We invited another class in the intellectual disabilities program to join us. Their teacher and I sat back and watched as our kids interacted with each other in pure free play with the toy kitchen, doll house, toy barn, and toy castle (Thank you Donors Choose folks!!). It took a few of them a bit to get into it. At first they sat there, staring at the toys, unsure how to use them to interact with one another. But they slowly became more and more engaged in it.
The deeper into it they got the more we were able to dive in beside them and start working on their academic goals. Beyond just their essential social skills of how to share, listening to one another's ideas, and taking turns with the toys, we were able to really guide authentic practice of vocabulary-
"Put it on top"
"Put it under"
"Make the doll go through the door"
"Can I have the little cup?"
"Who is playing in the house?"
These are skills we work on every single day, sometimes with flashy games on the smartboard that I guess you could technically say we were "playing". But nothing as authentic and student led as this.
We ended up letting them play for an entire hour. They were so engaged in imaginative play and working so calmly, in ways we'd never seen before, that we just couldn't bring ourselves to stop it. I can honestly say that they got more out of that play session than they would have gotten out of the smartboard lesson I'd prepared on Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think the thing we forget when we think about play in schools is just how much academics our kids get out of play. They need a chance to apply these abstract skills they are learning to their concrete lives- by playing. They can count money, retell stories, use their social language, and read recipes- all while "playing". I watch my 16 month old play kitchen and all I see is how many skills she is learning at that exact moment. She's not playing- she is working hard. Our school kids need that too.
I get so much authentic data from free play- and that's at times when I know the skills are secure- that's when they can do it unprompted, independently, and out of context.
I know I'm preaching to the choir, but I wanted to share our absolutely beautiful hour of learning from this afternoon.