Playing in 5th Grade

A few months ago I did a series of posts on Explore , a time for kids to play. I shared how we did this in my kindergarten classroom, and wondered how this might look in the upper grades. Well, two of my amazing colleagues, Devon Parks and Tara Boone, decided to take on the challenge of incorporating play into their daily lives – in 5th grade. Here is their story of how they started and what they are noticing in their classrooms. Enjoy!

“I feel like a Kindergartener!” 

“Yeah it feels good, doesn’t it?”

-Two 5th graders commenting on upper grade play

How can we foster creativity?  How can we encourage students to collaborate?  What can we do to incorporate choice in a jam-packed curriculum?  How can we foster a love of learning in ALL of our students?  These are questions that we asked ourselves as we entered our second year of teaching 5th grade.  Still feeling overwhelmed from the process of learning a new curriculum, and the pressure to produce high achieving students, we wondered what we could do in our day to address these questions and make school more enjoyable for both the students and teachers.

At a professional development staff meeting on play in the primary grades, we received the answers to our questions.  During a discussion about play in the primary grades, our principal provoked us to think about how play could be customized to work in the upper grades.  Why hadn’t we thought of this before!?  After sharing ideas about how play could work in the upper grades with teachers in a variety of grade levels, we went to the masters of play, Kindergarten.   We visited a Kindergarten classroom with our students and observed what play looks like in their rooms.  We were delighted with what we saw.  The Kindergarteners were working together to create wonderful projects using a variety of resources that had been left for them to decide how to use.  They were using technology in ways we had never imagined with children so young.  They were happy, they were collaborating, and they were passionately learning about topics that interested them. Play also created an opportunity for the teacher to work with kids one-on-one.  We left Kindergarten that day excited about the opportunities we could create for meaningful play in our own classrooms.

We began our centers by going through each subject area we covered and thinking about what materials we could use from those units to open up as a center.  At first it was difficult, but we soon realized as we went through our curriculum, materials quickly lent themselves as center items.  Students now use the jars, measuring cups, leftover water bottles, milk jugs and funnels to create their own water station where they estimate the volume of containers and measure to confirm their predictions.  Flashlights, mirrors, prisms and other materials from our light and sound unit are left for students to continue their explorations.  Our science lead teacher gathered prepared slides and taught the students how to use microscopes to look at specimens.  Links are posted and shared with students on our Blackboard site, opening another realm of possibilities for extensions of subject areas on classroom computers.  Notebook files and Internet links that are easily manipulated on the SMARTBoard are available for use on the class SMARTBoard.  Blocks and other materials allow students to build whatever structures they wish.  A variety of art supplies are available for students to use at free will.  All math supplies and games, as well as strategy games are available to students at this time as well.   Students choose the center they want to work at and are able to switch between activities at their discretion. Now we barely have to think about what we could make available for play.  The materials rapidly change as we move through our curriculum, keeping our students interested.

Since we implemented a time for play, our students have become masters of play.  We spent about 20 minutes the first day going over how materials should be used and put away and what the classroom should look and sound like at this time.  Visiting a Kindergarten classroom before we began really helped our upper grade students to understand how play should look.  Students work with a variety of partners encouraging one another through challenging tasks.  All students are engaged and working together while teachers are able to pull students for quick one-on-one attention.

The excitement and enthusiasm for play in our classrooms puts smiles on our faces and makes us feel like we are truly supporting and extending our curriculum in a meaningful and engaging manner.  We are lucky to work at a school where administration, teachers and staff are all interested in the best, most meaningful ways to reach our students and therefore, to have the opportunity to incorporate play into our regular day.  Although we can’t necessarily measure in numbers, the impact play has had on our classroom, we can observe our students engaged in a variety of opportunities for learning they would have never been exposed to otherwise.   However, we are able to measure students making academic progress in many areas while incorporating play in the daily schedule.  As it turns out, play has been the answer to our questions all along.

Devon Parks and Tara Boone – 5th grade teachers in a Title 1 public school


  1. Thanks for sharing this post. I started Explore time in my grade 2 class and incorporated elements of the Plan, Do, and Review component of the early childhood curriculum, High Scope. The children need to plan what they’re going to do, including what materials they’re going to use and if they’re going to work alone or with a partner or two. I ask them to write down their plan. We share in small groups at the end of the Creative/Explore Time. Before we started we watched the video about Caine’s Arcade as a way for my students to get an idea of what’s possible when you have free rein of your time and can explore to your heart’s content, so to speak. They changed the name to Creative/Explore Time; some call it Creativity Time. We do this for about an hour on Fridays and the projects are endless and, in some cases, get carried over from week to week. I like the way the two grade 5 teachers above adapted Explore time for their grade level. I can definitely see doing some of this with my grade 2’s. In fact, I will introduce ideas related to areas of the Alberta Program of Studies at this week’s Creative/Explore Time.

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