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

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?

Literacy Explore

Our kindergarten literacy block is structured with time for whole group instruction, small group & one on one instruction, book box time, sharing and choice stations. Literacy Explore is similar to reading and writing stations. In fact, I call it that so the children know that it’s not quite as open-ended as our Explore time. During this time I expect the kids to be engaged and playing in a literacy activity of their choosing. The children choose from the choices on our work board. They can move freely from station to station, as long as there is room. Reading from book boxes or our classroom library and writing are always a choice with no restrictions on how many kids can be doing this. I also have a time when everyone is reading from book boxes or the classroom library – in addition to our literacy Explore time. I want to make sure that everyone is engaged in texts of their choosing at some point in our day, in case they are not choosing this during Explore.

An example of some of the choices available as reading and writing stations are:

-reading around the room (children have pointers and can walk around the room looking for letters or words they know)

-writing around the room (children have clipboards and can walk around the room writing down letters or words they see)

-big books (all the big books we have read, as well as class big books we have made are in a bin for children to reread – I also have a big picture dictionary they love to read)

-puppets (I have a variety of puppets and stuffed animals from books we have read. Kids can create their own puppet stories or retell books we have read.)

-magnetic letters (a variety of magnetic letters and words on an oil drip pan and cookie sheets for kids to make words, match and sort letters, etc.)

-letter sand boxes (see this previous post for a photo and description)

-name bottles (we interviewed each child and then created a name bottle for them – it’s a bottle with all the letters of their name plus some glitter – kids can match a name bottle with a name card at this station) 

-story retelling (I have props for several stories we have read numerous times – the children can retell the story with the props)

-rhyming and letter games (various games where kids can match objects that rhyme, objects to a letter chart, objects with similar beginning or ending sounds, etc. – a good source for ordering lots of little objects is from Time for Tots on Etsy)

-poems and songs on charts (Children can reread familiar poems and songs with pointers at this station. I laminate all of our charts, tape a plastic hanger to them, and hang them on a chart stand. I have several hooks around the room for kids to hang the charts on while they are reading them.)

-iPad and iPhone (A variety of literacy apps are available at these stations – I especially like the digital story apps Fotobabble, StoryKit, and Storyrobe) as well as the SMARTboard (literacy games and websites).)

-letter stamps (Kids can make books, stamp names or words, sort letters, etc. with the ABC stamps.)

-flannel board (I love my “old school” flannel board! It is great for retelling stories and creating new ones from having multiple felt pieces available. Story Time Felts has a wide variety of stories available on felt and for a few dollars extra, they come pre-cut. Check with your librarian, many times old flannel boards are just in a closet, not being used.)

This is just a sampling of some ideas. I leave the choices up for a few weeks, adding new ones in and rotating ones out if I see that kids aren’t going to that station. I can then reintroduce a station later with renewed interest.

For our youngest literacy learners (and really, all literacy learners), I feel that it’s particularly important to make literacy accessible, playful, meaningful and engaging. When children have the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of stations they are certain to feel empowered, successful and in control of their learning. This helps set the foundation for strong literacy learning, and allows our stronger children the chance to go beyond the curriculum.

I’m sure there are many more literacy based exploration ideas out there. How do you do literacy stations? Please share!

Explore!

“In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”

Lev Vygotsky

Several years ago I had a huge “a-ha” moment while reading Serious Players in the Primary Classroom: Empowering Children Through Active Learning Experiences. If you’re interested in meaningful, purposeful play and learning then this book is a must-read. My “a-ha” moment resulted in creating one of my favorite times of the day – Explore. I started Explore when I was teaching second grade, and have done it with first grade and now kindergarten. We start and end each day with 15-30 minutes of Explore time. When my students enter our room every morning they unpack and then choose an Explore station. I have a work board where the children move their name to indicate their choices. Choices might be: blocks, art, iPad, dramatic play, sand table, garden rocks, Legos, puppets, puzzles, games, math manipulatives, play-dough, building ramps, etc. Reading in the library and writing are always choices.  I typically have 12-16 choices with space for 4 children at each station.

Because my room is on the small side, I don’t have the supplies out in pre-set stations, for the most part. I teach the children where to get the materials and how to put them away. Children are free to move from station to station as they wish – as long as there is room, they can change stations as much as they’d like. As the year goes on, it is my hope that Explore will turn into student-generated projects and stations that they create as an extension of our curriculum. I leave the board up with different options each week, but the children know they can let me know if they would like to create their own Explore station.

One year after a trip to a folk art exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a group of second grade students decided to create their own folk art exhibit during Explore time. Just the other day we found a HUGE box in the hallway waiting to be taken out with the trash. We grabbed that box and it is currently being painted as a Fairy Princess Castle House. What will happen next is yet to be seen. It’s up to the children what they choose to do with the box. It’s up to me to provide the supplies and space for their creativity to shine.

During Explore I want kids to do exactly that – explore different things in our classroom and play! This is an important time for me to interact with the children. Walking around the room I take pictures, engage in play with students, ask questions, wonder out loud and observe. Kid-watching during Explore time gives me tons of anecdotal notes to help guide my teaching. This is a time rich with oral language opportunities and a chance for all students to be successful, empowered problem solvers. They are engaged, invested and learning a tremendous amount.

Explore is a time in our day that I couldn’t live without. It’s messy, fun, productive, exciting and full of learning that may not happen within the normal day and set curriculum. I can easily say that I don’t have the time for this. But I believe that we make time for what is important. And this is important work for children.

Have you tried a version of Explore? Please share your experiences with open ending exploration and play time for children. We would love to hear new and different ideas!

I’ve taken the idea of Explore and carried it over into math and literacy as well. Stay tuned for my next post on how Literacy Explore works in our classroom. And check out Kassia Omohundro Wedekind’s post on Math Explore over at Math Exchanges.