Michelle Gunderson Champions Play as an Organizing Principle

“There once was a union maid, who never was afraid,” wrote Woodie Guthrie, the son of an industrialist who grew up to chronicle, in song, the suffering of the Great Depression.  Michelle Gunderson is her descendant.


A veteran first-grade teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction, she honors the expertise of early childhood educators, fighting for play and policies that support best practice through “good, old-fashioned union organizing.” This essay originally appeared at Living in Dialogue.


 By Michelle Gunderson

The children in my first-grade classroom play. There are no academic centers where a teacher rings a bell and children move from activity to activity. That might look like play, but it is not. We have body breaks where we sing and dance, but we do not call it play, because it is not. We play—pure and simple—and it is self-selected, student-driven, and sustained for 60 minutes so that the play is deep and meaningful.

Last week, as I watched one of my students lost in play, washing one of our baby dolls, I was reminded how vital play is to a child’s sense of well-being, language and physical development, and sense of identity. In that moment in time in her imagination, she WAS the baby doll’s mother. Just a few feet away, several children were building in our block center. The play there becomes so involved that the children have started building what they call “worlds”. Dig back into your your childhood—you remember what this felt like.

As a union activist, I see play as an organizing issue that unites us in our fight for schools that our children deserve. It is an issue that most of us care deeply about, and there is a mountain of research in child development that supports our position that play be a sheltered part of a child’s school experience.

One of the things that impedes our organizing around play is that we often talk about how imperative play is for a child’s well-being, but we seldom clarify the role of an expert adult in producing meaningful play in a classroom. Many believe that if play is natural to children it should just occur without the need of adult support. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I have learned this the hard way.

I usually explain the importance of adult guidance in play with a birthday-party scenario. Any of you reading this who have experienced a six-year-old birthday party will probably agree that, after two hours with 20 or more first-graders, you wish you were in a fetal position on the couch. For some reason, that I have yet to see explained in research, children left to their own devices in a play situation soon devolve into a “Lord of the Flies” situation.

It takes expert adult knowledge of children’s emotional needs, play-space organization, teacher involvement in problem solving, and a true understanding of cognitive processes for an educator to plan for play that is productive.

My first job after receiving my teaching certificate was working in a preschool for the navy at the Glenview Naval Air Station. It was a beautiful facility stocked with everything that a school community could need. The only problem was that the three-year-olds I was working with were expected to engage in an academic curriculum. I soon found out that our days were torturous—the children rebelled, were often unhappy and sad, and acted out in ways that were difficult to overcome. I lasted three months.

Luckily, I was awarded a fellowship in the early childhood program at the National College of Education in Evanston, where I learned developmentally appropriate practice from titans in the early childhood field: Betty Weeks and Paula Jorde Bloom. Without this specialized knowledge, I could not be the teacher I am today. For this reason, I am a strong proponent of early childhood experts as teachers of children through age eight.

Not only is play of vital concern for children, it is also a worksite issue. Educators who are forced to teach young children in schools where play is not valued are also harmed. The work becomes impossible when children have academic learning imposed on them all day long. It is a system set up for failure, of both kids and adults.

We were able as a first-grade team to preserve time for play during our school day through good old-fashioned union organizing. Our neighborhood Chicago Public School has an extremely strong internal union structure where the teachers trust each other to establish robust curriculum and a fair workplace. In this environment, when the school day was extended by an hour, our first-grade team decided that we were going to schedule “choice time”—a  daily hour of self-selected play. This agreement is the bedrock of our solidarity (a key principle of union organizing). All four of us on the first-grade team would defend a child’s right to play, and we would not waiver.

Next, we did what any good organizer would do: we educated our allies (parents in this case) through our weekly newsletter, website, and curriculum night. I post a photo display of children playing with explanations of why the play is important and what educational role it fills. For example, I placed photos in our hallway of children working in our sewing center with explanations about the visual planning involved, the fine motor skill gained, the craft knowledge acquired, and the personal satisfaction of producing beautiful work. That is the work of childhood.

If play were eliminated from our daily routine, the parents of our students would rebel with pitchforks and torches. We have made a strong case for this learning, and the parents know firsthand that their children are happy.

Protecting play in our classrooms at our school is micro-level work, but it is an organizing point that needs to be addressed nationwide. When we organize around play as a critical issue for the well-being of children, we improve worksite conditions. We make a difference in children’s lives, in workers’ lives, and in the cultures of our school sites.


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