The snow and wind kept us inside on Friday for recess. One of my students came up to me with the menu I'd made the class to ask me what I'd like to order from our class toy kitchen. I selected the pizza icon and asked her to read how much it would cost me. She nodded happily and then skipped back to the kitchen.
She started playing in the kitchen and I thought she'd forgotten about me and my plastic pizza. Almost five minutes later she returned, holding my pizza. Again she read to me how much I owed her and we counted out the five dollars I needed to give her in exchange for the pizza.
During that whole five minutes- the five minutes I'd figured she'd forgotten about me- she'd been "making" the pizza, mixing up the dough, putting it in the oven, taking it out and getting it ready for me. She kept the task of making me pizza in her head- she held it in her working memory- and didn't get distracted by anything else. She followed through on her mental plan of making me the pizza and brought it to me still inside her play scheme.
It was little, but big all at once. Sure it was just play, but the more she practices holding ideas in her head, setting a goal and following through with it, and participating in symbolic, pretend play that requires her to assign meaning to plastic objects- all this stretches and exercises her working memory. Sure it's just play, but I have a feeling we were getting a lot more mental exercise than we would have been if we were sitting and working through direct instruction. (Don't get me wrong, I BELIEVE strongly in direct instruction, but I think the balance is essential.)