That’s the advice from Shavon Frazier, a kindergarten teacher at PS 41 and panelist at the Robertson Center’s inaugural Thought Starter event, The Power of Play: Using Playtime to Help Kids Thrive. The mini-summit brought together parents, educators, and early childcare providers from across the city to learn about how and why to ensure kids get enough productive playtime, at home and at school.
The event was inspired by and grounded in a growing body of research on the benefits of play.
According to the recent Value of Play Report from the Real Play Coalition, 83 percent of children say they learn better when it feels like play. The data back them up. Along with empowering kids to do activities motivated by their own interests — a surefire way to keep them engaged — multiple studies have found that play helps develop skill in language, literacy, and math, sparks healthy social interaction, and fosters critical thinking. The best part? Like sneaking veggies into dinner, kids often don’t even realize how much they are growing while maneuvering chess pieces, playing dress-up, or building block mansions.
But, as many attendees at the Power of Play shared, finding the time and resources to build play into the day can seem impossible. That’s where the garbage comes in.
“Teachers and parents think they have to spend their whole paycheck on toys, and scramble to order all the latest stuff,” said Frazier. “But, in reality, play is actually most powerful when kids are incorporating the things that are already a part of their regular lives. Build an ‘imagination center’ full of cereal boxes and old juice cartons and the world literally becomes the kids’ playground.”
When Frazier’s class did a fairytale unit starring the classic The Elves and the Shoemaker, she brought the story to life with a makeshift shoe store right in her classroom. “My assistant teacher and I each brought in old shoes we had at home — the ones hiding in the back of your closet that no one’s worn for years,” Frazier said. “Each kid picked a pair and described it to give it a name. They measured their feet, using a math resource we already had, tried on a few different pairs of shoes, then made a final decision and ‘paid’ for them.”
The whole time, the kids were honing their math, literacy, and social skills — all while having a blast. “They absolutely loved clomping around in heels,” Frazier said.
That’s the beauty of what’s known as guided play, according to Autumn Zitani, Senior Director of Content at Sesame Workshop, who delivered the event’s featured Chalk Talk.
“Guided play takes two forms: Adults can either set up the play, or watch what kids are doing and help scaffold the play, giving extra ideas to enhance it,” she said.
In the first scenario, a parent or teacher might set up a make-believe restaurant or bakery, and encourage kids to write out menus, decide on prices, and cook up delicious dishes made from Play-Doh, Legos or whatever else you have on hand.
In the second scenario, an adult might pull up a quick video of what happens at a bakery to give kids ideas about what to do. Shows like Sesame Street, which leverage the principles of guided play in its episodes, have lots of videos that can help give kids reminders and context for real-life situations that they can take into playtime with them.
“What’s especially cool about guided play is that it gives kids the opportunity to be the boss,” Zitani said. “They’re in control, and they’re inspired to engage in more sophisticated play, whether that’s using new vocabulary or thinking of novel ways to use everyday objects.”
Her best advice for making sure kids reap the benefits of playtime?
“Just play,” she said. “Play makes kids happy and reduces stress. You don’t need a lot of props, you can use what you’ve already got, and take ideas you see in the media or elsewhere and use them as inspiration.”
Indeed, inspiration was a theme of the evening. As Associate Director of Literacy at Success Academy, mom of two Jenny Cloncs explained how the network’s expansion to pre-K in 2015 sparked an “epiphany” about play that would eventual impact its entire K-12 program.
“In our heavily play-based pre-K model, we were watching 3- and 4-year-olds basically running the room — working together and independently, collaborating, learning to share and comfort one another,” Cloncs said.
“Play was already a huge part of our model for older students. We had a blocks room in every school, held recess time sacrosanct, and taught chess beginning in Kindergarten. But we started to wonder if amping up play even further could help create the kind of self-directed learning we were seeing with our 3- and 4-year-olds in elementary and beyond.”
To do just that, SA doubled down on its commitment to play, with expanded options for block play and “choice time” that gives kindergarteners an hour each day with the games and activities that interest them the most. This method got a stamp of approval from an esteemed panel of experts who kicked off the event, a group of second graders at Success Academy Harlem 1, who were part of the network’s founding pre-K class. Their principal, Danique Day-Loving, moderated the panel and sparked some powerful insights.
“The blocks room was helpful because we learned how to share and how to be kind to each other,” said Annabel, age 7, whose favorite game is Don’t Wake Daddy. “And also it helped us know that, sometimes the blocks would fall down, but we don’t need to get upset, because you can build it again.”
For more about Success Academy’s whole-child approach to learning, check out the resources from SA’s Education Institute.