I Play: #InnovatingPlay and Embracing Imperfection

Our classroom is not perfect. I am not a perfect teacher. They are not perfect five year olds. We are living, breathing, growing, learning human beings, and the process is often messy. As grown ups, we sometimes say we want kids to play, and we envision the play in storybooks. Happily engaged children building block towers and sculpting with clay. Children painting at the easels, independently playing games, running and jumping and coordinating ideas into imagination and storytelling. This kind of play is organized, happy, and carefree. Yes, we have many of these moments. However, anyone who works with young children knows there are also many moments that have quite a different feel.

No matter how much we have modeled and set clear guidelines and expectations, there are times when play just gets plain messy. These are the trying moments in which we can either rise to the challenge and embrace the experience, or start putting toys away and taking away play experiences.

In our classroom this is the challenge we found ourselves faced with this week.

Centers were becoming increasingly messy. Not productive messy, I mean toys on the ground and getting stepped on messy. Children seemed to be stagnating in their storylines, creation, and sense of purpose. On Thursday, I invited them to sit around the edge of the rug. In the center I placed a box of toys that had been thrown together in a rush to clean up our building center that day. They sadly looked at the pile of toys and I asked them what the problem was with what they were seeing? They recognized the toys were mixed up and unable to be easily enjoyed. They recognized the challenge of finding what they needed amongst the toys. They recognized the lack of respect that had been shown to classroom materials that we share each day.

Here's where the feeling in the classroom began to shift. The children know that our classroom is built on problem-solving, and they instinctively began to look for solutions to the problem in front of them. They came up with ideas. Re-sorting materials to start fresh, creating signs for centers with reminders of how to play and take care of toys, taking photos of centers so that we could check to make sure that things were put away properly. They were thinking like teachers...they were thinking like problem-solvers, and they were embracing the opportunity to create the solution.

Many teachers might have had all of these things in place as the year started (clearly labeled bins, pre-made posters of rules and expectations are often the first teachers place on walls). I do have many of these things, but my approach is slightly different. I organize materials, model clearly and often, set expectations, and together we set one rule. Always show kindness and respect. Then I watch the process of each class unfold.

Some classes need very little guidance - they naturally engage and develop within this framework, building their own set of norms for the community. Other classes need gentle guidance, perhaps simple mini-lesson reminders and reflection opportunities to stay on track. Still, others need more explicit opportunities to develop ownership and engage in purposeful play. For whatever reason this year's class needed more time dedicated to taking ownership of our space, and their experience of playing within it.

I set the framework for this lesson within a Google Slide presentation so that we could organize and reflect on our thinking.

Here is the breakdown of the lesson as it played out in the classroom:

1. The bigger picture: Where do toys come from?

Children did a pair-share on this question and when we regrouped, we recorded their ideas. I quickly noted how thoughtful their responses were, and how many things they had come up with that I had not considered. I knew it was time to bring our conversation to the next level. I shared the slide with this video about how toy dinosaurs (similar to the ones in our mixed up collection) had been made.

Suddenly, the children did not see our toys as isolated materials. They were the creations of artists, scientists, and engineers. They recognized the workers in factories, the delivery people, even the package designers that had invested time in creating toys. There was an immediate new sense of purpose that our toys held because we knew the dedication inherent in their creation. (There was also new interest in creating our own toys...more on this in another post!)

2. Playtime in Three Parts: Beginning, Middle, End

Play is much more than immediate engagement in imagination and creation. It takes planning, organization of materials, collaboration, execution, and reorganization for next time. Instead of seeing playtime as one thing, we took time to break down the process of play. Children worked in small groups to create charts (see Google Slide Presentation) illustrating each part of the process. As they did this they began to see the importance of each step in the process. Planning, preparation, and reorganization began to hold equal value to the activity itself.

3. Playtime as a Social Experience: Cooperation, Respect, Inclusion

Play is a naturally social experience, yet sometimes children need guidance to collaborate effectively. We decided to reread some classroom stories about kindness and friendship. After reading, children worked with partners to create classroom signs for each of the centers which illustrated the ways that children could collaborate and support each other as they play. They also used Pic Collage to begin taking photos of their centers so that children could refer to them as a reference. Through this process they continued to transfer and apply ownership.

4. Meaningful Extensions: Whistle While You Work

We finished our morning play experiences with this video which was the ultimate buy in for the children. They watched this familiar clip with a new sense of purpose. What once may have been a lovely song and a beloved character, now represented meaningful actions. They noticed the collaboration, cooperation, gentle guidance, problem-solving, and inherent in this scene.

5. Global Connection: Empathy and the Clean Up Experience

Later in the afternoon, as we regrouped to reflect on our day and prepare for free play, I asked the children to consider whether or not children living around the world may be working on the same things. Do all children play? Do they like to play the same thing? Do they have to clean up when they are finished? After considering this question, I presented this short clip to them which shares children in Anji China cleaning up after an outdoor play session. The children were mesmerized by their process. They noticed similarities and difference between the types of toys, the kind of play space, and the process of clean up. They asked questions about the language they spoke and what it might look like inside their schools or homes. They showed empathy for the children they were seeing engaged in the clean up process. Again, play became part of a universal conversation.

It just so happened that I also saw this Tweet as I was thinking about this lesson. Here is another perfect connection for little ones around the world learning to care for their toys.

**Special Note: Founded by Maggie Doyne at age 19, the BlinkNow Foundation supports the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School in Surkhet, Nepal. If you do not know of her work, I highly encourage you to learn more.

6. Trying Again

After a frustrating couple of days of play experiences, we had identified our challenges, persevered in coming up with solutions, and we were ready to try again. This time, as children chose their center, they shared their plan and what materials they would need. Their conversations immediately revealed collaboration and connection to our earlier learning. They were more thoughtful in their selection of toys and their process of play. They were more deeply engaged and thoughtful with each other and with the materials. They were more driven to become creators and bring their ideas to life. As we rang the bell to clean up and finish our day, I put on the Whistle While You Work song, and the children happily began reorganizing toys so they would be ready the next time we played. I quietly recorded their clean up on video so that we can watch it together again as we prepare for play next week.


Learning is messy. It can be exhausting to allow learning to happen this way because we can't necessarily plan it way in advance. It has to stem from the needs of the children and the specific community in which they learn and play each day. Every year will inevitably be different, which can cause anxiety for teachers who want to plan way ahead and navigate the road safely.

However, as we innovate play together, I invite you to be open to the possibility that if we follow their lead, all of our lessons will be deeper. In the end, our world will be a better place because we have supported the growth of independent problem-finders, problems-solvers, and creative thinkers.

Feel free to click here to copy the slides and make them work for your children.

Play Time Problem Solving Google Slides

Heart & Soul,


#empathy #innovatingplay #GoogleSlides



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