Creating a Play Space for Everyone

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be a mentor to a group of Grade 5 students during their PYP exhibition. We mostly met in another classroom as their only available time was while my early years’ students were playing. However, as we grew closer to the end, it was necessary for them to meet me in my classroom. It was while visiting me there that I noticed something – as soon as these 9- and 10-year olds entered the room they were mesmerized. This is not because it looked particularly special or any different to every other play-based early years classroom, nor was it because their classroom is an uninviting space (for the record it is a warm, welcoming and engaging environment, too). I believe what put smiles on their faces was that my space, like many other early years rooms, is designed for play. 

Most early years classrooms have blocks, manipulatives, art & crafts, sand & water, dough and imaginative spaces as standard. Added into this mix can be any number of other tools and experiences all designed to provoke, encourage and engage children in exploring the world around them.  

Elementary classrooms have some of these things but not all, their spaces are filled with bigger items like desks, which naturally limit what else can be added. In some schools, classrooms are bigger, especially in the lower grades, allowing for more play equipment, but not all schools and classrooms get so lucky with space!

It’s not just the space that impacts what is in an elementary classroom, the curriculum/unit of inquiry plays a role, too. Teachers choose resources and equipment that connect with their curriculum and that build on and/or support learning. The curriculum often dictates how the day is structured and what is taught when. There isn’t always time for play in class, follow students’ personal inquiries or explore those little wonderings that pop up in the day. 

As we begin to learn and understand more about the importance of play and agency for students, some teachers have opened up their programme to give students greater control, others have created wonder walls, while some lower elementary teachers have found time in their schedule for exploration during which children can play and explore. This doesn’t tend to be the case across all elementary classrooms, and oftentimes those passionate questions posted to wonder walls can and sometimes do get forgotten, even with the best of intentions. As for play in classrooms, there is the temptation for some teachers to impose rules or restrictions – children are assigned a focus or purpose, rather than just letting them potter, tinker and explore without an agenda.

It is with this in mind that I wondered to myself is it possible to create an early years’ like space for all elementary students? A space where students of all ages can play without an agenda from an adult, where they are free to explore, wonder and find their own joy. Where students can inquire into what interests them and take this passion as far as they choose. Where students bring their wonderings and questions posted in their own classrooms, to ‘this space and begin the journey through research, towards answers and different ways of understanding. 

In my thinking I saw this space in conjunction with a makerspace; used in similar ways, with students freely accessing another space that belongs to them, and where an early years teacher is permanently based; and it is that teacher’s skills that are used to support, scaffold and challenge. 

Early childhood teachers approach inquiry differently, the very nature of how our classrooms are designed with play at the forefront, allows us a slightly different set of goalposts. We tend to use provocations and questioning in a much more fluid way because we are always playing with, or alongside our students. This is not to imply elementary teachers don’t, it is more that we are afforded the freedom and time to go off track, and ending up in a completely different place from where we started is the norm. For early childhood teachers, play is the vehicle through which all learning happens.

While classroom teachers are wholeheartedly welcome, this space ultimately belongs to the students. This is an opportunity for those teachers to see the power of play in action, to see and understand that it is not outside of learning, it IS learning.

The more I thought about this idea the more I wanted to explore it and put it into action. I took my thinking around this personal inquiry to my principal and she wholeheartedly supported it, giving me great feedback and guidance on how to best approach this project, as well as helping me give it a name – Play Space. 

I then spoke with my colleague, and we decided it was important to begin with a definition of our Play Space.

Our Play Space is available to all elementary students. It is a place where they can explore their ideas through play. Students can explore freely, choose their own equipment and direction.  It is a place of joy, wonder and self-guided learning.

As I aim to approach this as a personal inquiry, I set four driving questions. I believe that the answers to these questions will determine the level of success of the Play Space and thus if it may become a permanent space at our school.

  1. How do the students interact with this space?
  2. What has been the impact of the Play Space on students?
  3. How does it support teachers? And is it feasible for them?
  4. Does this space allow teachers to see play in a new light?

I created a reading library as part of my research. This will be added to as my inquiry progresses; however, I have decided to start with 

Setting up the Play Space

A space: In my school, we don’t have an empty room or an abundance of resources to create a separate Play Space; however, I have my own early years classroom. 

A time: My students attend mornings only, therefore my classroom is available in the afternoons. 

A schedule: I set up a Google calendar so teachers could book any one of the three afternoon spaces available. 

An introduction: During a staff meeting I introduced the Play Space to faculty. I outlined how this is optional, and that teachers can book as much, or as little as they wanted. 

An outline: during the presentation I explained my vision about how the space might be used: 

  • As a place to play and explore
  • Students bring their burning questions with them 
  • Teachers are welcome but as we can only accommodate 5-8 students at a time this won’t always be possible
  • This is also personal inquiry, so I will regularly ask teachers for their observations and feedback

At the time of writing I have one class booked in, and plenty of positive feedback from teachers, so far….. As part of my inquiry I will continue to document the process, what I notice and observe as well as the learning and data that emerges from my inquiry. 

To be continued….

I’m convinced that kindergarten-style learning is exactly what’s needed to help people of all ages develop the creative capacities needed to thrive in today’s rapidly changing society.

Mitchel Resnick – Lifelong Kindergarten

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