A NYC Teacher Breaks the Silence on the Power of Play

Play is the sine qua non of early childhood education.  “It has long been noticed that the smartest mammals—primates, cetaceans, elephants, and carnivores—are the most playful,” anthropologist and neuroscientist Melvin Konner wrote in his epic work, The Evolution of Childhood.


Yet we continue to ignore the evidence. We’re stealing it from the classrooms of young children as young as four.  A trio of studies conducted in low-income, community-based child care centers over two decades, book-ended by the publication of A Nation at Risk, in 1983, and the enactment of No Child Left Behind, found time for play among four-and-a-half year-olds had diminished from 41 percent  to 9 percent. And we hadn’t even gotten to Race to the Top and testing on steroids, the legacy of Arne Duncan.

In New York City, where schools chancellor Carmen Fariña imposed a gag order on teachers and principals with respect to discussion of opting out,  a teacher who has taught prekindergarten through the early elementary grades, has been assessing the damage.

Fearful of the repercussions of revealing her identity, she writes at her blog, pedagogyofthereformed, under the pen name of Ms. Rumphius, the eponymous heroine of Barbara Cooney’s beloved book who sought to make the world more beautiful.  In this post, she takes us out to the schoolyard to watch the children at play.


By Ms. Rumphius

Friday was the last day of testing. Day three of the math was brutal by all accounts and after three days of standardized sitting, it was clear to everyone who was paying attention that our kids needed to get outdoors.

So on Friday afternoon, I brought my class to the yard for some extra outdoor play time and discovered at least six other classes already at play. There were second-graders, third-graders, fourth-graders and fifth-graders, all outside in our giant schoolyard together.

It was pretty magical. There were mixed age games of kickball and football. There were races and climbing. There were kids acting out stories and kids running through the yard, holding hands in a chain.

One seven-year-old leapt by me, exclaiming, “It is just such a beautiful day!” Another student ran up to me in the midst of a very intense soccer game to ask me if I knew who had discovered the earth’s magnetic field. “William Gilbert!” he told me, and then dashed back to his game.

A third-grade girl quietly sitting by herself told me that her favorite thing to do during recess is to imagine fantastical creatures and then write poems about them in her head. Another girl ran up to me and said, “I figured out why we came outside instead of doing science—it’s  because we’re using kinetic energy and sound energy when we’re outside and because of motion!”

Very little instruction happens during testing because the exams exhaust children’s reserves of stamina and attention. This particular day, all I did was monitor a hallway, and take two classes out to play. Initially, I had dismissed the day as a waste of time because “I wasn’t teaching anything.” But it wasn’t a waste of time. Not because the test was worthwhile in any way; it was not.  We played.

Kids need play. It is how they learn. It is how they process new ideas and become themselves. This is something study after study has shown—that children learn best through play, through social interaction, through exploration, through movement. Yet, we continue to insist that real learning happens silently at desks in front of “rigorous” worksheets.

Getting outside last week was a powerful reminder that play is not separate from learning: play is learning. We should be doing everything we can to make our teaching more play-based.  We shouldn’t be cutting recess and choice time out of our schedules. And we should remember that play is never, ever a waste of time.

Rather, the best teaching happens when students explore, make choices, use their imaginations, build and move—in short, when we finally let kids put their packets down, get out of their seats, and play to their hearts’ content.


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