musings on water and dead bugs

It is surprisingly easy to bring the academic topics and concepts covered during whole-class instruction to your Play-Based Centers block.  PBC allows opportunities for enrichment and exploration that there simply isn’t time for during your regular academic blocks. Most importantly, students have time to approach concepts and skills from multiple perspectives, adding meaning and creating opportunities for deeper learning and authentic connections.  

I once planned several whole-class science lessons on surface tension. The activities were not particularly complicated, but I did have limited materials and time.  I really only had a few days to cover surface tension before we needed to move on. Honestly, how is anything supposed to stick in only three days, no matter how awesome my lessons are?  With unlimited materials and time, I would have set up separate stations and had the students rotate through each one over several days. Then, I would have returned to the topic several times over the next year.  However, this was not an option. Thanking my lucky stars that I worked at a school that still allocated time for science at all, I opted for a few quick teacher demonstrations. After these, I simply transferred and then rotated the demo materials through the Science Center.  For more than a month, small groups of students eagerly played and explored using the materials. At first, they tried the demonstrations again, mimicking what I had done. And then, they began creating their own explorations. At times they requested other materials and I added and removed items to encourage their play and creativity.  Some students recorded their explorations by drawing or writing on scrap paper attached to clipboards at the center. (I often leave paper on clipboards and pencils at the centers to encourage, but not require, observations and documentation.) During Ch.E.C.K.-ins I encouraged their use of content vocabulary, self-directed inquiry, and active learning.  In winter, as the temperatures dropped, our science lessons touched on states of matter, and how liquid water can become solid ice. The students recalled their explorations of surface tension and asked interesting questions, connecting their earlier observations at the Science Center to this new topic. One or twice we brought in a bucket of ice and snow collected during recess and left it at the Science Center. Observing the way it melted and eventually evaporated.  In the spring, we studied the changes taking place in ponds. I reminded the students of their previous water explorations, and the students were engaged and eager to talk about the different ways that surface tension affected the plant and animal life in ponds. I added some large, sealed containers of pond water to the Science Center and the students made observations using magnifying glasses. They noticed the pollen and other objects floating on the top. They also had an interesting exchange about the fact that while some bugs can stay on top of the water due to surface tension, some dead bugs in the container had sunk.  After that, several students visited the Art & Design Center, extending their connections by creating drawings and dioramas of ponds. There may or may not have been a few dead bugs included in their artwork.   

Play on, my friends!

the gift of time

What is the number one teacher complaint?  There just isn’t enough time!  

Play-Based Centers is a daily, flexible block of time to address the numerous challenges that teachers face.  And honestly, they grow more numerous with each passing year. But there are some years that I am especially thankful for PBC.  

One Friday, mid-year, I joined Anne, our school BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) during my PBC block.  She had been observing Liam, a non-verbal student in my kindergarten class with an Autism diagnosis.  I was especially thankful for Play-Based Centers that year, which allowed time for Anne and me to consult and gave us both an opportunity to observe and build rapport with Liam.  Noticing his frequent preference for the Building and Engineering Center, which currently had wooden trains, Anne had set up a behavioral plan, with visual supports, that included extra time to play with the wooden train set as an incentive.  Anne and I were able to introduce and practice using this and other supports, such as social stories, with Liam during the play block.    

Several weeks later, when doing Ch.E.C.K.-ins, I noticed that during PBC, Liam frequently played with another student named Andy.  Mostly it was parallel play, although we had seen some increased interactions between the boys over the last week or so. Andy was a patient and relaxed child, who seemed to accept Liam’s sometimes unexpected behaviors without concern.  I documented these observations, and a few days later, when assigning partners for a math sequencing activity, I knew just who to put Liam with.  

Liam’s year in kindergarten was not perfect, there were certainly challenges.  But it was a good year. A year of progress. Progress that would not have been possible without PBC.  Anne and I had the opportunity to establish a relationship with Liam early in the year, and to help him understand and generalize expected behaviors throughout the year.  Having the time and flexibility to focus on his needs during PBC made all the difference. As Anne and I observed Liam that day, she smiled and said, “This has been so good for him.  Time to play is exactly what he needs.” I completely agreed. In fact, the gift of time is exactly what we all need.  

Play on, my friends!  

The Ch.E.C.K.-in method

During Play-Based Centers, teachers might use the Ch.E.C.K.-in method during guided play, or on occasion as an approach to peer conflicts.  Ch.E.C.K.-in stands for: Challenge, Encourage & Engage, Create Connections, & Keep Listening.  PBC teachers can use one or more of these approaches when interacting with their students.  I believe that the most important of these is to Keep Listening.  Here is a little story to help better explain this method: 

Once there were two neighbors who shared a lemon tree growing on the border of their properties.  One morning, the neighbors found themselves both reaching for the last lemon on that tree. Unfortunately, what began as neighborly greetings quickly escalated into a shouting match about who should get the last lemon.  A wise and respected neighbor heard the commotion and joined them to try to mediate. The wise neighbor calmly used the Ch.E.C.K. in method. First, he Challenged them- was there another approach to solving this conflict rather than shouting at one another?  The neighbors reluctantly agreed it would be fair to share the lemon by cutting it in half. Next, the wise neighbor Encouraged their willingness to compromise and to take into account the other’s feelings and perspective.  Next, the wise neighbor helped them make Connections to one another by helping them recall the ways that they had always been good friends in the past and noted that their positive relationship shouldn’t end on account of such a small thing.  They agreed and shook hands. Finally, he Kept Listening to them, which surprisingly revealed that one neighbor wanted only the lemon zest to make a lemon pepper steak rub, and the other neighbor wanted only the lemon juice to make blueberry-lemon muffins.  Laughing together, the neighbors agreed to share the lemon in such a way that each got what was wanted. That night, they celebrated their friendship with a delicious steak dinner and muffins for dessert.  The wise neighbor joined them having made, with the leftover rind, a delicious sangria. The End!

P.S. Don’t actually bring sangria to your classroom.  That’s generally frowned upon. And, don’t forget- play on my friends!

winter clothing hassle or hustle?

Every year most of my young students come into kindergarten unable to get their cold-weather outerwear on independently.  Usually, it isn’t that they can’t, it’s just that they haven’t.  I understand how it happens!  It is so much faster and easier for a parent to zip a coat for their child rather than having them practice doing it themselves.  But in a classroom, with a herd of kids, independence skills are highly valued. So, to save our sanity, teachers usually make an initial investment of time and energy to work on independence skills. 

We spend time modeling, for example, how to fix inside-out sleeves.  Explicitly teaching them, for example, if you put your wet socks in your coat pockets, your coat will get wet and dirty.  We often use think-aloud techniques.  “Let’s see, if you put your mittens on first it will be very tricky to button your jacket.  So button your jacket first, and then put your mittens on.” And finally, most importantly, allowing them time to practice.  We are still there to encourage and scaffold as needed, for example, with getting a zipper started.  We work toward independence, practicing gradual release.  And, after some practice, the winter clothing hassle becomes the winter clothing hustle.  The kids are like a well-oiled machine!  

In the same way, it isn’t that our young students can’t self-monitor or self-regulate, it’s that they have very little practice with these and other social and emotional skills.  As teachers of young children, helping them develop these skills is crucial. We know this. But do we really spend the time and energy to prioritize social and emotional learning?  Do we embrace the opportunities to work on these skills, or rather, avoid them, considering it an added hassle and “not my job”? Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that it can be exhausting helping young children learn social and emotional skills!  It requires intention and an investment of time, just like the winter clothing hustle.

In the same way, we can increase our students’ social and emotional skills through explicit instruction, modeling, think-aloud techniques, encouragement, scaffolding, and gradual release.  And finally, most importantly, allowing them time to authentically practice these skills- through play!

Play on, my friends! 

childhood ends at kindergarten?

There is an overwhelming amount of research showing that children learn best through play.  However, according to the reasoning of an influential, yet ignorant few, apparently “childhood” actually ends around four years old!  Too often, educational stakeholders impose an adult work ethic on the classrooms of young children. Children are clearly not small adults, yet often our classroom expectations reflect that way of thinking.  We would not expect a beginning pianist to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. We would not expect a child who has just mastered the tricycle to race in the Tour de France.  Why on earth would we expect young children to have the skills and stamina to learn and behave like adults?     

Here is a surprise to some: childhood does not end at 4 or 5 or even 6 or 7.  Early childhood is commonly defined as 3 to 8 years old, and Middle childhood as 9 to 11 years old.  Another interesting newsflash: research shows that play and other self-directed activities are essential to meaningful learning throughout our entire lives.  Brain neuroplasticity occurs most profoundly in infancy and early childhood (again, birth to 8-years-old,) but research shows that the formation and pruning of neural connections actually continue throughout our lives.  


Perhaps, instead of falling victim to recent “push-down” academic pressures, we should, in fact, consider a robust “push-up” play policy! 

“Play during the teen years and into adulthood helps the brain develop even more connectivity, especially in the frontal lobe which is the center for planning and making good decisions.”  The Benefits of Play, By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

dancing penguins


I once knew a sweet and dedicated teacher who spent hours creating what she considered “learning through play.”  They were mostly sight-word activities on themed paper.  Cute, themed paper and pencil tasks.  She proudly informed me that they included “play”: cutting and gluing letters to make words.  These tasks were mandatory, teacher-directed, product-driven, with no choices or variation. But, because the worksheet had dancing penguins and involved the children doing more than sitting, she considered it “learning through play.”  I’m not saying that what this dedicated teacher was doing was not a fun way to motivate kids to work on sight words.  We all need more fun in our lives!   But it wasn’t play.  Neither are “fun” songs that help you memorize lists of facts.  Adding song and dance to the day is certainly fun, and has value, but all of these things are not play- they are playful.  These playful activities are not a replacement for play any more than looking at someone’s pictures of a recent vacation is like having been there.  ”Don’t these pictures of me in Hawaii make you feel like you are actually there?”  Um, no not really.  

The first requirement of authentic play is that it is freely chosen.  Just because you, as the teacher, believe your students will enjoy something, it doesn’t redefine that activity as play.  Have you ever been invited to or involved in an activity that others find fun, but you consider boring, or even torturous?  Here are some examples of activities people enjoy: skydiving, partying at a high-end nightclub, tailgating, spending an afternoon at an art museum, rock climbing, binge-watching sitcoms, scrapbooking, line dancing, camping, a day at the beach, gardening, spending a weekend at a casino, preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for 30, singing karaoke, pet sitting, visiting an exotic destination, horseback riding, and paintball fighting.  If you could choose one, what would it be? Would your spouse have chosen the same thing or your neighbor? As individuals, our preferences vary widely! Our students are no different. They may politely or genuinely enjoy what their teachers have chosen for them to do. Or they may be indifferent, or find it torturous! But, in order for something to be authentically play, it must first be freely chosen, not chosen by others for you, no matter how well-intentioned.  We certainly need more dancing penguins in our lives, but they are no substitute for authentic play! 

Play on, my friends! 


In today’s world, many parents do not appreciate the importance of free play or guided play with their children and have come to think of worksheets and other highly structured activities as play.‍  –PEDIATRICS Volume 142, number 3, September 2018 5 Downloaded from by guest on December 31, 2018


an assessment game-changer

When I first started teaching kindergarten, I followed a school purchased math program, which began with zero and systematically marched forward laying the foundations of early number sense.  I soldiered through each scripted lesson, ignoring the fact that many of my students could already recognize most, if not all, of these early numbers. It didn’t take long to realize that this was an unnecessary waste of time.  However, before Play-Based Centers, I just didn’t feel I had the time to check in with each student individually to assess their early math skills. It was difficult enough to find time to do post-lesson assessments, let alone pre-tests or mid-topic assessments to check for understanding.  In general, it is extremely challenging to do whole-class assessments with early elementary students. And some assessments simply must be completed one to one or in very small groups. What was I supposed to do with the rest of the students while I assessed one at a time?!

Play-Based Centers is an assessment game-changer.  Now during daily PBC block, while the students are actively engaged in their play, I can quickly and easily complete whatever assessments are needed.  

For example, in early September, I did mini push-ins during PBC, asking each student to identify numerals on flashcards.  It took about 30 seconds per student and I soon had timely data showing exactly who knew what. This was a quick, informal assessment that immediately informed my teaching plans.  I now knew which numbers to review during whole-class instruction, as well as which students should be pulled during PBC for some additional pre-lesson support.  

This is one of the many reasons I love PBC- it helps me to work smarter, not harder! 

Play on my friends!


bleeding potatoes


Play Based Centers is a chance for me to really notice my students.  Not only do I gain valuable insights into their academic, social and emotional skills, but also who they are as individuals.  Their concerns and fears, their interests and preferences . . .  

I grab a clipboard and do a quick Ch.E.C.K.-in at the Whiteboard Center.  Two students are there. Talia and Kedra are drawing what appears to be potatoes but turns out to be volcanos.  I say, “You’re working well together! Tell me about your drawings.” Talia beams and responds eagerly, pointing to various parts of his picture.  He concludes by pointing out a volcano vent. I smile and nod supportively as he labels the vent with a large “V.” We had a mini-lesson about labeling in writer’s workshop last week, and I’m glad to see Talia independently putting the skill into practice.  I make a note and then turn to Kedra, a quiet ELL, who is intently watching his friend. Kedra is a BICS learner who has mostly been silent since the start of the year. I ask, “Are you also drawing a volcano, Kedra?” He nods, and then points to his own picture, chirping “Vent!”  He labels his picture as well. “Awesome job, guys!” I say.

There are high fives all around, then I retrieve my red dry erase markers so they can make lava. I recognize that I’m taking a chance by allowing them to use certain materials. However, almost always, the kids rise to the occasion and take responsibility for the materials.  It is well worth an occasional dried out marker to build responsibility and independence skills. I remind the boys to close the lids tightly when they’re done so that the markers won’t dry out. Talia and Kedra beam at each other and continue their pictures. I smile at the growing friendship and make a note to seat Kedra next to Talia when I change the seating chart next week.  PBC gives me valuable perspectives into my students’ ever-changing social preferences and skills. It is enormously useful to have these insights when I am considering student groupings, or in this case, when wanting to use peer-partnering as a strategy for a specific student. I turn back to see the young friends hard at work on their pictures, which now look like bleeding potatoes.

the emperor’s new curriculum

As new academic programs and initiatives are presented with great fanfare during professional development, and the latest and greatest curriculums are paraded down school corridors, whispering can be heard from behind classroom doors.  The Emperor’s new curricula are shocking and many teachers are extremely concerned about the increasing expectations for elementary classrooms. And yet, most teachers are afraid to point out the obvious flaws in these new curricula.  Not surprisingly, the newest teachers are usually silent. They don’t want to be accused of being incompetent, unprepared, or unable to handle the expectations their schools and districts have set for their young students.  And often, seasoned teachers are silent. They don’t want to be accused of being ignorant, rigid, or reluctant to embrace the glorious innovations and changes occurring in early education.   

But the fact remains, something is terribly wrong.  Who will be brave and risk criticism? It is the children who tell the truth, often in silence.  Are we listening? Anxiety, stress, disruptive behaviors, decreasing attendance rates, increasing expulsion rates, and most alarmingly, self-harm and suicide are creeping into the lives of our youngest students.  The statistics are a clear sign that something is terribly wrong.  

Question the Emporer’s new curriculum, and pay attention to the alarming statistics which echo the voices of our children.  Most importantly, bring daily play back into the lives of our children.

let them eat (pretend) cake

Decades of solid research confirms that children learn best through play experiences. However, play in early elementary classrooms is rapidly diminishing and on the brink of extinction.  Ask any teacher, what the biggest obstacle to play is, and you are very likely to hear- “We just don’t have time for play; we have to focus on academics.” 

When lowly teachers approach the educational royalty for assistance, the response often ignores the classroom realities.  In a regal, condescending tone, teachers are often told: Well, you should incorporate developmentally appropriate best practices while meeting all academic expectations.”

Um, you aren’t listening.  The reality is that our students are starving for play, and we are watching them, helpless to change the realities of what school has become for our youngest learners.  Don’t you think we want happier, healthier children thriving in more balanced, joyful classrooms? Teachers are daily witnesses to the stress, anxiety, and burnout of the young children in our schools.  At what point do we stop blaming the teachers, who in reality are simply doing what they’re told to do, to the best of their abilities.  
 The real question facing those who want to follow research-based best practice is not should child-directed play be part of early elementary classrooms, but how to effectively incorporate this essential childhood experience, while meeting the ever-increasing academic demands.  Daily Play Based Centers is a first step to bringing back balanced and joyful learning communities.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.   -Mr. Fred Rogers