Playing with the Big Kids

This morning on the CBS Morning Show there was a story about a high school student who has possibly figured out a cure for cancer. Angela Zhang got interested in bio-engineering as a freshman. She started reading doctorate level papers and began to see it as a puzzle that she wanted to decode. She eventually talked her way into the lab at Stanford University and was doing her own research as a junior in high school. What I kept thinking as I watched this story is that she was playing. She found something that interested her and made the time to play around with it. She had the support of teachers who encouraged her to go beyond the curriculum, to follow a passion and to play. And look what happened.

So what if we built time for students to play into the school day? Not only in our primary grades – but in the upper elementary grades, middle school and high school as well? Recently at a staff professional development session my principal asked us what Explore time would look like in the upper grades. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I think there are so many possibilities for having an open-ended exploration and play time in all grades. After watching the CBS show this morning I’m even more convinced that carving out the time for this (our biggest challenge, perhaps) would be worth so much. Having this time would engage our struggling students as they find things they are interested and successful in and are motivated to pursue. Our students would be able to challenge themselves and pursue areas to research and explore that may not be part of our standard curriculum. We would help students find a passion and stick with a project over time, creating, problem solving, exploring and playing.

A few ideas I came up with for Explore time in grades 2-6 are:

*Legos, blocks and ramp building – including architectural design books and magazines as well as websites for constructing (this is a picture of kindergarteners building ramps – can you imagine how much further older kids could take this?)

*games – Scrabble, Boggle, Life, Monopoly, Yahtzee – just to name a few – these games are full of fun learning opportunities, yet we often don’t have time to play them in school

*science experiments – I think of all the cool experiments and projects at Steve Spangler Science, and countless other science resources, and think that older kids could experiment and play with a variety of science tools, engaging in problem solving, hypothesizing and persistence to a task they are interested in

*photography – children could explore photography and various editing tools that allow you to manipulate and alter photographs such as ColorSplash and Photoshop, using digital cameras,  iPods or iPads

*art – exploration with a variety of mediums, as well as books, websites, etc. to get ideas from

*technology – kids could Tweet, create their own blogs, create digital stories, make movies, etc… there are SO many possibilities here

*reading – I know I would love an extra 30 minutes or so in each day to read whatever I chose – books, magazines, blogs, etc.

*writing – kids could work on their own books and stories or work with others to create collaborative pieces

*projects and research on topics in the curriculum that kids want to explore further or topics that students choose

I feel that with older kids simply giving them the time and then challenging them to create a project of their choosing would be all you really need to do. Of course, you would provide materials, guidance, etc. – but I think they could come up with ideas beyond what we can think of. Finding the time is a challenge in an educational climate where it seems as if every minute is planned with curriculum objectives and pacing guides – with the standardized tests being the ultimate goal. But don’t we want thinkers, problem solvers, engaged learners, and motivated students in addition to good test scores? I would argue that providing this time would improve test scores, especially in your reluctant, struggling students who aren’t invested in school. It would get them hooked on learning, motivated to learn more and I think great results in math, reading, writing and the content areas would be seen. Isn’t it worth a try?

I’d love to hear from you if you are trying anything like this with your students.

How do you make the time? What types of Explore activities/projects/etc. are your students engaged in? What advice do you have for teachers wanting to try this?


  1. When I was in the classroom I always started the day with this–2-3 days a week was totally free explore and 2 days had a focus. We stocked the room with building toys, learning games, etc. Added challenges, etc. Gave ideas of things throughout the day –like in science if we did an experiment, we would talk about how you could take that further in explore time. We also shared a lot so kids could see what was possible–and it gave me time to meet with kids individually or in small groups. So much better in terms of effective use of time than the usual morning work/attendance/lunch count/etc. Really very little time taken from the day and everyone started the day owning their own learning. Love the photography and tech ideas. Hadn’t thought about this in a while until I read your post. Thanks for sharing your thinking:-)

    • I agree with you, Franki, that time first thing in the morning is a good place to look at adding an Explore time. We can waste a lot of time with morning worksheets, attendance, etc. that could be filled with quality learning. Kids come in excited to be there, and eager to get started on a project they own. The sharing is KEY for sure. There are so many great things that come out of giving kids time to talk. Thanks so much for sharing how you did this.

  2. I also think how practical this would be for the “real world” and helping these students find jobs, etc. later on. My special ed students barely have time to play, because when they arent doing the standard curriculum, they are busy receiving help to their weaknesses. But we dot focus enough on their strengths. I have studnets on the spectrum who are sooo gifted in certain areas, and could come up with so many cool ideas if justq given some time. We provide a little structure and guidance, and let them come up with the rest!

  3. When I taught a combination grade one/grade two class in San Francisco, many years ago, I did Plan, Do, and Review for an hour three times a week. It’s a component of the High Scope curriculum where kids plan an activity (plan), carry it out (do) and then share in a small group (review). The children need to share a model or a representation of some kind of what they did. The teacher’s job is to observe and engage the children by asking authentic questions to nudge them to enhance the work/play they were involved in. I look forward to hearing others’ ideas.

  4. We are doing a science curriculum (called supercharged science) The kids watch a video and then head straight to the experiment option. If it’s something that really interests them, they are free to go back and read more information on it. I help out very little, most I listen to their idea, sometimes help them troubleshoot, but they mostly work in small groups and figure things out for themselves.

  5. Yes older students need this and testing pressures shut the door for so many teachers. There are plenty of strategy math games to add to your list. I love Mindware for solace to start. For construction the flexible foam insulation tubing cut in half making a half circle makes great ramps.

    I love starting my day with explore and think I have room to increase thinking, discovery, wondering with various materials. Provoking thinking. Thanks for sharing

  6. It’s SO amazing that you write this article today. I saw the program this morning also, as well as one the other night about the schools in Finland. Their students are allowed time each day for exploration( I believe it was 75 minutes) as well as recess twice a day. During this time students could take dance, music, or art lessons, explore the computer or science experiments. They do not focus on passing standardized tests but yet still rank top in the world when the students graduate. I’ve attached an article I found … sounds like a wonderful experience for children!

  7. Katie, I love the idea of explore time for older grades. You’ve given me some things to think about for my third graders. I think that tomorrow, we will do some brainstorming together and I will share your list. I know that I have some students who would love building. One of my boys is currently working on plans for his bike shop that he wants to open along the bike trail. How great if he had time to work on that in school.
    I agree with Franki too, that it would be the perfect time to let the kids have more choice in their learning during the first thing in the morning. I’m anxious to see what they come up with. I’ll let you know how it goes.


  8. I teach 5th grades and we are on a seven day rotation. Usually they are in specials the last two periods, but one of those days I get them back at the very end of the day. This is the time I ‘allow’ them to use their P.A.T. (Preferred Activity Time). Their choices for P.A.T. always fall along these lines. So, even though they are regularly doing several of the suggestions you list (independent reading, free writing, science experiments, etc.) during that time I get out the games (always with a strategy, spacial, or work focus) or collaborative building challenges and the like. It isn’t a ton of time, but a least it is a regular part of their day.

  9. Dear Katie,

    Mrs. Johnson just showed us your post. We are excited to do Explore time in our class. Some of the things we thought about were building, sign language, time for research, making games, making toys, exploring different kinds of art, science experiments, using technology, free time to read and write, learning more about sports. We are going to call it Exploration Monday and Friday. We can’t wait to get started!

    Mrs. Johnson’s third graders

  10. Hi Katie,
    With my first grade, children and parents can come into the classroom up to 30 minutes before the starting bell. The children unpack their bags first, then have ‘free play’ with activities that are always available in the room – blocks, home-corner, books, drawing, writing, puzzles, Duplo, Lego, etc.
    It’s a calm, friendly way to start the day – children talk (to me, parents, each other), play and choose things to do. I often get interesting writing/drawing and improved reading from children choosing these activities before school!

  11. Pingback: Playing in 5th Grade « Catching Readers Before They Fall

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