Better Classroom Management Through Play

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. 

Lisa Poskanzer

Lisa Poskanzer

Lisa Poskanzer is the Director of Joy & Co-creator of Improv 2 Improve. Lisa finds joy walking on the beach and gardening.