Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Teaching A Play Based Curriculum


Recently, Emily over at thenaturalplayground, posted under the title: Is Free Play "Teaching?" I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the question even before reading the piece, which is excellent, to the point, and well worth a read:

The only response I can give is that the children learn for themselves. I am there to help them discover. I cannot tell them what they should be learning.

Anyone who has read here for long, can imagine how loudly I'm applauding her. I might even be the annoying guy who's whistling through his teeth!


As Emily points out, a play based curriculum challenges the conventional knowledge about what teaching is. As I thought about the question in the title before reading her post, hoping her answer was going to be what it was, I began to think about what it actually is that I do in my role as a play based teacher. It occurs to me that we might all answer that question differently. I thought I'd share with you how I see it, at least this morning, sitting here on the second day of my spring break.


Every day, I strive to make sure we have some way for kids to build stuff. Usually that means some sort of blocks. I also want there to be a sensory exploration going on, an art project, a couple fine motor activities, something over which to puzzle, and at least a few conversation starters. I try to make sure there's a place to learn with one's whole body, a way to get messy, and plenty of prompts for sentences that begin with the words, "Let's play a story. . ."


I strive each day to set up an environment offering opportunity, challenge, and questions, one that is both a continuation of the day before, while also offering plenty that is new. 


Some days I think of myself as a kind of artist as I arrive at school each morning, starting out with a used canvas, one that no matter how well I prime it will always show shadows of what's been painted on it before, so I use those shadows as a way to create something new, or more accurately, something very old to which I hope the children will be drawn. 


Sometimes I'm a shopkeeper, pulling certain merchandise to the front of the shelves, creating displays to catch my customers' eyes, marking things down that are taking up too much space in the storeroom. 


Sometimes I'm a mad scientist, throwing things together that don't belong together, clashing things that surprise and disorient, and make children ask, "Why is this here?" I make an hypothesis about what might happen here or there, with this or that, then prepare myself for those eventualities, but without wedding myself to them, because I know there's always the risk, if I'm not careful, that I will try to force my guesses onto the children, preventing the experiment from teaching the children what they seek to know.


Sometimes I'm a games master, sometimes I'm an interior decorator, sometimes I'm a child myself creating a certain type of wonderland.


This is the work of a teacher in a play-based curriculum, at least as I do it. Sometimes it's a joy, sometimes it's a pain in the neck. 


Once the children arrive it's up to them to play in the environment I've created; to get themselves educated. As for me, I try to play with them, to get into their flow. If I've done it right, the set up has created a "safe enough" environment, one with natural boundaries, but plenty of opportunities to fail. As the older, wiser playmate, it's my role then to help these younger children, not to direct them, but to help them do what they are trying to do or go where they're trying to go. I might share my ideas and observations, but they are like any other "loose part" that is strewn about our outdoor classroom, something to be picked up and used or not.


One thing I don't do is decide what the children will learn on this or any day. That's not the job of a teacher in a play-based curriculum, that's the job of the children. My job is to create an environment, then play with them in it, helping them, but only when they really need it.


How do you define teaching in a play based curriculum? I'll bet there are as many answers as there are teachers.


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21 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Bravo!

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

I'll have to think on this! Ontario has introduced "Full Day Early Learning"...which boasts about "play-based learning"...it's all accompanied by dense curriculum guidelines and report cards. A new policy is travelling down the tubes: "Success by Six" (which means "they" want all of the children reading at a specific "level" by the age of six).
It's all very disheartening. It seems the adults in charge have hijacked the word "play" to describe their version of achieving their goals (ie. documented evidence of "success"), at the cost of our children's childhood right to play. Thanks again for more food for much thought and reflection. Enjoy your break!

Teacher Tom said...

@NGH . . . Alfie Kohn recently wrote an article in which he addressed exactly that issue: how many schools have adopted the language of "play," but using it as a kind of disguise to dress up the same old directive approach. Our message is a compelling one, at least to parents and teachers, they see this, and are attempting to co-opt it.

Anne Made said...

Before I started researching preschool's, I was completely against play based learning. I figured my kids could learn that way at home and what was the point of paying for it. But after doing the research and reading your blog and attending RTG this past year I am so excited we found a preschool that is perfect for our daughter and will continue to be great for our other kids. Wish we could send them to your school but we're out near Fall City. We have to settle for hoping to catch glimpses when we go to the zoo.

Claire Lowery said...

My head had just about wobbled off after all the nodding your blog caused!! Yes, yes and yes! That IS what teaching is all about and I feel exactly the same! Very often I do have to justify my playing to other collegues but it is easily done when you are backed up with classess of independent, confident and motivated children who have self-knowledge and self-belief! PS Love your outdoor area- I've been after a boat that doesn't float for a long time!

Juliet Robertson said...

I've always believed that children learn in spite of my presence and not always because of it!

Faigie said...

When I was teaching years ago and play based learning became popular I actually found that many teachers used it as a cop out. They did not make many preparations for the environment like you do, just let the children play in the same old environment day after day and claimed the children were learning through their play. There really needs to be a lot of thought and planning put into a successful play based learning program.(as you do)
That being said, there is actually nothing wrong with extending the children's play on to reading, writing and lots of art as is done in the Reggio Emilia programs is there?

Meagan said...

I've been reading a lot about the Montessori approach lately because we will in all likelihood be sending our son to a Montessori school when he's old enough. Reading your blog, I'm often struck by how the play based approach is simultaneously similar and dissimilar to the Montessori approach. The importance of creating an environment? Check. Formal specific materials? Not remotely.

Meagan said...

That's not a negative statement by the way. We're going with Montessori because that's what's available in our area, but I think both approaches have points in their favor. I just find the contrat interesting.

Teacher Tom said...

I'm not a Montessori trained teacher, Meagan, but I do know a little. Being both similar and dissimilar is "by design" in that what we do is cobble together a curriculum we like -- one that suits our children, their families, and me -- by borrowing from all kinds of places. I tend to favor, for myself, a more free-flowing, "naturalistic" experience than what I think of as Montessori, in which things seem more controlled and step-by-step. I don't think "my way" is better, but I do think it's better for me as a teacher, if only because I am fundamentally at odds with anything that strikes me as institutional . . . You know, I don't like feeling like I'm being "told what to do" and even something as benign as a Montessori curriculum makes me feel that way. =)

Teacher Jessica said...

It is very encouraging and timely for you to have made this post. Since I started my little play-bases preschool class this fall I have occasionally struggled with whether or not I am really earning my keep. I spend such a small proportion of their time with me "teaching" them. Some days I feel almost obsolete! But, that said, I know that it is in the preparation of the room and it's materials for that day that I do most of my teaching, or rather give the kids materials that will teach them. And it is also in my listening and observations that I gain information that will influence what direction I will go eithe at that moment or in our next meeting. Sometimes I feel mostly, and you have mentioned this occasionally as well, that I am scientist studying the learning potentional of various materials and concept on my particular group of kids and that I am charged with close observation and adjustment in order to achieve the greatest results. There! That's what my role is!

mummyzhu said...

hi, may I know how long is the duration of your classes? How do you manage to do so many things with the children each day? I am a stay-at-home-mum with two boys and I would love to incorporate as many elements of play into the day as you suggested. But it seems quite impossible!

Billy said...

Hi.
I'm new to your blog, and love this post :-). I'm hoping to home/unschool my daughter (she's not yet 2) and I'm now in the learning stage :-).

April said...

I'm a mom of two, two and four, and this was soooo inspirational and educative for me.As my childrens teacher and in home provider, this is my curriculum " play based". Your blog reinforced my values and reminded me I am teaching even if it's through environment and play..that this is the best and natural way to learn. Many tell me I'm wasting time or just babysitting...but when I show them everyday activities or photos of play in action they see the lens of a child. Play is a power base for intellectual learning, thinking ,creating....Your blog was such an inspiration thank you!

Miss Roxie said...

WOW! You are implementing my thoughts. It is so good to hear that you care so much for children. I wish there was a clone of you in every childcare center. Our kids would be a lot happier and well adjusted. I have spent over 20years in the pursuit of finding the best care for children. You have it I think. Now to get others in on it. Keep up the GREAT work.

Thank you
"Miss Roxie"

Maxine Horne said...

I work in community arts and I've been struggling with "applied arts" (where people are coming to arts sessions with the goal of learning skills outside of art making). The idea of setting up an environment that facilitates learning but not dictating what that learning will be is key to this work (for me). Do you have any theorists that you use as a springboard or that inspired you when you first started with this approach?

Teacher Tom said...

@Maxine Home . . . The people who inspired me, honestly, were the teachers I worked with in my early years, but as far as theorists, I'd have to go back to the pioneers in progressive education like John Dewey and Piaget.

Teacher Kevin said...

Any ideas on how to bring this approach to learning to Agencies that are goverened by the State and regulations that require teacher to tie learning to forms such as the D.R.D.P. , and on how to educate parents on the importance of "real play" for their children. I believe that we are putting too much emphasis on keeping children safe and preventing them from moving, climbing trees, jumping, and for boys, wrestling and tumbling fun.

Wanda Burton said...

How do you handle clean up?

Teacher Tom said...

Hey Wanda, Heres the URL for a post I wrote on clean-up time. Sorry, blogger doesn't let me post links in the comments: http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/its-not-my-school-its-your-school.html

bellevuetoddlers said...

Thank you for a great post articulating the teacher's role in play-based learning. I linked to it from my blog post, and gathered ideas from it for my class handout on play-based learning and what is the parent or teacher's role in gently stretching play-based learning without disrupting the child's play: http://gooddayswithkids.com/2014/09/24/play-based-learning/

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