Encouraging a Playful Spirit

It is difficult to open any kind of math publication lately without seeing the word “play.” It seems like everyone in the math-twitter-blog-o-sphere can’t say enough about the value of allowing children to play in the classroom. Indeed, the power of play in children’s development is undeniable. However, I can’t help but wonder if a lot of teachers feel like raising a hand and yelling, “Wait a minute! What exactly is meant by play? And how am I supposed to make that happen with 30 students in the room?” I know I do.

Let’s be honest, a lot of articles and Twitter posts are simply saying the same thing: playing is good and not playing is bad. Most are great at describing why children should be allowed to play but are curiously ambiguous about how this might look in the classroom. I get tired just thinking about how I might let kids play with materials and develop their own mathematical connections on a daily basis. As a former junior high teacher, this brings up images of blocks flying through the air and marbles rolling all over the floor.

While I don’t have space or expertise to give specific ideas, I do have one thing to share based on my experience: a little bit of play might be all that is needed to get started.

Here’s an example. In my 8th grade math classrooms, I had students working in groups, and while I had a great problem-based curriculum, even that got a little tedious after a while. To help spice things up a bit we would have Dice Days. We would simply break up the problems the students were working on into sections, and each time a group finished a section they got to roll a pair of dice and the outcome got them a small prize. Nothing fancy, just a homework pass or a 5-minute water break. Their favorite prize was getting to take a random item to the teacher next door (get permission first). Kids would never be so focused as they were on Dice Days.

Recently at AIMS, my colleague Jason Chamberlain and I have been working with a kindergartener we’ll call Danny. At first, Danny was interested in the tasks we asked him to try. After a few visits, however, he seemed disengaged and a bit bored. We introduced a simple game. Each time Danny completed a task, checked his work and felt satisfied with his answer he got to move a little frog along a strip of paper with segments marked off. That was it, nothing fancy. Now that the tasks became a game, he became engaged again.

I know that the goal is to have play materials be integral to the learning, but if you are looking for a simple way to break the ice and encourage a playful spirit in the classroom, maybe introducing play as a motivator could be a good place to start.

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