My wife and I like our brussels sprouts and lately our local grocer has been selling them bundled in green plastic mesh bags, which are not the kinds of things middle class bag ladies throw out, so a fistful of them came to school with me a few weeks ago. As I juggled stuff to unlock the door, I must have dropped them on the ground in the outdoor classroom, forgetting about them entirely until they turned up as a central element in one of the children's games.
Honestly, I can't recall what the bags represented for the kids, but wearing them over your head made you some sort of character that was involved in the capturing (or perhaps recruitment) of monsters. Or maybe it made you a monster -- something like that.
And because I'd eaten my veggies and accidentally dropped these bits of refuse (which otherwise probably would have found their way into the collage box) we got several solid days of intensive dramatic play centered around our homemade playhouse and a random ball of yarn from a project undertaken months ago, left behind, and recently re-discovered.
I'm pretty sure the yarn was intended to keep monsters out, but again it was their game, they didn't appear to be treating anyone unkindly, so I did what every adult ought to do, made like a monster and kept out of it, which explains why I really don't know.
This game, which took place over the course of many hours and several days, involved about a third of the kids and tons of sentences that started with the real magic word: "Let's" (e.g. "Let's pretend . . ." "Let's make . . ." "Let's find . . ."). It was a game with rules we adults cannot fathom, an aesthetic we don't get, and a trajectory as unpredictable as real life.
My second recent stroke of genius in planning a play-based curriculum was having parents who, while waiting for our 3-5 class to return from a field trip, worried that the gusty wind was going to carry away our portable canopy, so they employed the telescoping legs on the thing to lower it out of the direct wind.
Before the Pre-3 class arrived the following day, I contemplated raising it again, but got busy with something and forgot all about it. This was the second time in a very short time span during which I revealed my curriculum planning genius through the simple act of forgetting.
Upon discovering this apparatus thus transformed, the children crowded around, fascinated with being able to touch the roof, stretching their bodies and standing on toes to reach it. It didn't seem quite fair when a few of the shorter ones were unable to reach it, so we brought out a step ladder.
Some just climbed to the top, touched the canvas, then climbed back down. Others carried up cars or ballerina figures to drive or dance up there. One guy took the chance to give the canopy a good sweeping.
Others just hung out, enjoying the view.
It only took a few minutes for adults to help them get the idea of one-at-a-time and not pushing.
So listen up all you young teachers out there, that's how you do planning for a play-based curriculum: forget about things then take credit for what the children do with your mistakes.
And for anyone who wants/needs to know what is really going on when children engage in this kind of unstructured play (with adults only stepping in to help when things get unkind or potentially dangerous) here's a terrific video from Dr. Christine Carter of the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. I was particularly struck by what she has to say about the impact of unstructured play, or lack thereof, on emotional regulation.