• EDUCATOR | AUTHOR | SPEAKER | MAKER 

  • In part one of “Let Them Play is Only Half the Story,” I discussed how years of research have shown us that the optimal learning environments are ones in which there is a balance between guided and self-directed learning, and also the role adults play in the education and socialization of younger children. Part one of this examination of play showed that when we ask “Is play enough?” the question itself is misleading because it often doesn’t acknowledge that the ideas and actions of play are complex. While the need to play is innate, much play is also guided by community tradition or interest. This combination of mentorship and skill-building is what lays the foundation for cognitive, emotional, and social growth and builds more advanced knowledge and skills.

    Just as important as understanding the developmental and educational complexities of play, is knowing how to participate in play without taking away the creativity, autonomy, and unexpected outcomes that play gifts to children. There are many ways to foster learning through play. Creating an environment of academic integrity that is fun and engaging should be the goal of every home and every classroom.

    Below, I’m going to dive into some of my favorite ways to playfully and strategically cultivate the acquisition and retention of knowledge and skills. All of them relate to each other and they can all be used alone or in combination. All of them can be initiated and led by the educator or the student. All of them can be used with and modified for multiple ages, special needs, and in congruence with any educational philosophy. Every activity listed below uses play as a catalyst for individualized learning and progress.

    Plein Air Painting Field Trip

    Information Treasure Hunts

    One of the most essential skills we can give our children is conducting solid research. The ability to find information, determine the credibility of resources, and organize knowledge according to source, intention, and value is a lifelong advantage. Information treasure hunts are perfect for building this skill in young learners.

    To start, you or your learner will be choosing a topic, image, object, or fact that they will be researching. The older the learner, the more challenging you can make these, including choosing topics that need specific key words to find or limited places you can find information. You can use libraries, museums, historical societies, science centers, the Internet, or field trips as resources for research, or even as the location for your information treasure hunt. Have your learners keep notes of the resources they find and the key words that were helpful. You can also partner with your learner on information treasure hunts if they are emergent readers and writers.

    Some kids love information treasure hunts that have a time limit, finding as much as they can within 30 minutes as an example. Assigning a certain amount of time can also be used as a great strategy to get apprehensive or disinterested kids involved because they tend to focus more on the race-like time limit at first, rather than being overwhelmed by the idea of research. This is also a great activity to do with multiple ages, where they can help each other, or in groups, where students can be split by interest and share diverse research with the whole group.

    This activity supports knowing how to learn through playing with resources focused on the topics that interest them, and can be expanded in deciding what to do with that information. Learners could, for example, use information treasure hunts to start a collection, create a story, design a game, or schedule bundle field trips. They could also use information treasure hunts to vet a topic they are intrigued by, using this activity to decide if they would like to dive deeper.

    The point of information treasure hunts is to build research skills and establish the understanding that there is no knowledge or skill your learner cannot access. They are open-ended and meaningful, often leading to deeper learning through projects or unit studies.

    Sequencing and Finding Patterns

    Building relationships between and within concepts is another important academic skill, relevant to every subject, and begins in early childhood. Building play around sequencing and finding patterns lays a solid foundation for understanding more advanced concepts in every subject down the line, but their importance in early childhood should not be dismissed. Young children are very interested in organizing and categorizing objects and ideas. Sequencing and finding patterns satisfy this developmental need, and these same activities help older children think both more logically and more abstractly about the patterns and sequences of larger concepts. Physically sorting or patterning objects is also terrific for the refining of small and large motor skills.

    Sequence and patterns can be found anywhere, like in nature, stories, video games, art, and math. Activities that encourage the notice, prediction, and demonstration of sequence or patterns are easily set up and facilitated. Some successful ideas include sorting activities, mandalas, nature art (check out Andy Goldsworthy), jewelry making, knitting, observations in city design, examining specific art history movements, composing music, and coding.

    There are many ways to document sequences and patterns, including drawing, making lists, creating timelines, and taking photographs. You could also hold events like a nature art day, at which kids make mandalas and other natural art pieces, or hold a yard sale, where children sort and organize the items.

    Patterns and sequences can be found everywhere. Because of the importance patterns and sequences have in every subject, early exposure and practice with them can be valuable towards later achievement in addition to being fun and engaging.

    Collections

    Kids love to build collections and it is never too early to start. Collections can be based on a theme or a specific topic, actual artifacts or information, and can be collected physically or virtually. You can use a platform like Trello or Pinterest to collect virtual objects and information. I suggest that even if you have a substantial virtual collection, you try to have some sort of physical collection as well if appropriate. Learners benefit from the sensory experience of handling objects.

    Collections can be as simple or complex as you or your learner want them to be. You could collect rocks, go to a museum and collect all the paintings with dogs in them, or you could collect ideas for how to solve a problem or challenge. You can document your collection by making a list, sketching, taking pictures, getting postcards from the museum shops, creating a physical collection of objects, or digitally cataloguing your collection. You can bring out the inner curator in your learners by having them write informational labels for each item in their collection, and by creating a portfolio or guide for their complete collection.

    Collections are terrific for seeing connections and relationships between ideas or objects, and may also contain some patterns and sequencing the student did not expect. This activity can be used in combination with many other activities and is a terrific way to organize knowledge and interests into a tangible, interest-driven exploration of subjects.

    Making

    Making is a hot topic these days, fueled by the unending, intense educational focus on STEM and the continued growth of the Maker Movement. Making is inherent to who we are. Humans have always been Makers, driven by the instinctual desire to innovate and create. Making fulfills a kinesthetic need, building both fine and gross motor skills, and fulfills our innate curiosity through experimentation and invention. It also promotes sustainability by re-using or re-imagining materials. For young children, Making supports the growing control they have over their bodies and the active imagination younger learners have by turning their ideas into tangible objects. As children get older, Making satisfies the need to understand and test what they can concretely do with their knowledge and skills. Making changes the way kids think about innovation and about what they are capable of.

    One of the best ways to support Making for your children is to create a space at home that is dedicated to Making. You don’t need a large space or expensive tools to do it. It could be as simple as a table and a tub of supplies. How you start matters less than actually doing it. Collect loose parts and raw materials, a few glue guns and some tape. Find a few simple projects online or in a book about engineering or tinkering with kids. You can consider making larger, more expensive purchases as you observe what your children are drawn to and as they gain more knowledge and skill in this area. Open Making can and usually does lead to more specific projects. For example, experimenting with motors and random recycled parts can inspire kids interested in robotics to make brush bots or hold a Hebocon (a “best worst robots” competition that started in Japan) which may then result in more complex robotics, including participating in FIRST LEGO League or Open-ROV challenges.

    The wonderful thing about Making is that the design thinking process can be done in any subject or with multiple subjects in very personal, self-motivated projects. Think about the topic you want to teach, and how you can create a kinesthetic moment that immerse the learner in the essence of that topic. There is a project for any concept, invention, or passion. Alternatively, start with a project and branch out from there. If your learner wants to make a catapult, you could start with the design and build and then explore all the related subjects, such as history, engineering, architecture, geography, physics, material science, and sociology.

    Making is an essential part of playing and learning, especially for children who are more kinesthetic or visual learners, and for those with asynchronistic development. While it may feel overwhelming to those who do not have experience, if you start small and follow the passions of your learners, Making can be a part of any educational journey. As your learners grow in their interests and abilities, you can incorporate outside mentors who are experts in more complex technologies and techniques, adding incredible breadth and experience to your child’s learning.

    Bundle Field Trips

    Field trips are a terrific way to engage all the sense and experience subjects first-hand, but bundle field trips can take it to the next level. Bundle field trips are an intense collection of experiences based on a specific subject or theme. By taking many field trips within a short time frame, learners deep dive into a subject, becoming experts in a short amount of time based on real, tangible interactions.

    Bundle field trips can be physical, virtual, or a combination. Start by making a list of every possible location nearby that connects to your topic of choice. Next, list the specific knowledge or skills that each location offers and how you will document these experiences. You can use an app like Google Maps to plan out the most efficient route to take to visit all the locations on your list, or visit them according to region over a few days or weeks. If you are willing and able to travel, you could use a road trip or a vacation as the catalyst to a more expansive bundle field trip experience. Finally, make sure to have a plan on how you will use your bundle field trip adventure within the larger scope of your studies.

    The advantage of bundle field trips is that it is experiential and hooks learners through their senses. An intense set of encounters with subjects not only satisfies their interests but naturally teaches them how to organize their thoughts, build their collections, and produce work that has meaning and impact.

    Storytelling

    Humans are born storytellers. Hearing stories, reading stories, and watching stories is how we learn and make sense of our world. Everyone has a story inside them, and examining how others have told theirs gives children the courage and tools to tell their own.

    Through exploring the world of storytelling, you can connect kids to any interest and any topic. Take the time to examine the meaning of words and how the rhythm of writing can make a huge difference in how the story is told. Listen to how stories are told through oral storytelling and music. Explore visual storytelling through illustration, art, dance, puppetry, plays, and movies. Look at combinations of mediums in storytelling, where artists and writers use multiple devices to tell their story. Combine storytelling with Making to make paper and ink, create illuminated manuscripts, bind books, build musical instruments to compose music for a story, draw graphic novels, choreograph a ballet, write a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, or make puppets and a stage. Find many and diverse ways for your learner to tell stories of their own.

    Oregon Trail inspired board game

    Game Design

    Storytelling will come naturally to most kids and is already incorporated into a significant amount of their play. Building knowledge and skills around storytelling satisfies the developmental need in learners to organize thoughts, apply what they know while gaining new abilities, acknowledge their own experiences, collaborate with others, express their own ideas and emotions, and produce something of value.

    Games are learning through strategic play, and can be a valuable tool. By looking at the way games are designed, you can extend learning to cover many different subjects. While board games and video games are usually the first to come to mind, don’t neglect to examine other types of games your child may be interested in such as sports, playground games, traditional folk games, card games, jump rope or hand-clapping games, LARP (Live Action Role Play), and RPG (Role Playing Games).

    Activities can easily be built around game design, from building a custom board game, to designing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, to learning to code and creating a video game, to making up a whole new sport (Quidditch is a great example!). Learners could build a game around a specific event (look at Oregon Trail!) or based on a book they love. You could also use game design to look at other subjects. I’ve personally used the video game Assassin’s Creed as the hook to study history, architecture, cosplay, Making, parkour, and ethics. In fact, the mapping done for that game may be used to help rebuild the ceiling of Notre Dame, which was a fantastic example of how games can have larger impact. While Assassin’s Creed is a game best suited for older learners, there are many other games that would serve this purpose. For example, Minecraft is a wonderfully flexible video game that could be used to explore many different subjects, from resource management to pixels, the board game Wildcraft could be explored for its focus on herbalism and ecology, and Never Alone is a gorgeous video game created in partnership with  Native Alaskan storytellers and elders to express the experience of the Inupiat people and share their traditional lore.

    Games are one of the best ways to facilitate learning through play because they are so engaging and driven by the interest and enthusiasm of the learner. While games teach many valuable skills, such as logic and reason, strategy, storytelling, teamwork, creativity, and resilience, they can also be used as a catalyst to other subjects. You can combine game design with many of the other activities mentioned in this article to create a fun and personal experience in learning.

    Nature Play with Purpose

    Many families understand and nurture the importance of developing a relationship with the natural world. The sensory experience of being outside is important to our development as humans and to our emotional well-being. Our connection to nature, however, is not always immediate nor meaningful. As I have said many times, you have to teach kids to love the earth before you can ask them to care about it. For some children, this is easily done. Other children are not as enthusiastic about the outdoors. In either case, the key is to offer experiences in nature that meet the needs and interests of the learner.

    Whether or not your child enjoys being in nature, there are purposeful activities you can do to add dimension to how they see the outdoor world. Geocaching and games like Pokémon Go can be a catalyst for the digital-minded learners. For kids who like to build and are interested in engineering, building bridges, dams, shelters, or sandcastles add value to their outdoor experience. Artists may enjoy sketching or plein air painting, or creating nature art (see Andy Goldsworthy) or mandalas. Many kids may enjoy building collections through recording observations or identifying flora and fauna. They may also enjoy collecting specimens for their collections, if it is allowed in the area you are exploring. Children can also dive into cartography, learning the knowledge and skills necessary to make all kinds of maps, from relief to topographical to ecological. Learners could also combine nature play with game design and share their results with others, ensuring more connections between kids and the outdoors.

    By playing in nature with intention, children still receive the sensory benefits of being outdoors while focusing on the purpose of their exploration. This can add a new facet to their relationship with nature, or even be the bridge between a learner and the natural world. Just remember to leave the area as close to or better than how you found it.

    These are just a few of the ways in which you can use the natural proclivity children have for play as a tool for more expansive, deeper learning. The combination of play with mentorship and skill-building supports children in their emotional, social, and cognitive development, in their relationship with others, in their partnership with you as their teacher, and sets the stage for life-long learning.

    This article was originally published in September 2019 in the SEA magazine and website.