Monday, October 4, 2010

the glory of free-choice play

This year I have a few children who are constantly keeping me on my toes. Although I have a set schedule of when I go into my three classrooms, this year I've been pretty limited in my ability to follow it. It seems that someone is always in need of me right when I'm needed somewhere else.

Last week this was stressing me out. The children in my classes have set hours a week when they are to receive special education services- hours that legally must be met. They have specific goals we need to work on, short term objects to complete, and routines to adjust to. I hated not being with them. We were falling behind on our goals, and being the data-obsessed teacher I am, this was stressing me out. I had nightmares of being chased by blank data sheets.

I finally managed to slip into one of the classrooms during free-choice last week. It wasn't an academic period, but I figured I'd get some good anecdotal data on their social skills. By the time I left I'd taken data on almost all of their goals- all because I sat down and followed along with their play- occasionally asking leading questions like, "wow, how many blocks are there?" and "How many blocks are there when you put the white and blue blocks together?" 

It's amazing how children who would normally refuse to respond, find a crayon to eat, or suddenly need to go to the bathroom during actual classwork time if asked such questions were excited to "play" with me as I listened to them count their blocks, add their blocks together, or read the class morning message as they played school. Somehow in the context of free play the activities seemed safe- they were willing to take a risk and count, or perhaps their excitement of building a large tower lead them to truly wonder how many blocks they'd used. Maybe play made the content questions meaningful?

I collected more data in the thirty minutes of free play than I would have if I'd been in the classroom for math or reading.

It helped that I had multiple set goals in mind when I was "playing" with the children. I wasn't determined to only work on math- if a child was playing school with a stuffed animal I switched to the reading goal and suggested some activities that let me see the child's letter identification. If I'd forced a math lesson it could have back fired. But I also wasn't just sitting down for a tea party (not that there is anything wrong with this- sitting down for a tea party is an excellent way to build a relationship with them). I knew I had objectives I wanted to cover, which gave me some sense of purpose in leading their play.

 This week I'm trying my best to actually get into all my classrooms for their academic periods- but it is great to know that with some planning and flexibility I can spend a happy half hour "playing" in the afternoon and still work with my children on their academic goals. Who else gets a job where they get to play?

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