In primary school classes, the demand for playful learning is growing – MindShift – KQED | Team Cansler

While play-based learning remains relatively rare in elementary school classes, Oklahoma City is among a small number of school districts across the country that are experimenting with more playtime for children as young as 8 or 9 years old. In Watertown, New York, for example, educators have been teaching play in preschool and kindergarten for years, said former superintendent Patti LaBarr, but the district has recently moved to encourage play to older elementary school students as well. And in Austin, Texas, a school official has started training elementary school teachers to use Lego robot toys as a playful learning tool during class time.

A third grade student places the last domino in a row against the edge of a table while playing in Crystal O’Brien’s classroom at Shidler Elementary School in Oklahoma City. (Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report)

The increasing focus on play in older classes isn’t always easy, as teachers struggle with pressure to meet standardized testing assignments and a lack of support from some administrators. But educators who have turned to play-based learning say the approach is particularly helpful now that pandemic-related disorders have left social, emotional and behavioral gaps in students.

It can be difficult to explain what play-based learning looks like, said Mara Krechevsky, a senior researcher at Project Zero, an education research group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. For the past seven years, Krechevsky and her research team have been working on a project called The play pedagogystudies play-based learning at schools in Boston, Denmark, South Africa and Colombia.

Through their research, Krechevsky’s group arrived at three core principles for learning through play: students should be able to direct their own learning, explore the unknown, and find joy. In this framework, playtime doesn’t have to be the reward for getting work done and learning. Gaming can actually be work, Krechevsky said.

Much of the impetus for change in Oklahoma City comes from Stephanie Hinton, who began supervising preschool through second grade in Oklahoma City public schools a few years ago. She knew she wanted to encourage hands-on, play-based learning as much as possible. The approach worked for her as a teacher, and it is proven by research.

At Shidler Elementary, most students are entitled to free and discounted lunches and test scores been historically low. It’s the kind of school where it’s usually difficult to get everyone on board with learning through play, Hinton said. Despite these challenges, gaming has prevailed in classrooms.

“There’s this urge for skill and practice in schools and communities where we’re failing the test,” Hinton said. It’s easy to think that the solution is to assign more homework and send more worksheets home, Hinton added. This is because worksheets are black and white—either the student knows the answer to the assignment questions or they don’t. But Hinton said choking down answers on a piece of paper was not a sign of understanding.

“It’s not authentic, it’s not real learning,” she said. “And we know from research that it basically didn’t take up enough of the brain to keep it learning.”

Crystal O’Brien, center, plays with her third graders during free playtime in her classroom at Shidler Elementary School in Oklahoma City. Free play, in which O’Brien lets students play however they want, is a regular part of her class time. (Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report)

But letting kids learn through play is difficult for educators who have been trained to follow the rules and structure of a traditional school environment to grasp, said Peg Drappo, who directs the Pre-K program at the Watertown City School District in New York . Watertown increased its focus on play-based learning in 2015 when the district received a federal grant that helped expand play in its Pre-K program. In the seven years that have passed, Drappo and the District Superintendent have helped senior grade teachers who have reached out to them about adding play to their own classrooms.

But when she was a primary school principal a few years ago, Drappo didn’t understand what play-based learning should look like. Now, when she speaks about learning through play at conferences, she shares a story about visiting a kindergarten classroom when she was a principal.

“The kids were everywhere, all over the floor, doing things – just like a kindergarten classroom should be. But I didn’t know this world of Pre-K and Play, so I said yes [the teacher]”I’ll come back to your classroom when you’re teaching,” Drappo said. “Now when I walk into a classroom and it’s noisy and a teacher apologizes, I say, ‘Stop apologizing. That’s how it should sound.”

A group of third graders in Crystal O’Brien’s class at Shidler Elementary School in Oklahoma City play with toys during a portion of class time when they are allowed to play as they please. At other times of the day, O’Brien guides students through hands-on lessons. (Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report)

In Oklahoma, play-based learning is also supported by the legislature.

Before he became a teacher, Oklahoma State Assemblyman Jacob Rosecrants, a Democrat, thought that all students were taught through play.

“I became a teacher in 2012 and I realized that’s the way it is [play] not even accepted as a method of learning anymore, even in the younger grades,” Rosecrants said. “Some schools are great at it, but I’m talking about the way I learned — getting outside, playing, exploring — that wasn’t a focus in any of the public schools I went to [as a teacher]. (Rosecrants left classes in 2017 when he was elected to represent Norman, Oklahoma in the State House.)

As a middle school teacher, Rosecrants said, he rebelled against the idea that students should learn through memorization, exercises, and worksheets. In 2021 the Oklahoma Legislature enact a law which encourages the use of games in classrooms from preschool through third grade. The law, written by Rosecrants with bipartisan support, also bans administrators from banning educators from using a gamified approach to teaching.

“I’ve had a lot of teachers ask me to print it out so they can put it up in their classroom because the administrators come in and say, ‘Hey, we have to get to that standard, what are you doing?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, we’re getting to that standard, but we’re doing it [doing it] with blocks,'” Rosecrants said. “I want to add a piece [the law] probably this year… to call for game-based learning training for all administrators from preschool through third grade.”

Educators at Blake Manor Elementary School say students learn important math and problem-solving skills as they build, program and play with robots. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

Some schools try to up the game by turning to STEM-oriented activities, like building robots with Legos. The Manor Independent School District, a district of about 9,000 students east of Austin, Texas, started a robotics program about a decade ago to give students more hands-on learning in the early years of elementary school. For several years, robotics was mostly confined to an after-school program using Lego’s educational products.

Jacob Luevano, the innovative instructional strategist at Manor ISD, said he has worked to train teachers to integrate robotics into their classrooms. “I think we need it now more than ever [playful learning] in the classrooms,” said Luevano.

So far, Luevano has had more success introducing robotics activities into classrooms in kindergarten through second grade than in upper elementary school, which he attributes in part to the pressure of standardized tests beginning in third grade.

A student at Blake Manor Elementary School in Manor, Texas, works on a Lego robotics program during a morning meeting of the school’s robotics club. The Manor Independent School District is trying to increase play opportunities for students through the use of Lego Robotics. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

As children recover from the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, active, play-based learning is more important than ever because it strengthens social and emotional skills, Hinton said in Oklahoma City.

“This isn’t just about playing. This is about relationship building and social-emotional learning,” Hinton said. “Sometimes when an adult loses their mind about something, I’m like, I’m wondering what your gaming behavior was like as a kid?” It helps, she clarifies, if kids have some prior experience of losing in a cooperative setting — be it at Monopoly, Hi Ho! Cherry-O or another game. “How you deal with it says a lot about where you are in your social emotional development,” she said.

There are no desks in O’Brien’s classroom in Oklahoma City. Instead, depending on the activity, students sit at round tables or on a rug in front of the whiteboard.

Recently the class was learning about static electricity. O’Brien set up stations with various objects – balloons, tissues, paper – to show the children how static electricity works.

“I asked them to figure out how to move these different materials without actually touching them,” O’Brien said. After that, she led a discussion about the students’ discoveries and introduced them to some technical, scientific terms.

This year is O’Brien’s first time back at Shidler Elementary. She left the district in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood education and work at a private preschool in Colorado that leverages that Approaching Reggio Emilia to teaching, an Italian-born approach that embraces meaningful play.

Like other game-based programs, Reggio Emilia is most commonly seen in private and affluent preschool classes. When O’Brien made the decision to return to Shidler Elementary, she was partly on a mission to bring play-based learning into a public setting.

“It shouldn’t just be for the elite, and I think all kids can benefit from learning this way,” O’Brien said.

This story about learning through play was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger Reporter Newsletter.

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