in First Steps.
Because students are separated by grade level, it’s not often they get to see friends from the bus or their siblings during the day. Becoming familiar with different classrooms and other children will make transition to the next grade level easier, according to Ms. Joslin-Callahan. “Play Days are beneficial because students get to play in mixed-age groups, perhaps with a sibling, or meet new friends from other classes, expose themselves to new surroundings, and have some choice,” Ms. Karr agrees. “It’s also nice for teachers to see past students and observe groupings that might work well for placements in the coming school year.”
Clean Up Time? Let’s Keep Playing
Due to the success of the initial Play Day, the Primary School team decided just one day wasn’t enough so they planned five for the current school year instead. “It will take some time before the idea of unstructured play becomes routine,” says Ms. Morasch. “But the school has grown in its acknowledgement of the importance of play.”
FIS educators are continually working to balance parent expectations with best practices and sound pedagogical research. As these Play Days improve and evolve, parents and students – including Grades 2 through 5 – may experience more opportunities for free play both inside and outdoors.
- Outdoor Learning