Bethany Greene is a kindergarten teacher and educational consultant with a degree in Mind, Brain, and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Beth has worked in the field of early childhood education for over fifteen years, and has consulted on projects at Scholastic Education and at the EASEL Lab at HGSE. Within her child-centered classroom, curricula emerges from the questions and interests of her students, empowering them to question and enact change in the ever-evolving world around them.
Within education circles, we discuss the importance of play, but how often do students get involved in that discourse? This year, my kindergarteners joined the conversation. Little did we know that this inquiry on play would connect so profoundly to our current lives as homebound learners.
At the start of this year, my class began investigating the concept of wants vs. needs. So often, children express frustration about needing a turn on the swing or needing a particular purple crayon. As a class, I asked them to consider whether these were things that they actually needed, or simply wanted. From there, we explored the broader question: what is it that all children need to grow into thriving adults? My students listed healthy food, water, shelter, medicine, education, and family among a child’s basic needs.
With these initial concepts in place, my class spoke with representatives from Horizons for Homeless Children, an organization devoted to improving the lives of homeless children in Massachusetts. This interview coincided with a particularly frigid New England week. After three days of being stuck inside, the kids felt the absence of the chance for unstructured and undirected “big body play." The representatives from Horizons shared with us that one of the most important components of their shelters are the Playspaces. They explained to the kindergartners that, in order to thrive, kids need safe spaces to move their bodies and to play. Feeling their own restless energy that week, my students were inclined to agree.
To confirm this inclination, we turned to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to this comprehensive list of children’s rights, all children have the right to play.
Initially, none of the kids had considered adding play to the list of children’s needs - like so many in today’s society, they were conditioned to think of play as an indulgence rather than a necessity. To better understand why play is so essential, the kids met with and interviewed experts, including Ben Mardell and Lynneth Solis from the Pedagogy of Play project. They explained that play is the way that all creatures (not just humans) learn. The kids were convinced: play is something that they need, not just something that they want.
Next, I asked the class to consider what was required to fulfill that need. They determined that kids needed the following: energy (from things like healthy food, clean water, a warm bed, and good medicine), a safe (enough) space, love, imagination, and time. Many of our conversations circled back to the concept of time. My students are fortunate to have access to most of these elements, but they explained to me that they often didn’t have time to play. One student explained that Wednesday was her only “free day”, and for another Friday was his only day “to relax.” Notably, my students recognized that other children weren’t needed for effective play. They could play alone as effectively as with their friends, a fortunate realization, given what was to come.
Our classroom explorations of play were abruptly interrupted by the orders to shelter-in-place. In the following weeks, parents across the nation took to Pinterest to post minute-by-minute “homeschool” schedules that included reading, writing, math, snack, recess, PE, music, and art.
I despaired that an opportunity was being squandered to allow children the free time that they needed - and to engage in a national discourse about the value of play and unstructured time in a child’s day. Children had the opportunity to reclaim some sense of control and responsibility throughout their day. I encouraged the families in my class to pause and consider relaxing these schedules in favor of constructive alternatives such as stabilizing routines, new household responsibilities, and opportunities for play. I assured them that - as the kids had learned from their research - rich learning was embedded within and would continually evolve from playful pursuits.
I was inspired in the following weeks when I received emails from parents about the stories their kids, unprompted, had created. My class had spent the prior months engaged in Story Workshop, a writing curriculum based in play. Those storytelling skills (including careful handwriting for writing and then reading their stories), had translated to motivated and meaningful at-home learning.
From what some may have dismissed as simply playing around with puppets and Legos, my quarantined kindergartners had created stories with rich characters, clear structures, and big emotions. Perhaps, even more importantly, they had taken the time during a period of change and uncertainty to play through ideas and emotions that they could not have processed without the opportunity for play.
In our current state of crisis, the reality around wants vs. needs seems more pertinent than ever. The children in my class are privileged to be safe at home, with their basic needs met. I ask them each day how they are doing, and while they miss their friends and classroom community, they report that they are happy because they get to spend time with their families and have time to play.
When given the time and space, children are motivated learners. Having recognized and articulated the essential nature of play, my students are empowered in our current isolation to prioritize play as part of their daily education, and not just recreation. When we move beyond the current crisis, I fear that anxiety over lost classroom hours will lead to calls for students to catch up on missed curricula. Instead, I hope we can remember that there are rich opportunities for learning outside of fixed curricula. Perhaps this disruption to what had become our normal routine can inspire change in how we prioritize this vital need for play in our classrooms and our culture at large.