Play is Work and Work is Play

By Kristi Mraz

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Two second grade boys sit, heads pressed close together, studying a book. A heated discussion breaks out. From across the room you hear the passion if not the individual words.  Finally one boy stands up with the book, flips back a few pages and appears to read something aloud. The other boy covers his eyes with his hands and then stands up shaking his head. They keep the book open to that very important page and return to the blocks area in their classroom where they hold it up to compare to a replica of the Titanic they are building during choice time.

Meanwhile, a hallway away, three kindergarteners huddled around a piece of paper are engaged in an intense discussion about a letter sound. Finally one stands up, gets the alphabet chart and points to a letter. The child holding the pen starts to make the letter and the one next to her traces the shape of the letter next to her when she asks for help. They stand back and admire their handiwork: signs to label materials in their pet store. 

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Upstairs in the fourth grade, children are using fabric to make puppets for a play they wrote.

In a first grade, construction paper strips of money are being counted by the children playing grocery store. Someone suggests they make piles of ten to keep track.

Some adults peek in these classrooms and say, “That’s just play. When does the work start?”

Those adults are sadly misinformed.

Play is Work and Work is Play

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 10.18.54 PMSomewhere along the line, a message went out that play had no place in schools. That it was frivolous, time spent away from actual learning, that it was earned, that less play meant more learning.

There was also a time when people were told that Radium was good for you, even amidst emerging research that proved it made you radioactive. They bottled it in water! People drank it!

That is to say, don’t believe everything you hear.

Play is learning. Play is a right for all children. Play is serious work.

What does the research have to say about play?

  • “Studies also show that [free play] ….helps children discover principles such as symmetry and geometry and sets the stage for more advanced skills used later in mathematics and geography.” Katrina Ferrara, Kathryn Hursh-Pasek, and Roberta Golinkoff The Wisdom of Play (14)
  • “If a child has no play experience, it is likely that both his cognitive and social emotional development will suffer.”  Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong Tools of the Mind  (133)
  • “Symbolic play, from a relational standpoint, provides an important foundation for literacy development.” Sandra Stone and William Stone Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy  (1)
  • “… the more a child moves, the more she stimulates her brain.” Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy A Moving Child is a Learning Child  (7)

There is much, much more in the research. I list great resources below.

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From Research To Real Life: 5 Tips

How do we ensure that every child plays every day to maximize the power of this state? And not just playing with a puzzle or Simon Says, but deeply involved, child-directed play?

  1. Become more playful yourself. This may seem like an odd tip, but when we are playful, our students follow suit. Do not banish play to the yard or the last 30 minutes of Friday, invite it in to each thing you do. Kids don’t have a dividing line between work and play until adults imply that there is one. Declare in the middle of trying to stretch a challenging word in interactive writing that it is beyond fun to try to figure it out, lose yourself and your students so deeply in a read aloud the time flies by- and then point that out, leave parts of the day unstructured so you and your students can reboot with something self-selected. Becoming more playful doesn’t mean breaking out Barbies for math or telling knock-knock jokes for three hours straight, it means finding the joy in each thing you do.
  1. Reframe play materials as thinking materials. Imagine saying, “This scene in your chapter book is hard to visualize, why don’t you grab the blocks and see if you can create it that way?” or, “It can be hard to come up with story ideas, let’s look at some of the materials in dramatic play and see if it sparks a story!” Blur the lines between play and work by having materials work across the schedule. Use legos as counters and alphabet charts to help make the ice cream store sign.
  1. Call play “work” when speaking with children and adults about it. Some people call choice time “work time” to impart the seriousness of the play state for children. Instead of referring to children’s play, call it work. Use the lingo traditionally reserved for academia. “In Harry’s work today he revised the bottom of his block structure so it could balance better.” Part of play’s power is the concrete experience that we will lay abstract academics on, using the same language helps that transfer. Revising blocks is a stepping stone to revising writing, it requires the same kind of thinking, “How could I do this differently to achieve what I want?”
  1. Prioritize it in your schedule. Don’t see play as taking time away from learning more traditionally academic things, see it as time added. Play deepens and extends learning in ways that traditional school cannot. Yes, you can assess comprehension with a multiple choice test, but you can also watch kids at play. Many times children reenact stories they have heard or read themselves, and as they play you can see evidence of their retelling, inferential comprehension, fluency, and what they determine as important. Aim to have a choice time or work time. Plan for it your day, and protect that time, and you will see the benefits.
  1. Gather a community. Read articles and books, experiment in your classroom, go to conferences, and most importantly, find people to dig into this work with you. Especially if you are working in a place that has given you the “no more recess” talk, you need a team. It could be parents of your students, teachers in your school or district, or educators you meet on twitter or facebook.

We all need someone to play with!

Great Resources:

Bodrova and Leong. Tools of the Mind. Pearson (2007)

Connell and McCarthy. A Moving Child is a Learning Child.  Free Spirit Publishing (2014)

Lester and Russel. Play for a Change. Play England

Mraz, Porcelli, and Tyler. Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day. Heinemann (2016)

Stone, Sandra and William. Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy.

Various Authors. The Wisdom of Play: How Children Learn to Make Sense of the World. Community Playthings (2016)


Author: CCIRAblog

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One thought on “Play is Work and Work is Play”

  1. Thank you for posting. I teach kindergarten – year 17. The lack of play is why the actual learning has taken a decline. They don’t practice executive function, problem solving , or even learn where their body is in space without play. I do not know much (trust me), but I know this one age group like the back of my hand and I constantly want to scream LET THEM BE LITTLE when they are little that is how they become BIG when they are BIG .


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