“Play is a Child’s Work”

The Kindergarten and 1st Graders in the Seal Pod were having their first Explorations time of the year when I arrived early this week. Students were choosing from a menu of activities meant to pique their passions and hone their problem-solving abilities.

“Play is a child’s work,” said Jean Piaget, and his words on a poster in Sherry Varon and Jan Wald’s classroom clearly guide the instruction.

“We have the table outside set up to experiment with colors,” Sherry tells the students. “You can also choose to work with Jan on the pulley, or with the parent visitors on legos or dress-up,” Sherry adds.  Students chose their activities and began their work.

Sam S. and Asher Z. add elements to their car

In one corner of the room, Asher Z., Sam S., and Quinn K. choose to play with the pulley. Jan built the simple system—stretched horizontally between two bookshelves—with the intention of encouraging the type of imaginative play that Exploration time allows for.

Jan Wald helps Quinn K. with a drill

Asher was busy attaching a wooden box to one of the wires. “We’re making a train car up in the sky,” he tells me. “We have to get it from one side of the valley to the other.” Asher and his friends soon found themselves with a problem to solve: how to move the car across the valley without pulling the wires by hand?  They have an idea and ask Jan for help.  “What’s your plan?” asks Jan. She talks with the boys as they devise a solution, crafting a hand crank out of some round pieces of wood. Jan helps them to drill a hole, and the train car in the sky now has a mechanical motive force.  Pretty cool!

Sherry Varon works with Audrey S. experiment with colors

Outside, Sherry is with the group of girls who have chosen to work at a table, experimenting with colors. The goal: create their own multi-hued palettes for painting using food coloring starting with just the three primary colors—red, blue and yellow. Sherry and I watch as the girls use pipettes to place varying amounts and combinations of food coloring into a matrix of tiny cups; the girls then use paint brushes to test their blends on paper. Laurel H. confidently announces what’s motivated her choice of activities today, “I’m an art person!” while Shania W. shows off a spate of reds she’s been mixing—using more drops creates deeper shades.  Eve K. proudly deepens the conversation, telling us, “If we had white, we could mix it with the red and make pink.”

Shania W. shows off her many hues of red

Explorations is a time-honored best practice among the primary grades at Wildwood; a time that is, as Elementary School Director, Katie Rios, puts it “about children making decisions about what they want to do and see what comes out of it, cognitively, socially and emotionally.”

For Sherry, Explorations time reinforces Piaget’s notion of play being a child’s work. “Students are making choices and negotiating with their peers about how to use time, space and materials. They’re also testing out their personal and academic passions – it’s all part of their learning.” Sherry tells me about past students who have used Explorations time to read, as well as write and act out original plays.

As Explorations time draws to a close, students start to clean up their projects. “We like to give them at least 45 minutes for Explorations”, says Jan “because, developmentally, it takes that long for kids this age to really engage in meaningful play.”  Jan’s words echo the theories of Piaget. The 20th century developmental psychologist felt that this kind of play is essential for children’s cognitive development. Pod-aged children, to paraphrase Piaget, can’t yet think abstractly and use play to try out abstract ideas and concepts in a way that they understand.

An unexpected bonus: Seeing the Seal Pod students so deeply involved in their work clearly illustrated ways that teachers on our elementary campus weave Life Skills into every class experience. In addition to problem solving and cooperation, the students were practicing initiative, organization, and curiosity—all the while engaged in the most important work of all: play.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching and Learning

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