On Teaching: Between Work and Play

By Mary Wolff
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:28:00 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mary Wolf is a Bay Area teacher who will be writing occasional columns for the Planet based on her experiences in the classroom.  


We tend to separate work and play. We see work as something that is not necessarily pleasant but must be done and play as something to do when work is done. School reflects this. In kindergarten, we do our work and when all is done, then the students get play time. Those who haven’t finished their work do that during play time. Many kindergartens don’t have a play time. 

In the garden the other day, I was sitting in the dirt pulling weeds. I was reminded of playing in the dirt as a child, making mud pies and other recipes. I actually had a book my sister had given me titled “How to Make Mudpies and Other Recipes.” I loved that book and used it for many days. Well, I no longer play in the garden, but I do work. And is there much difference?  

I can justify the work; the weeds need to be pulled, I am getting the garden in shape and besides, I am getting exercise. So it is work: something that needs to be done. However, it resembles the play of childhood. I am doing something I enjoy, by my own volition. I derive pleasure and gain knowledge from doing it. So it is workplay, the best type of activity, I would say. 

So too, do my kindergartners play. At play time, they choose the activity, it is something from which they derive pleasure, but it is also an activity from which they draw many lessons. And thus, it is important to do it. We call it play, we let them do it only when their work is done, we cancel it when necessary, but it is so important. There are those, usually boys, who choose Lego each time. They are learning about how shapes fit together; they learn to negotiate for the piece they need; and they derive great pride from their creations. Others choose Playdoh, learning about cause and effect, and negotiation again, and pride.  

One girl this year always chose the box of scraps. She showed great creativity making crowns, cards, etc., from scraps of paper and cardboard. There are the block builders, the computer kids, the math manipulators … all are choosing an activity of their own volition, learning science and math concepts, and learning to cooperate with other children besides. They also learn to clean up after themselves. 

We call this play! And we limit it to 20 minutes a day. It used to be that play was most of the kindergarten day, as nursery school is today. No longer. We spend the rest of the day on seatwork or at the rug learning the alphabet and numbers.  

This year, I had a class that was very difficult but also smart. They would only do well when it was an activity they chose or liked. Many didn’t want to learn the alphabet or numbers until I finally convinced them that it was in their self-interest. When an activity bored them, they would play games with each other, tune out, or disrupt the class. But whenever the activity was playlike, they cooperated. They would listen to stories and respond enthusiastically and with excellent comprehension. They loved science and art and P.E. The last week of school, with assessments done, I could ignore the pacing guide as no one would be the wiser.  

I had the students make and paint wood sculptures for their fathers for Father’s Day. I was apprehensive, given their behavior. Would they wave their brushes around, spill the paint, get paint all over their desks? No, they painted neatly, focussed and quiet. Because it was an activity that engaged them. 

So the trick is to choose activities that engage them at all times. This is tricky. I try but given the textbooks we must use, the pacing guides and the assessments, it is too easy to fall back on worksheets and bookwork.  

After all, I will be judged on the test, not how engaged they were. But I always keep in the back of my mind the need to engage them, to let them indulge in play, in short, to teach kindergarten the way it should be taught!