“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Fred Rogers
What is Play-Based Learning?
It is the process of students learning through their self-chosen activities. If it is teacher directed, planned, required, or structured by adults, it does not fit the definition of true play-based learning. As students advance past their preschool years, the amount of time devoted to this type of activity diminishes. However, it is important to set aside time for this type of unstructured free play. As educator Rae Pica states, “I shouldn’t have to defend play for children any more than I should have to defend their eating, sleeping, and breathing.”
So What Does Play-Based Learning Look Like During the Upper Elementary Years?
We don’t want to wait for a “visit” to a makerspace to think like a maker. Author John Spencer states, “Makerspaces aren’t about the ‘stuff.’ They’re about the making and the mindset.” Having a makerspace mindset is true play-based learning. We need to make sure we have opportunities for students to have unstructured, creative time so that they can see materials and think, “What can I create/invent/explore with this?” These unstructured experiences lead to innovation, inventing, and making connections. All of these are skills we want in our future generations.
Even if your school has an official Makerspace, provide students with a space to access in your classroom where students can explore. I have found that students are able to “make” on a more advanced level if I incorporate materials from the makerspace into my lessons using arts standards. Using arts integration strategies and modeling the design process opens up more possibilities for students for using different mediums to create. Once they see possibilities, some student push the boundaries of the conventional use of materials, leading to unique and innovative creations. These arts integration student placemats are a perfect resource to provide in your makerspace to help spark student ideas and creativity.
“Even when children are playing freely, they need to play with control.” – Responsive Classroom
What Doesn’t Work
When we have students from many backgrounds and varied home and educational experiences, we can’t just open the doors to a makerspace and let the students go wild. I tried.
After gaining inspiration on the topics of the maker movement, student-led inquiry, and student choice/voice, I wanted to dive in. My cabinet is full of art and recycled materials, and during indoor recesses (which are frequent during our Pennsylvania winters), I told the students that they were free to use this area to create. I was prepared to embrace the happy mess that creation brings. I was not prepared for the destruction of the makerspace and classroom materials. When I returned to the room after my prep time, our afternoon materials were glued together, the tablecloth on my desk was cut in multiple places, the wooden letters displaying the word “create” was cracked in half, and pieces of construction paper were strewn around the room with an inappropriate word written in the middle of each one. And yes, an aide was in the room supervising.
We were not ready for unstructured play without teacher intervention. I had to close this area of my room and explicitly teach students how to use it for its intended purpose.
How to “Teach” Unstructured Play
I know that students are naturally curious and that play comes naturally. However, even when children are playing freely, they need to have control. Students in our makerspace lacked control and purpose because I hadn’t taught students how to make good decisions when given the freedom of choice. We see this problem on the playground, too. Many students lack the social skills to freeplay successfully at recess. For this reason, some schools have turned to structured play on the playground as a scaffold. There are benefits to this, specifically an increase in safety and a decrease in discipline problems – both paramount at recess. However, with zero opportunity for students to make their own choices, this has the potential to backfire.
The best method for learning how to play with control is through class meetings. To do this, try to predict situations that may arise and have students role play. Students will then be able to deal with problems as they arise. They’ll also make good choices when working with materials. If you have to be reactive, role play a problem scenario after the fact and discuss/practice possible solutions. For my class, this meant scenarios about how to use our materials. We brainstormed general ideas for creating and generated a list of reasons why we shouldn’t create. (Guideline number one: We’re respectful of others and our classroom space. We don’t create to harm a person [feelings or otherwise] or harm our classroom in the creation process.)
How Are You Encouraging a Maker Mindset?
Teaching students to have a maker mindset and providing them with space and time to play is crucial to their development. Play-based learning fosters creativity and original thinking while supporting positive social and emotional health. How have you tried this in your classroom? Have you incorporated a Makerspace Mindset? Share your experiences with us!
Dyan is a third grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.