Establishing a Play Workshop by Kimberly Fox
Play. Somehow conversations around play can sometimes feel like the most explosive in our schools, yet the data shows again and again how vital these skills and experiences are for our students. Language skills, self-regulation skills, exposure to a variety of materials and experiences develop seamlessly in classrooms with consistent and responsive play work. For those of us who know the importance of play, the question is often, how do I create a time and structure around play in my classroom?
Writing Workshop can offer a structure that is familiar to the adults in our lives as well as the students, and within this arrangement, kids are able to grow and learn on their own terms - generating their own ideas, taking responsibility for their own learning process, and working to collaborate with peers as they write, revise, edit, publish. Borrowing from this structure, we can create a Play Workshop with the same purposeful instructional roles and the rhythms of Writing Workshop.
Here is a quick breakdown of the major parts of a play workshop:
Minilessons, or really simply gatherings, are when the whole class meets for a brief period of time in which explicit instruction is delivered. During this time, you might teach into using materials safely, working out social conflict, developing ideas around play roles and language, or addressing other issues or opportunities from the work your students are taking on in play. This quick lesson, perhaps no longer than 5-6 minutes, signals the beginning of the workshop and gets kids thinking about play as a part of their day, just like reading, writing, and math.
Independent Play is when children choose their play area and move to their centers. Keeping the centers open-ended can allow students to develop their own stories with their peers. A few favorite centers to start off with, often beginning with materials-based centers: 1) Blocks, 2) Construction - cardboard, paint, tape, glue, 3) Art - watercolor, pastels, paper, 4) Clay or Play-Doh, 5) Kitchen/Restaurant/Dramatic Play. As kids play, our role as teachers, as it is during Writing Workshop, is to meet with kids, coaching into the play work, “Hmm, Raihan wants to build a subway station, and Julian, you’d like to build a taxi cab. Let’s make a plan for how we’ll all participate together.” For those of us who have been teaching writing workshop for years, this coaching might feel new and strange at the start, but quickly begins to feel very similar to the work we do all day!
Mid-Workshop Interruptions act as a moment to pause the work your students are doing and elevate a bit. You might share out a problem-solving strategy you saw a group utilizing. You might remind students of a material they might bring into their play area or refer to a chart you’ve created. All of this might sound familiar, because it’s what we do to support readers and writers all the time! Across subjects, this process - stop, share a bit of instruction, then get back into it - can work to keep kids engaged, deepen their independent work, and support the idea that we are a classroom community that is doing something important together.
Shares are the bookend to our independent work. We come back together to share successes and plan next steps. Classrooms might huddle around one center to listen to a student share their process. You might read aloud part of a text that feels relevant to the work kids are doing in their centers. The share often has a way of bringing the noisy, messy work of independent play to a cohesive moment of reflection for students and gets them ready to move on to the next period of time, be that math or lunch!
This workshop structure creates a predictable routine during which students can let their imaginative ideas bloom. The chaos we often fear when we consider play in our classrooms gives way to that familiar productive hum we find in classrooms where kids are used to Reading and Writing Workshop. A few tips for making this work feel more manageable:
Use a timer! Kids build stamina over time, and timers help them (and us) know how much longer we’ll be where we’ll be.
Stay engaged and move about the room. It’s tempting to stuff home folders or reorganize classroom libraries, but we would never consider these tasks while our students are writing, so we can instill the same sense of importance by sitting with students, jotting down notes, and showing them we are engaged in the big work they are taking on. Moving to different areas around the room will help kids feel comfortable and safe, and of course, proximity will also help our students stay on task longer!
Use visuals. Just as we have charts for reading and writing, we can create process charts to refer to during instruction. Making these charts WITH students during this instructional time will also help kids feel more a part of the process.
Build play into your day often. We know that anything we do sporadically has the potential to feel harder than when we do something habitually. Play workshop happens a few times a week (or every day!) because it’s important, and when we build it into our schedule regularly, it becomes part of our classroom routine. Play is not a break. Play is not a reward. Play is just what we do!
Creating structures, borrowing from best practices for Reading and Writing Workshop, can bring value and power to the work of play without losing the joy and spontaneity of it. Play is an instructional time and space in our classroom practices, and if we hope to carve out time in our often jam-packed schedules, building an understanding of why and how is essential. How we talk about this work, with our students, with colleagues, matters. As Stuart Brown explains in his text, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, “the opposite of play is not work-it’s depression. Juxtaposing play against the subjects of reading, writing, and math creates an artificial binary in which play is decidedly not academic. Play is a space in which young learners develop stories, create roles and develop language specific to the roles. They consider materials they need, writing out a quick menu for their sushi restaurant or making a bridge out of a book bin for their elevated train. They collaborate with their peers, reflect on their process, and try again in new ways. The fact is, kids who are taught to think in this way are able to bring these processes into other parts of their day. Sounds a lot like what we expect of our students during Writing Workshop.
Vivian Paley aptly addressed this need when she said In A Child’s Work, “We who value play must do more than complain of unwanted drills that steal away our time. We must find time for play and keep daily journals of what is said and done during play if we are to convince anyone of its importance.” When we talk about play, not simply as the break from powerful cognitive work, but as essential to helping our students develop language, problem solving skills, executive functioning, concepts of narrative and topic, then and only then will we have any chance of creating change in our schools.
Brown, Stuart L, and Christopher C. Vaughan. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery, 2009. Print.
Paley, Vivian G. A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.
Henley, Patricia. The Hummingbird House. MacMurray, 1999.