Playing IS Learning: How Play Leads to Better Classroom Management
The whole world is worried about the kids. What did the pandemic do to the kids? How does social media affect the kids? Are the kids growing up too soon? Did they fall irreparably behind?
And while we’re worrying, the kids are listening. They hear every word of it. It affects them.
Then also, imagine being the teacher of all of those kids. The lone adult in a room of 20+ children to battle the negative input they bring with them to school. To ease their nerves, the tension and anxiety that exists even before the content is introduced, a teacher must develop a rapport with each kid and the group as a whole. Before they can learn, they have to be present to learn.
Talk about a challenge!
Disruptive classroom behaviors most often exist because of things we don’t control in our classrooms; yet, we still have to control them in our classrooms. That’s class management. That’s what teachers do. Before they teach anything, teachers manage their classes.
It starts with relationships.
A sure way to get the attention of a room full of children is to invite them to play. Kids love to play. Regardless of their age, they love to play. Some of them love the idea that they’re getting away with something by playing instead of doing serious school work. Let them think that. They don’t need to know what they’re learning — yet. They don’t even need to know that they’re learning anything. Yet. Well, except the game.
Play is how animals learn. Watch tiger cubs, or the puppies, or bear cubs. They learn by doing, feeling, falling, failing, getting up, and doing it again. Differently next time. Watching more carefully. Learning the rules of the game. Learning to crawl and to walk and to do all of the things. All of that learning happens during play time. Play is how children learn, too.
Play builds positive, healthy relationships. Working toward a shared goal in game play builds cameraderie and a pleasant work environment.
Several years ago a student’s grandmother came to his parent teacher conference. The child’s parents were incarcerated and unable to attend. Grandma openly didn’t want to be raising kids again, but she also didn’t want them going to the state. “…’s being bullied.” She wanted me to do something about it. I added it to the list of reasons her grandchild didn’t read: too many other concerns that had real life and death repercussions for him. Reading was low on his priority list. It was high on my list. I knew for sure I could teach him to read, but first I had to get his attention. (And he wasn’t the only one. They never are. We teachers have classrooms full of kids with big needs. We rarely have all the ways to meet those needs, despite our deep desire and best efforts.)
I did all the things a second grade teacher does. I kept him close. I separated him from the kid that scared him. I gave him the extra attention he craved. We worked on all the strategies of decoding and phonics. His comprehension was on target (once someone read the text to him). And we played. He liked to play. We played reading games and math games and Mrs. Harris’s* Circle Games. I thought playing could help. I’d been playing with my students for several years, and I knew it was a great way to get to know a new class.
That year we played a lot. I had a group of kids with big needs that year. I was getting divorced, so often it would be my big needs — I’d be edgy. I’d feel myself start to explode and realize I’d better do something before it got ugly. I’d stop what we were doing and play a quick something — usually Zip, Zap, Zoom or Machine, games my kids liked most.
The more we played, the more we got to know each other. At first they played like goof-balls. There would always be somebody messing up the game with purpose and intent. Then the group mind decided that wasn’t acceptable anymore. The kids would play around the unwanted behavior until it stopped because it wasn’t funny anymore. Over time, the games morphed into a different version of what I taught. Props became a guessing game. They played Zip, Zap, Zoom (not Zop — who cares?)
Around January, it was clear that the second graders were running the games. Grandma’s kid really liked playing and was good at playing by the rules (not important to me, but it was to him). Whatever game we played, he’d make sure everyone remembered how to play before they started. C, the kid that he said was the bully, was really good at getting the class circled up and focused on starting a game. Then playing. Nicely.
I noticed other things. I saw patterns of who stood by whom when we circled up. Kids who had challenges with putting one thing away and transitioning to the next thing didn’t feel rushed, nor were they an annoyance to the rest of us. They joined in when they’re ready. And the game spurred them on to move faster than they did without the game.
Teachers are asked to do the impossible and improbable each and every day. (If you doubt me, go on a field trip with any class on any day.) We should encourage all of them to play more to make the impossible more likely and the days more joyful.
*Lisa Poskanzer was Mrs. Harris before she was divorced.