How Can Students Learn Through Play?

Two teachers explain a four-part approach to developing academic and social skills in early childhood.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015

By Jennifer Steele and Anna Clay

We arrive to school as the sun rises over the cornfield visible from our classroom windows. Many of our students have been up for hours coming from the far reaches of our county in rural Mississippi. We are a TFA kindergarten teacher from the other side of the country and a pre-K teacher from the local community working together to provide developmentally appropriate early childhood practices – which can strengthen a child’s verbal and math skills while still allowing them to be kids.

Vocabulary is something we try to push very hard in both of our classrooms. Pre-K takes a more direct approach to teaching vocabulary with weekly focus words, while kindergarten utilizes a more contextual approach to teaching new words. Many of our students have never heard some of the words we introduce, so we want to make sure we present them now as vocabulary is one of the biggest indicators of achievement in reading comprehension.

Hands-on materials are one of the most important teaching tools in each classroom since concrete manipulatives enhance each student’s experience and fosters academic independence. For example, in the math center, fun-shaped counters can be sorted by color or shape and then counted out.

Playtime is an important part of our day. Even though we have received some push back from others who think play time is a waste of potential academic time, we still make sure to incorporate activities such as blocks and play kitchens into our day. This less structured time allows students to experiment and cement neural pathways in math and language. It also provides an opportunity for students to practice their interpersonal skills including problems solving and social graces.

Teaching respect is part of our day in addition to academic skills. We try to encourage classroom environments where the students treat each other with respect and value each other’s points of view. As teachers, we both model expected behavior extensively by using positive reinforcement and non-examples. While this approach can be more work on the front end, we have both found that we are reaping the rewards and seeing our students demonstrate respect and kindness towards one another.

Although the norm in our community is one of “quiet and compliant,” we have found that the developmentally appropriate practices we employ in our classrooms have yielded strong results in areas of development neglected by previous curriculums. Believe us, our students have many opportunities to practice their verbal and social skills. We are the LOUDEST classrooms on our hallway, and that is exactly what we hope for.  

Jennifer Steele is a Mississippi ’13 corps member and kindergarten teacher at R.H. Bearden Elementary School. Anna Clay is a pre-K teacher at R.H. Bearden Elementary School.

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