Lesson Length : 25 minutes
One of the most beautiful parts about teaching at the PlayGarden is observing the children play when they are deep in their own flow. In these times, the children are often playing independently or clustered in pairs, or small groups. They are directing their own play, have found roles for themselves and each other and are deeply immersed in what they are doing.
As a teacher, it can feel like you hit the sweet spot in your day. You feel proud of your teaching and proud of the experiences your students are having.
So how do you get to that sweet point?
Everyone wants to get to that point in their teaching day where things feel a bit smoother and where the children have settled in and are playing well together. To get to this point however, there are a couple things teachers need to balance:
In a preschool program, finding a good balance between structured and unstructured play time is key. At the PlayGarden, less than half our day is spent in structured play activities such as circle time, snack or lunch. The other slightly more than half is spent allowing the kids to engage in unstructured, child-directed free play. Preschoolers need both.
Benefits of structured play:
Structure gives children a sense of order. It can help teach them how to follow routine and overall can help kids feel secure. Clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham explains, “A predictable routine allows children to feel safe and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives.”
At the PlayGarden we add structure to our day by having circle times, snack and lunch at the same time every day following a similar routine. However, the teachers also provide structure for each individual child throughout the day providing kids with clear options of what projects they could choose from, inviting them into various activities, and using teaching tools such as picture schedules and timers, to help the kids feel more at ease.
Take a look at our daily preschool schedule.
The parts in blue are structured times we come together as a full class while the parts in black are unstructured time where there is a mix of child-directed and adult-directed play opportunities. Notice how our structured group time is broken up by unstructured free play time. Do you notice the difference in time lengths for each of these different parts to our day? For example, circle time (a structured activity) is usually about 30 minutes while free play (unstructured activity) before lunch is an hour and a half.
Why Use Visual Schedules With Preschoolers?
A picture schedule is a symbol or picture representation of a series of activities. A picture schedule is a great teaching tool to use with your whole class or with individual children.
Visual schedules can help…
How to make a picture schedule
Picture schedules can take many forms. Some of our favorites include a laminated sheet that can be drawn on with dry erase markers or each part of the schedule can be removable using sticky back velcro. An adjustable schedule such as one with sticky back velcro can help the child understand how they are progressing through the day.
How a Picture Schedule Helps Sophie
Let’s take a look at an example picture schedule for a child named Sophie. Sophie is non-verbal and has a hard time joining social activities on her own. She finds comfort in the garden and especially likes to pick flowers and blueberries. Providing Sophie with a picture schedule can make a significant difference in her day. With it she can better communicate with her teachers and peers. For Sophie, having a schedule that shows her a variety of options is key for her having a variety of experiences. Sophie likes to play with bubbles but because she has a hard time knowing how to join a group of other children, she will often avoid the bubbles and go back to the activity that she knows well, picking blueberries. With the help of a teacher and a picture schedule, the possibility of bubbles becomes more readily available to her.
Making a Picture Schedule on the Fly
If you are short on time, have a child whose interest changes quickly, or a daily schedule that changes frequently you can make a schedule on the fly and write out a daily schedule with the child themselves. This is a great option for teachers because it is quick, easy and can be adjusted on a daily basis.
How a Picture Schedule Helps Park
These two picture schedules were made on the fly with Park when he first arrived at school. Including Park in writing his schedule gives him more autonomy over his day. Park gets to decide what he wants to do during the day, such as feed the bunnies. The teacher also gets to add in some areas that they want Park to practice, “play with friends.” Having Park participate in making his own schedule makes a huge difference in his willingness to follow the schedule. We revisit the schedules regularly throughout the day. By the end of the day, it is way more than a schedule. It is a piece of art that he is proud of. A detailed list of all his accomplishments. At the end of the day, Park would enthusiastically ask if he could show his list to his Papa.
What to do when the day starts to go awry
Finding the sweet spot in teaching where the ALL students are happily engaged in their play takes scanning and a high level of awareness. As hard as it is, as a teacher it is important every fifteen minutes or so to take a pause and scan over the whole classroom. Take note of what each child is doing. You may notice that some of your students are engaged in their play and doing just fine. However, you may also look up and see that one child may be wandering, seeming a bit lost or off on their own. You may realize they have been that way for a while. You may notice that the students are starting to fight with one another or make a bigger than normal mess of the materials. You may even look up and realize that many of the students feel a bit lost. As a teacher, you probably feel lost at that moment too. That’s where the pausing comes in.
You can assess individual children or the class as a whole and make the decision about what it is that would help the class get back to that sweet spot. Maybe there has been too much unstructured time and the students are craving some direction. This is a time to start a group game or bring out an art experience. If you notice that it is just an individual child seeming a bit lost, this is the time when you can help that child by giving some amount of structure or direction.
Anyone who works with children knows that children move through the world at the pace that works for them and their bodies. Picture a group of kids and you can easily picture the child that moves like a hummingbird through their day, zipping from thing to thing with zeal. It is just as easy to picture the child that moves more like a sloth, slowly, thoughtfully moving from one place to the next. Children’s natural pace is not something teachers can change. The children are who they are.
In an inclusive environment the teachers work with individual children to help them move through their day at a pace that works for them while still balancing the needs of the whole class. This child-centered approach is gentle. It requires teachers to be flexible, patient and open to using a variety of methods to help each child. However, this balancing can become even harder when children have a hard time transitioning from one activity to the next or one place to the next. Transitioning can be particularly hard for a child when they are being asked to transition from an activity they are very interested in to an activity that they are less interested in. For some children, transitions are the hardest part of the day.
There are many transition strategies teachers and parents can use to help.
Benefits of unstructured play:
Unstructured time, on the other hand, is also very important for a child’s development. In unstructured play, kids ignite their creativity and imaginations. They are able to explore their surroundings, relax, dream, think, and move at the pace that is right for them at that moment.
Child-Directed Play with Children with Disabilities
There is a common misconception that children with disabilities have to learn and play differently than their peers. This makes it harder to find opportunities for child-directed free play time.
Adults may be around to support them socially, physically or behaviorally. Though this support often comes from a good place from parents and educators alike, there are times when adult intervention or support can limit a child’s autonomy and independence.
If it is done all the time the child is not provided the necessary opportunities to learn about independence, autonomy and their identity as an individual.
At the playgarden, we value and encourage free play. Allowing the children to create their own ideas and to explore the materials around them independently stimulates curiosity. Some aspects of what a child might consider as play, such as picking flowers, might not seem beneficial at first. When you run into thoughts like this, stop and ask yourself some questions, “what attracted the child to this area?” or “Is the child doing anything dangerous or harming anyone/thing?” before you step into transition activities. When giving children opportunity for unstructured play, make sure you allot enough time for the child to truly explore the environment around them. The amount of unstructured playtime should be much longer when compared to structured playtime. Children who are given the freedom to create their own path while playing will gain a better understanding of how the environment around them functions, it will give them a greater appreciation for nature, and will allow them to develop a strong sense of self.
A few examples of the limitless possibilities of free play include:
At the PlayGarden the students receive hours of unstructured child-directed outdoor free play in the sun, rain, ice and snow. They become gardeners themselves planting seeds, watering seedlings, harvesting, tasting and picking. Through their play they also become caretakers and stewards. They learn how to take care of our animals along with the wild animals we encounter on a daily basis. The students grow a deep appreciation for the garden and each other and in their time engaged in outdoor free play, they are developing rich, and irreplaceable connections to the world around them.
Excerpt from The WildZones Toolkit
by David Hawkins and Karen Payne
These guidelines can be the basis for training that encourage adults to explore ways of being with children that allow them to discover and engage in free play. They are designed to help adults re-learn the joy of unstructured play and feel comfortable with a child-led agenda, with a focus on how to foster rather than regulate play – and how to let kids find their own way, in their own time.
Some of these suggestions will not come easily to adults because we are usually expected to instruct young people in the right way to do things and to regulate all aspects of children’s lives. People will find different aspects of these guidelines come naturally or feel challenging – the diversity of adults in your play space can support each other in exploring new ways of being with children.
Pause and Reflect