Magazine Feature

Toolkit for Playing to Learn

Experience the benefits of play with these five activities. 

There are so many reasons why play is important for children. It can help with mathematical thinking, imagination, physical well-being, language development and social skills. Dedicating just a little bit of class time to play can go a long way in helping children be more focused the rest of the school day. Having the right resources is important, as is helping students understand that playing can be a part of learning. To that end, this toolkit provides reflection questions about the meaningful nature of play.


Essential Questions 

  1. What is play?
  2. Why is play important for children?



Each of the five activities below can be done in as few as 15 minutes. Consider which of the activities would be most appropriate and beneficial for your students. Try doing them at a transition time, such as after recess (when students need an opportunity to refocus) or after a challenging academic activity. The beginning and end of the school day are also good times to incorporate play.



Make a habit of collecting recyclable materials. Cardboard boxes, thread spools, rinsed-out plastic cups, wrapping paper, bubble wrap and egg cartons are some good examples. Collect recyclables in a few areas of your classroom. Supply students with duct tape and scissors and instruct them to “make something.” They can work on their own or with partners. You might be surprised at what emerges! 


Let’s Pretend

We sometimes forget that school-age children can still enjoy the opportunity to engage in pretend play. Ask your students to imagine they are somebody else. They might choose to be someone from your social studies curriculum, they might choose to be a fairy princess, or they might even choose to be a different student in your class. The only guideline is they have to represent that person with respect. Give children 15 minutes to “be” that other person. Watch how they interact with each other and play out that role. If you are tempted to provide more structure, try to hold back; children can often work out pretend dilemmas with very little adult guidance, and teachers stepping in might make them feel more sheepish or shy. 



At each table in your classroom, put a stack of materials, such as scrap papers, recyclables, math manipulatives or pencils—pretty much anything you have is fair game. Instruct the kids at that table to spend 10 minutes sorting these materials. They should figure out collaboratively how they will do the sort, and they might find a few different ways to do it (e.g., by size, by color, by function). If kids start to joke around while they are doing the sort, try to let that unfold; it is part of the learning experience, and some of children’s best creativity and even logic arises out of purported boredom or rowdiness.


Get Outside

We all know the benefits of fresh air, and there is just too little time for children to play outside and be physical. Find a place near your school where your students rarely go: maybe even the front of the school instead of the back schoolyard; the rooftop, if it is available; a nearby park or garden; or even a short walk. It is, of course, important to establish boundaries of where students are allowed to go because of safety, but then just allow them to “be” there. Pay attention to how your students might seem different when they are outside; note what they are doing, who they are doing it with, what they are attending to and what games develop. Throwing a few balls or jump ropes into the mix can also be helpful, but it is not necessary. (Check out “Take It Outside” for more outdoor learning tips.)


Buddy Time

Buddy your class up with a class that is a different age. Many schools do this around literacy or math activities, but this time, use buddy time for play. In each buddy relationship, have the younger student make the decision about his or her favorite way to play. Then, give the pairs 15 minutes to play together. Older children sometimes feel more inhibited about play, but being with younger kids can be liberating, and you might be surprised at the personality traits that emerge.


Reflection Questions

After doing one of the activities above, have your students talk or write in journals in response to the following reflection questions:

  1. What did you learn about yourself from doing that play activity?
  2. What did you learn about your classmates from doing that play activity?
  3. Do you think school should give you more time to play? Be specific about why or why not.
  4. What are your favorite ways to play outside of school? How do you think you benefit from these activities?
  5. What are some of your ideas for how we can have more time to play during the school day?
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