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Bringing Play Based Learning Into The Schools - why it isn't yet the focus and what we can do!

Some of you might have followed my debate about public school vs homeschooling this summer when I was co-creating my daughter's kindergarten experience with her. At the time, upon thorough research, I discovered many incredible play-based and nature connected options that rang true to my heart. I desperately wanted to send her to one of these magical spaces. Many of you suggested certain schools to me that looked amazing.


But ultimately we chose public school because of our value of advocating for play as the central focus for ALL children in ALL spaces.


At the time, I shared that ultimately when it came down to it, the decision was based on my belief that if parents like me do NOT send our children to the public schools they will never change. So we tried to get into the one public Montessori option.


As we waited, I was already frustrated that not all of the schools had hints of play-based pedagogy.


We didn't get in. We were very disappointed.


But I said to myself, "maybe we are meant to land where we are - that way we can help shift the environment for others. At least there is this public beacon as an example to show us the way."


**That being said, it is important for me to uplift the school that we did end up in. It is full of passionate and dedicated educators, incredible school leaders, and really sweet and beautiful parents. I am so very happy with the beautiful community that we have in our current school and feel blessed to be connected to them. But it isn't play-based like children deserve.**


And then a few weeks ago, a new board of education made the tragic decision to close the only public school in our county that truly holds play and how children deserve to learn as the central theme of their curriculum.


Why? Because it was too expensive? Because that way of teaching is "harder" to do well?


Well...yes and yes! But it is WORTH IT and IMPORTANT! We have spent multitudes of public money on systems and resources that matter much less in the past.


So in our district at least we're back to magical environments where play and discovery are at the center being offered to just the 1% who can afford it or the "lucky" who get a scholarship... how does this make any sense??


The officials who blatantly disregarded passionate, realistic (and logical) pleas from the community as well as a far-reaching petition, say that the school is closing because of the state of the building.


But what about the program itself? Why, instead of squashing this beautiful space, why not seek to expand the proven philosophy beyond the doors of this one school and spread the pedagogy throughout the district?


Why isn't the play-based model that has been proven over and over worldwide to be the way of integrity when it comes to our children the center of all of our foci? (It sure is in the many private schools. It is touted as a philosophy at most charter schools in the area too. And you can be sure that the homeschooling community is there. So why not be EVERYwhere?)


Why are we trying to close the most sought after, public play-based offering in our district instead of trying to open more like it?


Why isn't the school being upheld as a public token of pride and a model of what can be?


If these narrow-minded "leaders" must close the school - after a battle that was won just last year to keep it open!! - why can't we then think about how we can spread its message to every classroom in our district, county, state and beyond?


Let's not let the philosophy of a public option to play-based learning die with the actual physical school. We can do better for our children.


And the alternative does not always have to be in the private school setting that is only accessible to the few or in the homeschooling world that is also very resourced by privilege. Sure, it is easier to create a new school and charge a lot of money claiming that is the bare minimum needed to "do it right". It is easier to choose one of these places (if you have the means...)


It is harder to create play-based public environments that are truly inclusive and equitable.


But it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It has been done. I have done it.


But the gap between philosophy and reality is still too wide.


The reality is that most of us are still surrounded by worksheets and 20 minutes of free play a day and excuses... and my district is currently closing the only public option which has devoted itself to doing something different. As a public school teacher in NYC for almost two decades, I know what it is to combat against the red tape, restrictions, overwhelming burdens, lack of funds, challenges and mandates put upon us... ...and I was always STILL able to place play at the center. It CAN be done. Many of my amazing colleagues are working hard to get past it too. And it is a beautiful thing to see! It is just much harder to do. Yet, there are so many excuses right now trickling from the top. So here are some of my thoughts about the claims and excuses that are made in the public sphere and the truth that our children deserve when it comes to their learning: ️ CLAIM 1: Letting them play would get in the way of the "real" learning. THE REASON THIS CLAIM PERSISTS: The mindset that there are too many kids and too many tasks that get in the way of the close observation needed in order to get to truly know each child deeply enough to provide them with the right mixes of play. Plus it's so much more work to write anecdotal narrative reports than to give grades. The excuse of "we have no time anyway: we have tests to take and standards to meet." THE TRUTH: Yes, it takes much more attuning to each and every children's essence. It is also harder to spend time getting to know each child in the classroom truly: their passions, interests, talents, challenges. But it also saves an IMMENSE amount of time wasted on the power struggles that come out when we don't really know our kids. WHY WE MUST PLAY ANYWAY: Play is not simply "a nice bonus" to learning! It IS the way children learn! Play is a non-negotiable building black to establishing the true community and school/classroom culture that are the most important foundations for a year of learning that will flow and buzz with excitement ️ CLAIM 2: We already have a curriculum. There's no way we can fit something else new in. THE EXCUSE: We don't want more work and don't have the funds to make play work. Anyway, don't you see? Our kids are thriving [see high test scores and other arbitrary indicators that don't really show the whole picture]! THE TRUTH: It really is time consuming (not to mention much more challenging) to create play-based experiences and takes very devoted educators willing to follow the nuances of flow in the classroom need to do it well. It also takes more natural, experiential, flow-based and open ended play materials to replace the worksheets and cookie-cutter activities, which are usually more expensive. However, it actually is not very hard to find and repurpose natural, open-ended materials. It just takes a bit more creativity, leaning on community and out of the box thinking. WHY WE MUST PLAY ANYWAY: this kind of learning does not replace the curriculum, rather it ENHANCES it. It isn't about overhauling the system but rather tweaking it to prioritize different types of environments and opportunities that lead to the same end-goal, just in a much more natural, intuitive, supportive, and exciting way. It is much more fun and interesting to teach from an experiential, play-based approach and incredibly aligned with what children natural seek and need. ️ CLAIM 3: There is no time in an already packed schedule of obligations to play, go outside, or have free time. THE EXCUSE: The kids won't have time for their "actual work" that we have to get done. There are only 20min left in the schedule, and even that's pushing it. Same thing with HW and tests. We HAVE to give them! THE TRUTH: First of all, I get it! I've been there! AND, there are so many ways to tweak this truth! Go outside for a lesson! Take a community walk and learn from the experts that surround you! Invite an expert into the classroom for an interview! And who said homework and worksheets or sitting at a desk or listening passively to a teacher are the only forms of work? If there were never a grade or homework sheet given again do you really think our children would "fail?" Also, what does failure even mean? That being said, if you "have" to give HW, then maybe consider an invitation into a family experience or discussion instead of a rote, time slogging worksheet? Honestly, HW is more the bridge between school and home to show families what is happening inside of the classroom. So instead of more "fast facts" or spelling words, how about inviting the families in with a nice newsletter and a menu of options for further exploration of a topic? WHY WE MUST PLAY ANYWAY: When you go by children's interests, passions, and focused and intriguing inquiry questions that are grounded in reality, not only is there far more motivation, buy-in and excitement from the kids, there is exponentially MORE true learning and acquisition of necessary skills. Play is the entry point, gateway, and provocation that propels us into worlds of wonder and magic. Play ensures the continuation of curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration skills that will be necessary for any successful future endeavor. Play IS the way we connect and learn and grow. Our children, when left to their own devices, would be running, laughing, doodling, building, tinkering, creating, absorbing, enlightening, and inquiring.

They would be balanced, harmonious, and happy. They would look forward to another day of adventure in the classroom where together, they would be: MAKING INCREDIBLE DISCOVERIES FORMING EVERLASTING CONNECTIONS GAINING MAGICAL INSIGHTS FOLLOWING THEIR TRUTHS AND THUS DISCOVERING WHO THEY ARE MEANT TO BE I invite you to imagine what the world might look like if ALL of our schools placed play in the center. Play is THE proven work of childhood and #1 indicator of an adult life of balanced, successful, creative and productive citizenship. So maybe we can stop fighting the natural order for once at take a hint from brain science, childhood development, and nature - and let our kids lead the way! I promise we will be flabbergasted and beaming with pride every step of the way. Let's stop cornering our children into boxes and let them fly!





If you are riled up and excited about the potential of supporting your child's learning through play, I invite you to visit https://www.thejoyousparent.com/educationalconsulting to learn more about my Play as Learning Empowerment Coaching!

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