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How to Enable Play in Remote Learning

Young children learn through play.

Research tells us play is essential for healthy brain development, and it can help children manage stress and recover from trauma. Children need to play more than ever during this difficult pandemic, but it can be hard to figure out how to bring it into a remote teaching space. Two Chicago Public School teachers shared their strategies for building play into their kindergarteners’ virtual experiences:

Supporting students’ families to value play in learning
Start by sharing why you value play and what students learn through it. Listen and learn about families’ experiences with their children and play. Work together to bring families on board; they’ll be taking on a big role in implementing play-based learning at home. Outreach communications should create a sense of community for caregivers. Consider sharing circles so they can share how things are going and provide support to each other. Then collaborate on available play materials, ensure kids have access and outline clear expectations. Finally, keep feedback loops open to make adjustments as needed.

Get your students started with some basics
Begin with mini-lessons on organizing their playing materials and different ways to play. After getting kids oriented to their play spaces and responsibilities to maintain them, explore different ways to play and connect and support social and academic skills. Ideas include:

  • Show kids ways to organize blocks, cars, trains, and construction papers nearby. The construction paper may be a sign, a ramp, or part of a road — the emphasis is to explore ideas and possibilities.
  • Model a “restaurant” with Play-doh food and menus created with inventive spelling and pictures cut from newspapers. Children and families learn many play options are possible with the materials they have on hand.
  • Lead a mini-lesson building a bridge with Legos to model problem-solving and persevering to prevent its collapse.
  • Use the power of stories to initiate play. For example, reading aloud Not a Box by Antoinette Portis can inspire many ways to play (“What can you do with a box…?”) while reinforcing individual choice.

It’s helpful to remember that we’re teaching the whole family how to embed social and emotional strategies into play.

Invite students to share their play
Encourage students and their families to create videos, pictures, and audio recordings to share their play. If appropriate, you may highlight different examples of student play with the whole class. Students will learn about each other and get ideas on how to enhance future play. Additionally, students get to build speaking and listening skills while being celebrated for their ingenuity and effort.

Continue to follow up with families
Keep an open dialogue with families about what they’re noticing about their children and their play. Use this information to make adjustments to calibrate to students’ needs, and plan future mini-lessons.

Play helps kids form habits of mind to solve problems, even when things are unclear. We must ensure our young learners still engage in play to learn; it’s critical for their continued development and is a support tool amid the pandemic’s challenges. Play provides students life skills like flexibility, perseverance, and more. It may look different, but play-infused remote learning makes for an engaged classroom and happier students.

For more strategies and examples, check out our webinar recording.

This blog post is part of NTC’s series on remote learning engagement. See our first installment about online platforms here. NTC appreciates kindergarten teachers Priscilla Lindsey and Lisandra Barajas for sharing their practices with our community.

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