Ever since we started playing for 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day, this is what I've noticed:
1- The play is deeper, more thought provoking
2- They play is less frantic- they know they have time. They know they will have a beginning, a middle and an end that will be satisfying for them.
3- They are quieter when they play
4- (with the exception of 3 or 4) They are choosing a wider variety of activities. They are choosing literacy games and math games.
5- The art that is created has more depth. It isn't just markers on paper anymore, they have added other media (the art shelf has been stacked with a variety of materials, they are just now getting to them)
6- When it is time for direct instruction, the sit and listen longer
7- I have to do less direct instruction
Now, I know there are other benefits that I am not listing here, and I know some of these behaviours could be seen as where the students are developmentally, but from everything I have observed, there has been no negative consequences to the prolonged play time. Which, of course, does not surprise me. When I meet with a student or two in a small group or one on one, they are more focussed on what we are doing, because they have confidence that they will be able to get back to their other play without missing too much time. This has only been a positive experience for us all.
I did something crazy yesterday. I let my students play for two hours. It was the best two hours we've had in a long time, and guess what? We'll be doing that from now on. Two hours of uninterrupted play time every day. Two hours to theorize, experiment, build, problem solve, create, learn, teach.
Over our break, I had to ask myself some tough questions. If I say we need to trust students to manage their own learning, am I doing that? Sometimes. If I say children need time to play in order to work through their learning, am I allowing the proper amount of time to do that? Again, sometimes.
Because I could not answer a definite yes, I knew it was time to re-think my practice.
-What will I do while they play that long?
-What if someone comes in and asks what's going on?
-What if they come in and want to know why I'm doing what I'm doing?
Here's what happened:
While the children were playing I was able to sit with a group and play a rousing game of letter go-fish. One of those students needs extra work in letter recognition, and I was able to sit with him, in a stress free environment, and have some fun while working on the letters.
I have another student who comes in every single day stressed out because he is anxious about Writers Workshop. No matter how many times I tell him that I don't expect him to have everything perfect, that I will help him, he still stresses over it. He spent a long time with a buddy building "a car building" in the block area. Then he went to the art area because he wanted to make a picture for his mom. I asked him if his mom ever asked what he did during the day, and he said yes. I suggested that he draw a picture of his structure so he could show her what he did. He thought that was a good idea but wasn't sure how to do that. I was able to model how I would draw the picture, then he was able to take that risk and do it himself. Because we had this time, I suggested he write down at the bottom what it was, and I was able to talk him through that. No stress, no tears, no anxiety. It was a big breakthrough for this guy.
Then, another guy, who struggles with some fine motor issues, was watching us and he decided to draw a "crabby patty" he had made in the kitchen area.
All of this would have been impossible if we didn't have the time. If we only had a half an hour of free choice time. Because we had such an extended time to play, children were able to play in more than one area, were able to begin a task and complete it. They were able to spend their time talking out ideas and problem solve with their peers.
After our play time, it was recess, then we had snack and our specialty class. When the students came back to class, we all sat down as a group and we talked about our big play time. I asked them if they enjoyed it (of course they did) and if they'd like to do that every day (of course they do). So I put up on the board a list of things we "have to do" every day, things we "should do" every day, and things we "want to do" every day. Then I put up a simple time schedule and we filled in the blanks. As a group we were able to see how we can still fit in everything we "have to do" and "should do" and even the things we "want to do" and still have a big play time.
We still have Writers Workshop and Guided Reading and Math. We still have large group instruction, but we don't have to spend time teaching things we already know. I can introduce the concepts, then they have the opportunity to work on these in their own time and space (and if they don't 'chose' to do it on their own, there is still time to 'encourage' them while still allowing them lots of time to play). Those of us who might need a little extra help can get that now during our large block of play time. We can play games and even have some one on one time. So many times I feel like I don't get a chance to sit down and play with the kids, get to know them.
I am constantly asking, what happens if we trust children? What happens if we truly value play, value it enough to allow our students to actually play? Because when we trust children, we give them the tools they need to become self-motivated, we give them the responsibility for their learning. We help them find the gift that already resides in them. Children are capable, but too often we take that away from them. Let's give it back.