Taking Play Seriously

Play is the ultimate teacher, isn’t it? Children can learn just about anything on the playground; how to interact socially, what their bodies can and can’t do, even how to read and write. Play is an essential component of social and emotional development.

But what happens if play doesn’t yet come easily to a child? Perhaps they are unsure how to approach a new group and feel excluded by others. Or, once they make friends, they have trouble sharing their ideas or incorporating those of others. It can be unsettling–even downright distressing!

Play and social interaction are among the most complex things we explore at the Village School. Part of learning to live together is learning to play together. But play can’t be “taught” with books and circle time discussions (though those can be helpful tools for troubleshooting). Rather, play has to be tried, tested, tweaked, and tried again. So at TVS, we play, and play, and play some more!

The pandemic took away so many opportunities to play with others. Many children are still catching up. In recent years we have seen more tentativeness and anxiety around play, especially when a learner first arrives at TVS. 

To counter this, we talk a lot about taking turns, voicing a desire to play, and including everyone in the studio. Whenever guides or other learners see a lonely-looking child, they gently ask how they are feeling and help them figure out what they would like to do next. They often invite them to play or give them space, depending on what they prefer. 

Sometimes learners need more help. If two of them disagree all the time on the playground, guides might group them together to collaborate on a fun project so they share positive experiences. And as this Pedagogy of Play paper points out, what is playful to one learner may not be experienced as playful by another. We frequently revisit the ways to know someone else is having fun.

Occasionally, when nothing else works, we get a little metacognitive. One learner came to Spark last year and spent weeks trying to fit in on the playground. They yelled to be heard, fought over toys, and or declared that they were no longer friends with so-and-so because they were “so mean.” Despite our best efforts, other learners started to exclude them to avoid these angry outbursts.

We took one of the more senior learners aside and said quietly: “We need your help. Our new friend is still learning how to play. We can teach them! If you tell them how they can play so that you both can have fun, I wonder how their actions will change?”

She got the message. In ten minutes, the veteran learner had a quick huddle with the new learner, left her original group of friends, and the two spent the rest of the afternoon playing restaurant. It wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing from then on, but this was a significant turning point for that learner.

There are countless other ways we coach learners to learn the more difficult lessons of play:

“I hear you say you are feeling left out. I wonder what would happen if we went to ask them to play? I can go with you.”

“They said no? Hmm, I wonder why they said that. Let’s go talk to them together and try to figure this out.”

“What do you think we could do differently so that everyone has fun?”

“Do you want to join in on their ‘family’ game or would you rather find someone else to play football with you?” 

All this to say, navigating play, friendship, and learning to live together is a TVS signature learning experience that sets us apart from most schools. Rather than outsource “social emotional learning” for a 15-minute lesson once a week, we intentionally include long periods of playful learning experiences and unstructured outdoor free time every day. We also walk to the park and library once a week and go on frequent field trips. These present countless opportunities to interact. There’s no better way to teach social skills than by diving in and trying them out. The opportunities are well worth of everyone’s time, energy–and yes, a little uneasiness–to get right!

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