“They’re just playing…”

I was recently listening to a conference session by Katie Sellstrom. During the talk, she made a statement that was so simple, it was brilliant. And needs to be repeated. It paraphrases like this: “Yeah, I mean, okay. Maybe you’re only taking this kind of data because the law requires you to. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make the experience awesome for your students.”

Katie was speaking of in-class assessments and formative data and MTSS structures and stuff like that. The stuff that plays into what a lot of people are lamenting about the modern state of education. Education is currently a world of standards, learning targets, data goals, and accountability. I think those are good things. I think that schools should be expected to do a good job growing every single kid in their school. And if they are doing a good job for every kid, they shouldn’t be offended by being asked to prove it. And if they can’t prove it (either because they aren’t keeping track, or because they aren’t doing a good job growing each kid), we shouldn’t be okay with that.

But, we can’t lose sight of what drives change. The ultimate goal is for all students to achieve at a high level. Not simply to do their best, but to change their best and then do the brand new best. And in order to do that, it should be a foregone conclusion that we need the students to come to school. Everyday. All year. Every year. And not simply because the law makes them.

Side note: the data on the negative effects of dropping out are intense and not in dispute and yet, in light of that, many kids see it as a reasonable choice compared to coming to school. So, it should satisfy NO ONE that we have to require kids by law to come to our classrooms. Why aren’t they flocking to them by choice?

Well, for one thing, when the accountability systems started tightening the screws on everyone, many schools (particularly those who need the most growth) decided it was time to buckle down and get to work. #NoMoreFoolinAround Which is completely understandable, but…

… it seemed to often come with a corresponding reduction in the stuff that makes the classroom environment enjoyable. And the concern over that isn’t simply fluffy “kids-should-be-kids, shouldn’t children be happy?” stuff. Not at all. It’s economic. We need those young people to come to school. Enthusiastically, if possible, so that our systems can help them grow. If the learning environment is regularly uninspiring, then we are going to lose our target audience. And everyone loses if that happens.

So, what to do? Well, perhaps we could consider designing academically-meaningful tasks that were also enjoyable. Tools like Desmos, Formative and EdPuzzle (among others) help a lot in creating flexibility in lesson design that can bring a variety of potentially enjoyable elements into core activities. But beyond that, take a look at the two pictures above at the top of this post.

Here, I’ll show you one more.

JustPlaying3

I visted this school in the midst of their “Oral Language Groups.”

It was collaborative play time. (That doesn’t look as good on a master schedule). But it isn’t “just play time.” First things first, the students were all actively engaged. Secondly, about 90% of them were collaborating actively with a classmate. Third, they weren’t all doing the same thing. The students could pick which group they wanted to be at. And fourth, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Behavior issues were low. Students wanting to brag about their work was high. So, can it be aligned to anything? (This is an important question. All activities should fit in with the broader goals.)

Common Core ELA: 

CCRA.SL.1 – Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasive; CCRA.SL.6 – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks…

Common Core Math:

SMP3 – Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others, SMP5 – Use appropriate tools strategically, SMP6 – Attend to precision

Next Gen Science Practice Standards

Planning and Carrying out investigations, Analyzing and interpreting data, Using mathematical and computational thinking, Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Some of those are a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. Strategic play time isn’t “just” play time. Just like maker space time isn’t “just” maker space time. These environments can be built to create academically supportive learning experiences.

Notice: “can be built”… it requires strategic design to make it valuable. So, here are some thoughts I have about how to take “just” play time and make it meaningful.

  1. Have a goal for your students during your play/maker time. What type of learning are you trying to get? Do you want the students to collaborate? Communicate? What do you expect that to look like in this type of setting? How do you intend to communicate those expectations to your students?
  2. Don’t let your goal be an excuse for reducing student autonomy. This isn’t a cookbook chemistry lab. This is play time. And many of the growth pieces that you are hoping for with your students are cut out when you start micromanaging the play. Skenazy and Haidt put it this way: “Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood. In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.”
  3. Take data during the play time. The students are playing. You are not. Your job is to figure out if this thing is working toward your goal. So, decide what data you are going to take. Take it. And monitor their progress. Remember, data isn’t always quantitative.
  4. Have the students reflect a bit. Having a bit off a “show-off something cool” time will give the groups a chance to describe to the class what they made, tell a story about it, and gather ideas for next time while listening to the others.
  5. Be reasonable about how much time you have to devote to play/maker time. It’s possible that given the “have-to’s” of your situation, you can only make this work out once per week. That’s okay. Do the best you can. But please, please… whatever you do… please. Don’t turn this into a reward for learning fast. Planning these in as a reward for behaving and passing assessments sends the exact wrong message and sends that message to the group of students most likely to benefit from the play/maker time. (The message: You struggle in school, so you don’t get to have fun. Stop struggling, then we’ll let you have fun.)

Rushton Hurley says “it isn’t our job to entertain the kids, but if we do our jobs in an entertaining way, then they are much more likely to come along for the ride.” I endorse that message, because them coming along for the ride is exactly what we need them to do. Remember, if we are going to grow them, we need them to be in school. Everyday. All year. Every year.

Let’s start thinking about creating the kinds of environments where a young person would voluntarily do that.

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