“In play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior.” -L. Vygotsky

I once observed four kindergarten students during our Play-Based Centers block. They had neatly placed several sight word cards in a pocket chart at the School Center and arranged themselves on the rug. Having set up their space, they were now taking turns pretending to be me. This is both flattering and alarming as most children are astounding mimics, often detecting and imitating mannerisms we don’t even know we have! (Apparently, I say “Let’s see. . .” quite a bit.)

  Sam, a natural-born leader, even at the tender age of five, was the first “teacher” and was asking his three “students” to find a sight word in the pocket chart when given a clue. This was a familiar routine. We reviewed sight words each day, where I asked questions designed to help them notice word features. For example, I might say: “Find the word that has an /t/ sound at the end.” or “Find a word with six letters.” 

Sam praised his “students” with several high fives as they easily found the sight words matching his clues. I grinned at the general cuteness of the scene. I was once again reminded of how much I love seeing my students enthusiastically weave our academic and positive behavioral reinforcement routines into their play. It’s like watching my own kids happily eat their vegetables, and then ask for seconds. 

As I jotted down some notes on their play, Sam paused, clearly considering his next clue, a little annoyed that his friends had figured them out so quickly. “Ok, let’s see. . . ready for a challenge? Here’s a tricky one. . . Find the word that has two syllables and four letters.” My amused grin faded and was replaced by genuine surprise. I had introduced syllables to the class a couple of days ago. We had played a game, sung a song, and clapped the syllables in each of their names. But I had not yet talked about syllables in my sight word review. Ben had quite naturally taken their play to the next level, pulling ideas from separate classroom experiences to create a “challenge” for his friends. 

This is only one example of how, given a low-pressure environment with time for self-directed, free-choice activities, children naturally create new and increasingly complex connections. I have seen this again and again during PBC. Their play often transforms learning from isolated and scattered ingredients into a rich, and satisfying feast. Learning comes alive during Play-Based Centers, often going well beyond the minimum mandated curriculum covered during our regular academic blocks. 

Russian psychiatrist Lev S. Vygotsky states: “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior”  (Mind in Society, 1967, 16).

Play on, my friends!

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