Saturday, June 4, 2016

Confessions of a Play-based Teacher

I haven't always had the correct understanding of what "play-based" meant.  And I didn't always support children more than I supported the system.

I believed..... that "play-based learning" simply meant children learned through playful activities, not sit-down worksheets.

I believed..... that I was a "play-based" program because:
  1. I didn't do any worksheets in my program.  
  2. All of the ways children learned were, arguably, PLAY.
  3. I thoughtfully considered what my littles were interested in when I sat down in August and wrote out nine months worth of lesson plans.
I believed .....the following were MY JOBS in order to run a "play-based" program:

  • I set up the hands-on, play-based stations.
  • I demonstrated each station so the children would know the correct thing to do at each one.
  • I decided how many children could be at each station.
  • I decided how long children would be allowed to explore each station.
  • I decided what letter we would be learning about each week, and would plan activities around the letter.
  • I chose the themes that either lasted one or two weeks (depending on how much I thought the children would enjoy each theme).
  • I decided how many materials to set out.
  • I worked hard to avoid conflict.
  • I solved problems for children (again, to avoid conflict).
  • I made sure all children were busy doing something, out of fear they would be bored.
  • I made sure the blocks stayed in the block zone, and the books in the book nook.
  • I stopped children from doing anything that was even slightly risky.
  • I pulled each child aside periodically to "test them" to make sure that, even with all of this "play" they were still learning what they "needed" to know.

I believed the following was the children's job:
  • Listen to me and follow my lead.
That was then.... and this is now:

Thanks to a very lengthy journey, and some hard work, busting through my stubbornness (you can read about it here)my belief system changed, and with that, the depth of learning that happened in my program changed drastically.

I finally GOT IT.  It was like I got brand new eyes.

What I was doing before was TEACHER-CONTROLLED,  PLAYFUL LEARNING...... NOT to be confused with PLAY-BASED LEARNING.

I Now Believe.... "play-based learning" means children learn through THEIR play; child-led, adult-ideas-out, PLAY.  NOT to be confused with teacher-led playful learning (which is what I was doing before)

I Now Believe.... I am a "play-based program" because:

1)  There still are no worksheets in my program
2)  Children lead their learning through their play.
3)  The "plan" for the next day doesn't get written until TODAY is over.  The plan for tomorrow is directly related to where my littles led me TODAY.  The plan only includes the setting up of the environment, and the gathering of materials.  There is no "here is what we are going to do" in OUR plan at.all.

I Now Believe... the following are my jobs:
  • Be in the moment with children. Thoughtfully listening and observing, jumping in only when invited.
  • Following the lead of children and adjusting the environment accordingly.
  • View play through a lens that respects the learning that is buried deep within.
  • Keep the environment free from hazards (NOTE:  Hazards are dangers children CANNOT see.  RISKS are dangers children CAN see and CAN assess and manage)

I Now Believe.... the following are the jobs of the children:

  • Freely explore the materials in the environment and use them as they choose to do tasks of their choosing as well.
  • Own discoveries.
  • Ask for what materials they need.
  • Decide how many children they would like to play with at any given time.
  • Work hard to manage conflicts.
  • Solve problems.
  • Learn through failing.
  • Pick themselves up.
  • Work together.
  • Lead with their own interests.
  • Demonstrate what they know, (unbeknownst to them), through their play.
  • Cross pollinate all of the toys.
  • Sit and stare into space, full of wonders.
  • Embrace boredom and figure out what to do next.
  • Enjoy their freedom of time, technique and task.
  • Assess and manage risk.
  • Play freely. (not to be confused with "free play")

Do I feel like I have "arrived" and have nothing more to learn?  Oh goodness no!  I don't feel there is ever a true destination in the world of early childhood education.  There is always something to be learned, something to change, something to improve upon.

But what I do feel like is I am NOW running a program that supports CHILDREN, not the system and the grossly inappropriate expectations being placed on them.

If you would like Denita to speak at your next early childhood professional event, contact her at

Read more of her thoughts and journey on her Facebook page, Play Counts.