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Free Play – There is NOT Enough of it

by Early Math Counts

At the beginning of each semester, I ask my student teachers to observe their classrooms, requesting that they simply look for play; what does it look like?, how frequent is it?, what materials and spaces are available for the children to play with and in?, etc.  Each semester, it amazes me what classrooms, teachers, and programs are trying to pass off as “play.”

This past semester, I had a student in a Head Start classroom that only met for three hours, four days a week.  During my observations, and according to my student’s observations, the children were never allowed to play in this classroom.  Even when they went outdoors they were not allowed on the playground (I was told, “Maybe at the end of the year as a special event.”) and they were not allowed to run around.  The children (remember, these children are 3-5 years old) lined up and did old-fashioned calisthenics.

This is an extreme example.

What I see and what my students report looks more like this:

Free play is not really free.  Usually, it is “center time” with very specific activities set up on tables.  The children are expected to participate in each of the centers.  There may also be certain areas of the room that are “open” as well.

Choice time is not really choice.  I often see limited choices during this time.  Teachers announce, “Big blocks are closed. The water table is closed. The sand table is closed.”  At the end of the day it is worse.  Centers claim that children have free play before pick up, but this is often the time when the teachers who are closing are already putting away and cleaning up as they too, are ready to go home (rightfully so).  But don’t call this free play, when the children can only choose table top activities with few materials.

Students report that their programs insist on all sorts of limitations in play: “Only three children allowed in Housekeeping.” “No more than two kids at the sand table.”  “Today we have markers and white paper.”  The list goes on.

There are so many reasons children need time to play.  They need free play with loads of choices.  They need uninterrupted time to play deeply and thoroughly.  They need time to play without constant adult intervention.  They need to play the VAST majority of the day.  Not the kind of play I described above, but real play, without limits.

This article from the Washington Post describes the importance of limiting adult intervention when children are playing.

Check it out.

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