Part 1: Play Matters
Moderator: Mary Jane Maguire-Fong
Panelists: Denisha Jones and Elizabeth Crocker
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: Welcome to you all. It’s great to see so many names that are familiar to me and making new friends as well. I am Mary Jane Maguire-Fong, and I will serve as your moderator for this two-part webinar series. I am Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at American River College, one of the community colleges in Sacramento. I’m delighted, I’m delighted that you all are joining us today, and I promise you, you are in for a very thought-provoking and inspiring discussion about “The Powerful Role of Play in Early Education.”
These webinars, both today and next Wednesday, June 15th, are provided by the California Department of Social Services, the Childcare and Development Division, in partnership with WestEd’s Program for Infant/Toddler Care. The goal is to introduce you to a brand new, completely free, and I emphasize that, downloadable book that was published last year. The book is part of a series that came out of the Department of Education. The series is called “Best Practices for Planning Curriculum for Young Children,” and the title of this new book is “The Powerful Role of Play in Early Education.” And you’ll hear a little bit more information about how to access that book at the end of our webinar today.
The book is dedicated to Bev Bos, a friend and colleague of many in this webinar, I know. Bev Bos advocated tirelessly for children’s right to learn in thoughtful and engaging play environments. And we will forever miss Bev’s passion, her humor, and her deep insight into how young children think. But I know that Bev’s dedication to children lives on in the pages of this new book. And I also know that it lives on in the work that many of you are doing. The topic of this webinar, it’s a little bit different from one week to another, the topic that we chose for this webinar is “Play Matters.” And I want to share with you a little bit about how we came to this title. We wanted to speak to some of the myths and misunderstandings around play and learning.
Years ago, a friend who was very often invited to national discussions around early childhood education, funding, and policy, told me that play was increasingly being seen as a word to avoid when discussing early childhood education. And I was stunned, but he was right. Play had been pushed aside in the affirmant discussions, focused on getting children birth to five ready to do well in elementary school and beyond. And we’ve all seen the result. Children have had fewer opportunities to play in thoughtfully designed play spaces. They have spent more time in large group activities designed to teach a specific skill or concept. And recent findings from a longitudinal study out of Tennessee that tracked how well children who had been in such programs, how well they did once they entered elementary school and beyond, shows the downside of this approach. And by third grade, these children were doing worse than children who had attended preschools where play was still central to the curriculum.
So, California is building out our early childhood programs in some very interesting and exciting ways, and we have a chance to get it right. And this two-part webinar series explores how we might do this. I want to give a special shout-out to Julie Nicholson who was the Project Director and principal writer for “The Powerful Role of Play in Early Education”. Julie taught for many years at Mills College, and she made certain that a rich body of research that shows clearly how a child’s nervous system, inclusive of the brain, is hardwired to learn through play.
So, with me today are Elizabeth Crocker and Denisha Jones. Elizabeth serves as WestEd’s Director of Program for Infant/Toddler Care Training and Certification. Prior to joining WestEd, Elizabeth led children in the childcare programs at Children and Family Services at the Unity Council in Oakland and Concord. These publicly funded programs provided dual language learning, PITC principles, and a two-generational approach with the child and family at the center of the curriculum.
And Elizabeth and I are absolutely thrilled to welcome to our discussion, all the way from New York, three hours later, can you believe it, Denisha Jones. Dr. Denisha Jones is the Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a former kindergarten teacher and preschool director who spent the past 16 years in teacher education. Denisha is an education justice advocate and an activist. She serves as the Co-Director for Defending the Early Years, Inc. and is the Assistant Executive Director for the Badass Teachers Association. Since 2017, she served on the Steering Committee for the National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. And you can see the posters from that project in back of her, so check ’em out; they’re wonderful.
In 2020, she joined the organizing committee for Unite to Save Our Schools. Her first co-edited book, “Black Lives Matter at School, An Uprising for Educational Justice,” was published in December 2020 by Haymarket Books. Denisha, let’s dive into this topic. What would you say to those who question the value of play in early childhood education?
Dr. Denisha Jones: Thank you, Mary Jane, for having me, and thank you, Elizabeth, as well for the invitation. Hello, everyone. Yes, it’s a little late here, but I’m still up ’cause I stay up late to talk about play. So, I think some people are just confused about what play is, why it’s important, and what should be the goal of the work we do in early childhood education, right? I think there’s been a lot of confusion around that. So, I see just as play is on a spectrum from, like, teacher, you know, completely open-ended and kids are in charge, to more teacher-directed, how people understand play is also a spectrum where some people think play is what kids do on their own or are given a break, right? It’s that in-between-the-learning you allow the play happen.
Some people see play as a reward or a distraction and not really as the vehicle for how children are in this world and how they come to understand the world, right? It really is the work of children in the sense that it allows them to take control of the learning situation in different ways. And I think that’s what’s really important and what people seem to miss out on. And I think part of that is because we’re not really trained to see play as the way that children learn, right? I’ve taught courses on the educative value of play, all types of integrated early childhood curriculum courses, and talking about making time for play, but not really understanding how play is driving learning and development, right, and why that’s so important.
And I think people are scared because they don’t know what to do if kids are playing. They feel like it’s this free-for-all, that children are just running around and doing whatever they want, and the teacher eats bonbons in the corner and doesn’t do anything, right? And so that leaves them feeling, well, there’s no role for me in all of this if I’m just letting the children play. So, I think that can be an issue as well. And then some people don’t really believe that, like they wouldn’t say it that way, but maybe they don’t think, play is not what they need. You’ll hear a lot of people say it’s like this equity argument that takes a very much deficit lens. Where they’ll say things like, “Well, these kids need this,” and “These kids need that.”
And whenever you’re positioning a group of kids as needing something else, but another group of kids doesn’t need that because they come from a different family background, that’s actually deficit logic, right? Like, children bring different things with them to the school environment, whether it’s the early childhood classroom, the family home care provider, the preschool and the public school, right, they bring different things with them. And if we’re constantly looking, comparing children, “Oh, well, you don’t know as many words as this group,” instead of saying, “You know different words than this group,” right, and let’s focus it on what you do know, right, there’s that deficit lens that always cuts in. And we see this a lot when teachers advocate for play.
So, a couple years ago, some teachers in Massachusetts, Brookline, Massachusetts, advocated for more play, and, defending it earlier, we reached out to them and wanted to support them. And one of ’em said, “The superintendent used this argument, ‘You’re doing a disservice to these poor Black and brown children who are not getting the academic skills that they need.'” Right, so he’s claiming it’s an equity argument, but it’s a deficit lens equity argument when you’re saying that poor Black and brown children don’t deserve hands on engagement and exploration in their environment and inquiry-driven, to take the initiative to build self-confidence, they don’t need those things. They need a scripted, rote curriculum because we see them as lacking in what other kids have, right? So, I think that’s one end of the spectrum argument. So, there’s different ways.
And then what I have to figure out, okay, is what is people’s issue around play, or edges is sometimes what we call it. When I was doing some training with Anji, as you’re watching kids play and it makes you uncomfortable, it’s pushing up on your edge. So, what’s somebody’s edge around play, and how do you then identify it and then expose it, get to the root of it so we can get back to what it is that we’re trying to do, which is support children really well.
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: That was fascinating to have you lay it out so comprehensively. And I really appreciate the fact that you talked about the edges. And it makes me think of one of the basic PITC, Program for Infant/Toddler Care principles, is watch, ask, and adapt, and just being mindful of there are many possibilities for us to encounter people with lots of different edges around how they’re going to be willing to engage in play-based learning and comfortable with what we’ll get into later in our webinar, some of what might appear to be some of the risky play, too. Yeah, thank you so much for that as a way to launch into our discussion, Denisha.
I want to take this a little bit further, and the book draws on a robust body of research and practice, to describe in helpful detail what teachers and administrators, and also policymakers and parents might do, to give play its rightful place in early childhood education. And I know I’ve heard you use the phrase something kind of like “bring it back to the center of our work,” recentering our work on play. Give us some of your ideas on where do you think that teachers and administrators should start? What changes would you suggest could be helpful in the beginning for us to focus on with respect to how we design our programs and how we think about the role of the teacher?
Dr. Denisha Jones: Sure, so I think, fundamentally, we have to have conversations about what it is that we want from young children in our programs, right? I think a lot of people get caught up in the standards and what they need to do in the next grade and the next grade, and who we want them to be eventually, but not who we want them to be in this moment, and what do they need right now, right? And childhood is only for a certain period, and this idea that we want to skip it to middle childhood and rush them through the process, I think it’s swept up, right, in all of the pressure that’s being put on early childhood teachers. There’s so much pressure because, oh, if they’re not reading in kindergarten or writing or know their numbers, they’re not gonna do well, right? There’s all this pressure.
But what we fail to realize is that there are things that most all people want for their children, teachers and parents. And if we can get to the root of that, right, then we can recenter what is our role in early childhood. Right? Most people want their children to be happy, to be confident, to take the initiative, try new things, to be kind, to take different perspectives, to experiment, to inquiry, right, to ask questions, to get a passion for something, right? They want all of these different types of experiences that they know makes good, happy people. Most people don’t say, “I want my kid to be able to describe the beginning and middle and end of a story,” because we know that that’s not necessarily the most important thing out of childhood, right? That’s a skill that comes with an avid reader, but that’s not the goal of reading, right, to just be able to tell you those three things, right?
But so, I think there’s that overall big picture that we need to step back and say, and do this with our parents, right, because they are partners in this, get on the same page about what it is that we want young children to experience in their time with us in this part of their childhood that we are privileged to be in space with, and then build the program from there. And not so much focus on the rote learning, right? Because the learning comes, but not if we don’t help children develop all of those, what Dale Farran called in her research, right, the deeper skills, right? She has this image of an iceberg, and there’s the surface skills, which are like literacy and phenomic awareness and all of these things. But it’s the deeper skills underneath, that’s what drives the learning, right?
And we don’t spend enough time focusing on those things. It’s like you said, being curious and investigative and these things. And that’s where early childhood is primed for this, right? Kids are no more willing to engage in that type of work as they are when they’re really young, and they have tons of questions about the world, and they want to know things, and they get passionate, right? And they can talk to you for days upon end about trucks or dinosaurs or whatever it is, right? That’s developing those really important skills that’s gonna make them be an avid reader, that’s gonna make them be a great problem-solver, that’s gonna lead them to be great writers, right? But we’re taking away that space that’s needed to develop that love for learning, right? We kinda stopped saying “lifelong learner” ’cause it got really used up, right?
But there are these dispositions, these passions that we want to develop. And when we sit kids down and all we do is drill them in letters and sounds and numbers and concepts, and we don’t allow them to say, “No, this is what I’m interested in, these are the questions I have, this is what I want to know and do,” then we’re shortchanging them, right, their ability to develop that stuff on their own. And so, you have a ton of kids who are literate but don’t like reading. Like, what is the point, you know, if we’re just pushing kids out here. Sure, they can read, they can decode words, they can tell you that story, but they don’t have a drive or desire to read because they’ve never been given the opportunity to have something that they want to read, right?
When I see kids playing, a lot of times, all of a sudden there’s something will come up and they’ll say, well, let’s go look it up. And they’ll need a book, and they’ll want to find the book, and they’ll want to get some information, and boom, you have children who understand that reading is about knowledge, and they’re ready for that knowledge now, as opposed to kids who are forced to read and they don’t really develop a love for it, right? So, we have to ask ourselves those questions, and then think about the experiences that will get them there. And play is the best experience for that. It’s low cost. Well, you need some materials, but it’s really low cost, and it’s really available to every teacher.
Everyone across the world can let, and kids play. Kids play no matter if we let them or not, right? Typically in class, if they’re doing other things, they’re trying to do the things they want to do, which is play, while it typically gets them in a lot of trouble sometimes, because they’re not doing what the teacher wants, right? And I think as we keep having these conversations, it just helps to unpack all of the mystery around it, because fundamentally, we can agree on these things, right? And then we have to deal with the fear, right? Well, what if they don’t, what if they don’t. And reassure parents that they’ll get there eventually, right? So, maybe they’re not reading on that level till they’re eight, but now at eight years old, they want to read everything, right? They’re so determined, and they have that drive, and that’s what’s really important.
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: Denisha, I think there are lots of people in this webinar who absolutely love what you have just said, and they want to teach in this way. But the reality is sometimes the tasks that are put on teachers’ to-do lists are actually described more in terms of the specific skill development experiences that you just described. How do we empower teachers who actually may have gone through teacher preparation programs that draw from the research, that capture the value of play as a way for children to make meaning, to build concepts and skills? How do we empower teachers to teach in a way that’s going to allow that pursuit of inquiry? “Oh, let’s go look it up,” right? What are some practical things?
And here, I mean, we might be talking not just to teachers, but we’re talking to administrators, we’re talkin’ to coaches. We have many different roles in this webinar today. But give us some thoughts about the process of change and empowering teachers to bring play back into the curriculum, the design of curriculum, how teachers spend their time.
Dr. Denisha Jones: Yeah. And even as part of their pedagogy. My research is looking at this idea that play is pedagogy. It’s how we can be in relation to the children in our space, how we can engage with them, right? So, part of it, I think, is I tell my students to remember, you know, teachers are some of the most educated people on the planet. We have the knowledge, and we’ve learned a lot. I don’t know everything, but I know a lot about something small, and that something small is child development, right? This is our area; we know this. We have all this information, and we have to trust in the knowledge that we have. So, if you don’t believe it, if you don’t know it, read it, right? But if you know it, trust in it.
The other thing I would tell teachers is, so they’re like, a lot of them would say, “How do I know that they’re learning during play?” Observe the play and look at what’s happening, right? You know, instead of going in with your standards, today I’m gonna teach this standard…You do have to know the standards, right? I prepare teachers in the state of New York, I was doing it in District of Columbia. I get it; you have to know these things, right? But there’s other ways of thinking about it. What if the role of the teacher wasn’t to teach children these standards, but was to document what children know and can do, and then create environments and spaces and opportunities to extend that so that they can know and do other things, right?
It’s a complete shift where I’m not coming in and saying, “I’m gonna teach you this in this way.” I’m observing and watching you, and I’m seeing what you can do. And I can look and say, yeah, I’ve seen them do that. I know this kid can do these different skills. I’ve seen them, and now I’m gonna think about, okay, how can I extend what I know you’re already doing, give you new opportunities to try in different ways, to add new ideas to your work, right? And that’s how we set up the environment, how we come in with different activities, the provocations that we might bring to the room, the stories we might tell, to really get them to think about it. But it comes, you know, you have to trust in yourself, trust in your children, and then be really keen about what you’re doing.
It’s not just, I’m just sitting back not doing anything. It’s the teachers I see are deeply observing and engaging and constantly thinking about what the children are doing. Not what I’m trying to make them do, but what they are doing, right, and focusing on that and how important that is, and documenting that. Documenting that, I think, is super-important. You know, when you show others, well, yeah, I know the kids can do that. Well, yeah, we’ve had this conversation and kids can do that. And they’re like, huh, I’ve never really thought about it that way, right? They start to see, so you have to be very on top of what you’re doing.
Like, I tell my students all the time, yes, go in and disrupt things, and change things up. But you have to be really good at your craft, right? You really have to understand the content that you’re doing, what it is children need to be doing, what they are doing, right, and kinda like make the case for it, like almost defend what you see in your classroom. Even with the parents, right? Start with them. What are we seeing? These are some of the things I’m seeing your child do in school, and this is really exciting, because these are the skills that lead to this, right? Are you seeing this at home? How can we extend this together, right? And just have these conversations where you can point it out.
I was just recently in Pittsburgh on a research trip, and I was going around, the parents were there for this play celebration, and they’re kinda watching him. And I’m explaining to the mom, her son is one of the most confident children in the classroom because he’s had this time to play. I’m like, the other kids can’t do what he can do on that equipment outside. He was the only one who could do that, and he was showing them all how to do it. And he mastered control of his body so that he wasn’t afraid to fall ’cause he wasn’t gonna hurt himself. While the other kids were terrified to fall, so they weren’t ready there. And she was surprised. She never thought about it that way. She like, “Oh, he just likes jumping and rolling on things.” No, no, no, like, he’s mastering control in ways that other kids can’t do that quite yet, right? He’s got this kind of balance.
And I think talking to her about that was really helpful for her to see it’s not just, yes, it’s play, but it’s important. It’s important for his development, right? And he has all these skills. And so, having those conversations, because most parents don’t know about all the ways that play is helping their child, right?
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: I want to connect what you have just said so beautifully back to the book, “The Powerful Role of Play in Early Education.” And there is a chapter three that looks at the role of the teacher and goes into great depth at exploring what does it mean to listen to children, and observe and document, because these are curriculum planning tools. I like to enter the lesson plan conversation from that point of view, from the conversation that you just started us on. It’s like, how do we know they’re learning is we begin by listening and watching and documenting. And then that gives us our evidence that allows us to name the learning. There was Betty Jones, one of the wise sages from the early years of early education, I heard her use that term. How do you name the learning?
And I’ve always thought of standards. That’s what you do. Standards are helpful. They help you name the learning. They give you a vocabulary to work with. So that, I think if we can, I mean, I think we’re pretty lucky in California in that we actually have documents, our curriculum framework documents from the California Department of Education that cover the birth to five period. They do describe a reflective approach to curriculum planning that begins with observing and documenting and reflecting, and using that to identify the learning, i.e., the assessment, but also to drive the conversation around what do we do next, right? So, your thoughts are really, I love the passion with which you are able to describe these points where we find ourselves on the edges with this conversation.
I’m wondering, would you be willing to give us a little bit of your thoughts with respect to what an administrator might do in order to protect teachers’ right to teach in this way?
Dr. Denisha Jones: Yeah, I was a brief Preschool Director once, and so in a lab preschool, actually in California, I lived in San Diego for two years and was working at a community college out there. And we were a play-based program, and it was a lab school in a college, right? I didn’t need to do much except defend what they were doing pretty much if someone ever, most people understood what we were doing, but really explain it to the parents and help them see. ‘Cause sometimes some parents would come to you and say, “They’re not teaching them how to write. They’re not teaching them how to do these things. If he can’t recognize…” It was always the group right before kindergarten, right, who was always the most worried, right, that their kids aren’t gonna be ready for kindergarten.
So, you do have to be willing to step in and be that advocate, be that voice for people, and be upfront about what the goal of the program is. I mean, sometimes that means telling a family, “I don’t know if this is the right fit for you,” right, if you’re in that situation, if you’re in a private space, if you can do that. If you’re not reassuring them, again, always, that you have their child’s best interest at heart, and this is the approach, and this is the research behind it, and this is what we want to do. And really just supporting the teachers in different ways, right? And sometimes there was concern that playtime got outta hand, right? So, I used to go and cover one class, and the kids were just running around, and the teacher’s like “This is why I don’t want to let them play too much ’cause they just run around.”
And running around is fine, but you’re indoors, of course, and some kids are getting distracted. And so, you have to help them introduce new ways. So, I went over to the art area, and I grabbed a piece of fabric, and I started cutting it, and I started doing, and then one kid stops running, “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “I’m making a superhero cape.” “What? I want to make a superhero cape.” “I bet you do.” And so, the running stopped, and we transitioned that play into making superhero capes and then having superhero episodes, right? When they’re still running, but they’re not doing it in such a way that’s distracting, right? And so, modeling that it is okay for the teacher to put an idea, just start doing something and see who’s really interested.
I think that was the other thing, too. It happens so much with the younger kids, but there was this idea that all children had to come sit and listen to the teacher at once, right? And two-year-olds will let you know that that’s just not happening, right? And even the four-year-olds. And I’m like, “It’s okay if he goes away.” It’s okay, right? You’re having a circle and you’re inviting kids, but maybe kids don’t want to be in that space right now. I learned that teaching kindergarten. One kid would kinda drift away, and I realized, I’m just not gonna say anything, ’cause it’s gonna disrupt the whole environment. And another child says, “Ooh, he’s not paying attention.” And another little girl says, “Leave him alone. He’s doing okay; don’t worry about him.” And I was like, “Thank you, yes; don’t worry about him.”
Right, but they kinda understood that it’s okay, right? And they’re like, okay, yes. If you need to work on something over there quietly and you need to leave the space, then leave the space. Can we give up some of that need to control children and their body so much, right? I think when you do that and when you give teachers permission to do that, they see it as really valuable, right? You know, it’s hard because they want support from the administrators. They want to know that if they do something like this, that they’re gonna have their back, and that they’re gonna support them, and that it’s okay. And I think we can offer that to the teachers and remind the parents that this is the place where we’re gonna do these different things, and we’re gonna do them because we know they’re important experiences for your child.
But I think when the administrators really get behind it, everyone sees that, right? At the one school that I’m doing the research on, one of the administrators is very much supportive and pushing it. And that brings other teachers into it. That brings other people in the school who are like, “Oh, well, let me check out what you’re doing here, because this person keeps talking about it and how good it is.” And so, I think there’s a lot of support that administrators can give to teachers, and to the children, right, and their families as well.
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: You know, you’ve mentioned your research, and I think it would be interesting for you to tell us a little bit about that with respect to who are the programs you’re working with and what are you learning from a research project designed to bring play back into the lives of children? Is it an easy thing to do? Tell us.
Dr. Denisha Jones: Yeah. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely been worthwhile. So, I was approached by a woman named Shannon Merenstein who lives in Pittsburgh, and she has an organization called Hatch, it was called Hatch Art Studio. So, not Hatch the toy company, but her program was Hatch Art Studio. And she was doing play in an outside space, like afterschool, weekends, that sort of thing, creating play environments for kids, but really wanted to get back into the public school system, because that’s where she believes it’s the most equitable. If kids aren’t playing in public school classrooms, then play is not equity for them, right? If you have to come somewhere after school or on a weekend or pay, right, that’s not equitable, right? It has to happen in the classroom.
So, she applied for a local grant to do what we call Hatch Partners in Play. And so, it was a cohort model where she got teachers from three different locations in Pittsburgh to participate in this year-long cohort of learning about play, play in the classroom, centering playful teaching. And one of the locations has been, so it’s been different, right, they’ve been on a spectrum, right? So, one is a lab school. So, they do play, but it’s a K through eight lab school, so they do have some issues around parents wanting more academics, but they have the environment, they have the means, right? So, they do a lot of play. One was a charter school, which they seem to struggle a lot with the requirements that are being forced on them.
And then the other was a Pittsburgh public school, which I was surprised, ’cause it’s the school serving predominantly Black children, and the teachers just got behind it, and the administrator got behind it, and they’ve had the most success. And so, what the program did was, for the one school, the public school teachers, Shannon and her colleague, Dahlia, would come in every day to do Play Lab in the beginning. And this is two first-grade classrooms and a kindergarten classroom. And so, the teachers had to commit to an hour a day for Play Lab. And so, in the beginning, Dahlia and Shannon would come in, and they’d bring in various materials for the play, different loose parts, and they would facilitate it. And then after a while, they would come maybe two days a week.
So, the teachers had to commit to the Play Lab an hour a day, and they kinda pulled back where now they’re coming once or twice a week, but it’s still happening every day. And the other kind of rule that they had to agree to was that you could not use Play Lab as punishment or reward, right? Play Lab was a designated time for the children, all the time, no matter what, no matter whether they had a bad day earlier or the day before, whether they got in trouble earlier, or anything like that. It was a protected time in a protected space. And in Play Lab, you don’t really send kids outta Play Lab. You can’t say, “You can’t play, go sit on a time-out.” No, you can redirect and talk to them, but they have to be able to go back and get to play, right? And so, those were kind of the parameters at which they ask the teachers to do.
And so, then what they do with the Play Lab is after the children play, they have journals. And so, they go back and write about their play, and they have different journals. And then Dahlia and Shannon would kinda be there and observing the play and documenting it, and they’d make these things called Play Stories. So, I’m gonna show you a couple. I’m gonna share my screen; I just have a couple up. And so, these Play Stories were the way that they were documenting all the different things that were happening during the play. Some of them they aligned to standards, right, depending on what was happening, or like social and emotional skills, they did a series on that. So, this is one they call “The Baking Collective,” and they brought in a lot of clay and loose parts.
And so, they kinda just tell a story about what they see was happening with the children and the different experiences they were having. And so here, we went from making cookies to one girl talking about her mom getting married, and then it turned into making everything for weddings, and let’s talk about weddings, and let’s do weddings, right? And so, it was this social emotional material-based time where they were just really expanding their ideas and thinking about these things in really deep ways. And these are just a couple I pulled. There are so many great Play Labs. This one was on “Big Body Play.” They have those log-looking soft cushions in one of the classrooms. And so, she talked about how the children were using them. The wood pillows, and they were playing in different ways, and really extending their engagement.
You know, “Big Body Play” is an edge for a lot of people, right, if you don’t understand it and know the importance of it. And so, the teacher kinda like had to step back. And teachers did that a lot. A lot of times they said, “You know what? This is making me uncomfortable, but you play. People are all about it, so I’m gonna walk away.” Once you get really into valuing play, children go do something risky, and you’re like, “Hold on, let me get my camera.” And so, folks, you know you can’t do that, right? That’s always the marker of how comfortable you are with this, right? And here was another one where they talked about a moment of frustration one child had with the clay, and how it really changed the work that he was doing as well, too. So, it’s a really interesting program.
And I came into it to study the role of the teacher. What are teachers doing? These are kindergarten and first grade classrooms. At the other school, there were second grade teachers involved. What are they doing during the play? So beginning, the teachers would ask me, “What should I be doing? Should I be playing with them?” ‘Cause the kids will bring them in when the play was in the classroom a lot. And so, the teachers had a lot of questions about that. And so, we got them to like, sometimes they’d be invested in the play. And then we said, you can also step back, you can observe. Of course, you gotta be there for safety when we’re outside. So, if they’re doing something, right, you might want to be standing real close.
One of the things they were shocked, like the whole issue of safety, I was there visiting, I think it was December, it was early, it was wintertime, so we were indoors. And the kids pushed the tables together, and they immediately jumped on top of the tables. Now, the tables don’t line up, right, so there’s this gap in the tables, right? And the kids wanted, it’s unsafe, and they want to keep doing what they’re doing. They have like planks and like… And so, they thought, they were surprised that I didn’t stop the play. I put my iPad down ’cause I couldn’t record, and I put my hand on each end of the table, and I held it steady so that they could cross over it without, ’cause I just saw one kid slipping through the table and hurting himself.
And they were surprised I would even do that. And I said, “No, no, no, I’m not gonna let a kid fall and hurt themselves off of a table,” but I didn’t stop the play, right? I just kinda made it safe. So, we talked about it. Well, there’s a gap here, and the blocks you’re using aren’t strong enough. And the kid realized, he’s like, “Yeah, I can crush this box.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re gonna crush it, and it’s gonna go right through the center. What can we do?” So, we really used that as a moment to see how we could make the play safer. And I say things like, “I don’t want to stop what you’re doing, but it’s making me a little unsafe so I’m gonna stand here,” right? And so, it really explained that to them, right? Like, you have to own up that it’s you who feels uncomfortable with what’s happening and say those things.
And so, modeling that for the teachers is really helpful so they can see it’s not so laissez faire I’m not gonna do anything. And you know, yeah, kids do get hurt when they’re playing, and there’s always gonna be some type of risk, but you have to help manage the risk, right, and be cautious about what you’re doing and careful. And so, and the teachers, again, they’ve grown so much on the spectrum, where a lot of ’em just thought it was a nice reward for the kids doing well and having this Play Lab. But then they started to notice that the kids were more engaged in the lessons and the activities during the day, and they had more of a community. They were so better friends, that they had seen, these teachers, two of them had been working at the school for 25 and 30 years, and they’d never seen the kids more of a community.
Granted, they have tiffs and taffs happen, but they were very much a community, because they felt like they had this space that was protected that was theirs. And so, it was really interesting just to see the progression. Their language and literacy skills went off the charts by the end of the year because of the reflections, right? Just looking through their reflections, we can see a growth in their pictures and their writing, in their storytelling about what they were doing, and in their confidence, right, and how well they got along. And those teachers who got to witness that are, so they’re all for it. So, the school’s moving forward. They’re gonna have Play Lab in every K and first grade classroom, and they’re giving them a dedicated space in the school.
Because a lot of the time, what we noticed was, in the classroom, the play resembled school, which is normal; they’re in a classroom, right? So, some of them would go over to the literacy board and start playing teacher and lessons and stuff. So, we’re wondering if you give a room that doesn’t have that, right? It’s a classroom, but it’s not set up like your traditional classroom. How would that change the indoor play, right, having that different space? So, next year, they’ll be able to come to the Play Lab room for indoor Play Lab. They’ll still have some play in their classroom, but it’ll be outside. And I’m hoping to continue to work with them to see what that might look like next year. While another school really struggled, right? They never really got into it. They kept saying, “We don’t have time, we don’t have time.” They kept saving Play Lab for the end of the day, and then it got taken away.
I’d be there to observe our hour of Play Lab. Thirty minutes in, we’re still talking about the issue that happened at gym. And next thing you know, they play for 15 minutes and then it’s over, right? There’s no value in that, and kids know that, when you save something so important for the end of the day and let it get eaten away by the time. And so they struggled the most because they didn’t see how the play could change, right, everything in the classroom; how it could have such an impact as well. So, it’s been interesting. I think, again, the teachers are just on the spectrum where they don’t see that the play is what’s developing the learning, right, it’s leading it, while those who did and they went more with it, they’re having Play Lab more and more. It went from an hour to an hour and a half, right, hour and 15 minutes.
They were doing it a lot more because they knew it was worth it to give them that time. Now think about it. First graders in this school in Pittsburgh, they had virtual kindergarten last year. This is their first year in school together. And if they didn’t have this year of Play Lab where they got to have all of these social emotional experiences, they needed that. And the teachers realized how much they needed that, because they saw the other first grade kids who didn’t have it, and they were having a lot more challenging behaviors than they saw with their own kids as well, too. And so, to think that after a global pandemic, we didn’t really do anything in our classrooms to support children.
We hear children are behind. Well, yeah, they haven’t had social experiences like school to prepare them, and then we just put them in and said, okay, but you’re supposed to be in first grade so be in first grade, without any really understanding, okay, well, how do we support them through that quarantine time? And so, it’s been really interesting to see all of the changes, but it’s been great. And we hope that other people will consider, right? We’re thinking about how can we do just some workshops. Anybody can do it, right? She’s calling it Play Lab, and the reflections and journals and play stories are a part of that. Anji has their own philosophy, which also uses reflection and play stories as well, too. But we’re definitely hoping that other people who might be interested will come and see what’s going on.
And using this school, this school serving low-income Black children, which I never get to see Black children play when I’ve been at schools and look at play, right, to use this as a model where other teachers can come and see like, look what we’ve done here at this school. But at the same time, we have to constantly reaffirm to the parents that this is good, right? ‘Cause I said you’re gonna get a parent who says, “Yeah, but my kid can’t read, so why are they playing?” Right, like we have to understand that those fears come up all the time, and how do we constantly look at that? And so that’s part of it. I’m also going to a private preschool in Maryland that’s fully play, like all day. Keisha Reed is her name, and she’s one very much a leader of play advocacy. And so, to kinda see what’s the role there, right?
And you were talking before about lesson planning, she’s the one I kinda got that from. I said, “Keisha, what do you do when a college sends a student to you,” ’cause, she’ll get student teachers sometimes. And I said, “What do you do about lesson planning?” And she goes, “Oh, they always say that.” And so, we observe the play and then we talk about it, so it’s like the backwards almost, right? At the end of the day, they map out what the kids did, and that’s the lesson planning, looks like documenting it. It’s more a lesson documentation, right, instead of the planning. And so, it’s very nice to see it coming along in many different ways.
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: I am fascinated with everything that you said, and I’m gonna zero in on the issue of time, and I’m gonna focus it even more, time for the teachers to reflect together, ’cause you just said something about that. Because that beautiful documentation that we saw came out of, I would assume, teachers, whoever, with parents, whoever else was involved with you as their support person, talking about what you saw, talking about what you recorded in video or photo or whatever. Time to reflect together on what you saw. And that is sometimes not available within publicly funded programs. So, this might be a good opportunity. I’d like to hear you talk a little bit more about that, and how, in your research project, where was that time given to teachers when they’re not with children in the moment.
But I’m thinking this might also be a good opportunity for us to segue to what you saw when you went to visit the play-based programs in Anji, China, which is one of the provinces in China. And there is a segment of, or there’s a chapter in the playbook that looks at risky play. And highlighted within this chapter are some examples from the preschool programs in Anji, China. And so, you’ve been to visit the programs. You’ve had a chance to observe the role of the teacher, the role of the child. They use a phrase called “Authentic Play” in Anji, and I’m wondering if you could unpack that phrase a bit for us and share a few, I know you have some photos, too.
Dr. Denisha Jones: Yeah, yeah.
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: Because it also helps us wrap our heads a little bit more around this idea of, how do you give teachers, along with parents and supervisors, administrators, opportunity to reflect together on the observed play?
Dr. Denisha Jones: Yeah, yeah, the time phase is huge, right? And it’s important; the reflection is important. So, I put the link to the Hatch Partners in Play Program so you can see more. And you can definitely contact Shannon and Dahlia or myself, and we’ll talk about it. I haven’t published it yet; it’s still ongoing, ’cause now I’m going into Phase two, where I’m looking at this other fully placed play space in Racine. I will tell you the schedule at this place is really simple. I think it says like, nine to 12, indoor/outdoor exploration; lunch; and then the afternoon is indoor/outdoor exploration. So, that’s the schedule, right? So, think about our schedule and why we think it’s okay to shift children every 15 minutes to something new and different, right? Because we feel that there’s all these things that we have to do instead of just letting them do what they’re doing and kind of taking note and setting up the environment.
Even feeding children and feeding these kids in general, right, all kids. Imagine a day where the food is out, and it’s like, hey, we used to do this in the school in California, it was like, we’ve got to try to wrangle everyone to stop playing and come eat. And I was like, why don’t we just put the food out? ‘Cause it was just snack, it was half-day, and just say, “The food’s out from this period of time to this period of time. Eat when you’re hungry; don’t eat,” right? But remind them at the end, right. And just let kids be in charge of that time. If you give them, okay, five minutes and we’re putting the food away, and a kid realizes they haven’t eaten, guess what? They’re gonna go eat; they’re hungry, right? But they don’t want to eat at 10:30. Maybe they’re not hungry right then, right?
And so, thinking about how we can just reimagine the schedule and the timing and all the things, right? The one school that struggles the most with the time, they’re like, “Well, we can’t do Play Lab when we have to do 30 minute a day SEL lessons.” This is where we’re at right now, that instead of letting children play, we are sitting them and teaching them these ridiculous, I mean, SEL is important, but like the idea that you can sit down and teach a child about curiosity instead of just letting them play, it doesn’t make any sense, right? That’s the way that the corporatization of education comes in and just changes everything, right? Curiosity happens through play. Social and emotional learning happens through play. You don’t need to take 30 minutes to teach these discrete character trait lessons if you were just letting the kids do this, but then you’re making more time for reflection and discussion, right?
So, maybe after the play, you’re having a whole group discussion about, and then you’re bringing in those terms. Well, yeah, I saw your curiosity when you were doing that, and it was really guiding what you were doing. You’re giving them the language about the social and emotional skills, right? Well, you were frustrated, right? How did it feel when you were frustrated? And how did this person help you think through your frustrations, right? That’s all a part of the reflection. So, the time is there; we just have to reclaim it, right? We have to say… You know, there’s a big debate about calendar. Look, I taught kindergarten, preschool. I spent a lot of time on that calendar. And it just, I don’t know how important that was to just sit there every day and do that stuff every day. You know, there’s just other ways to rethink about the schedule, right?
And so, I think you just have to be creative. Again, get with your admin, get with support on that. In Anji, they are also like that, right? Anji has the traditional, you know, they come in and they put their stuff down, they sit down, they have morning meeting, right? It’s not just this open space, but there’s not a lot of like, “Okay, now we’re gonna read. Take out your books. Okay, now we’re gonna write, let’s write,” right? You don’t have those types of restrictions. So, I was fortunate to join the AnjiPlay Fellowship. And we were a group of educators across the country, actually, there were international folks as well, who wanted to learn more about the AnjiPlay philosophy. And so, for those of you who don’t know, Anji County is a rural county in China, about three hours outside of Shanghai. And Ms. Cheng is the woman in charge.
And so, I think it was about 16, 20 years ago, she was put in charge of their, what they call kindergarten, which is what we would call preschool, three to six, publicly funded preschool, three-year-old, three to six-year-olds. And she was in charge of the entire county, and she just kinda started to just see from the children, like, well, what’s happening. And she realized that they had this period where they were not playing at all. They were just doing custodial care. Then they were doing more of the traditional play, which is what we have, which is, she called it False Play, like the play we want to see children doing. Like here’s the kitchen area. Go in the kitchen area and play kitchen. Here are some blocks. Build with these blocks, but don’t go too high and don’t make too much noise, right? That kind of play that we all, when I taught kindergarten, that teachers still do, right, because that’s what we’ve been taught to see as play.
And then eventually she shifted, and she realized it was the material. So, she brought in new materials. She got rid of those traditional play materials and brought in these open-end materials. And she saw a shift in their play that she called True Play and Authentic Play. And she says you can see it because their eyes smiled. Right, like the joy, right? So, one of the five factors for AnjiPlay is joy. There has to be joy in everything they do. And so, I have some photos here. Let me get this one ready. This was my favorite one that I call “Joy.” There it is, hope you can see it. So, we were there. I got to go to the conference in Anji, where there was the first annual True Play Conference. And there’s always smiling. I mean, laughter is the language of play, which is wonderful because I don’t speak Mandarin. So, it was really nice to be able to talk to the kids through laughter, through joy, through smiling, and all of the fun stuff.
So, they look at love, joy, risk, engagement, and reflection are their five philosophies. And she really realized that when you step back and you let the children, you know, you love the children enough, they have the joy, they take risks, they engage deeply, and there’s a lot of reflection as well with what they do. So, and then this other one-
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: Before, hold on Denisha. Before you leave that photo, can you describe to us more or less what they’re sitting on?
Dr. Denisha Jones: So, they made this. So, they have the logs underneath, and then they have a plank. And so, they would come down and roll the plank down the logs, and they were doing it as a group, right? And so, it’s just funny. It goes for a few seconds, and it just kind of rolls down. And so, you see how happy they are, laughing with each other kind of coming down on that. And it was play. So, it was a weekend conference, but they pretty much let us come in. They asked the parents, “Hey, will you bring the kids to play for this conference on the weekend?” Of course, they did. So, there was lots of play, different play happening. This is one story I’ll tell really quickly. You can see the boy on the hill with the ladder. Is that what you’re seeing? So, I called this one “Trust Children.”
So, I’m watching this kid on this ladder on this hill, and he’s like moving the ladder in this first picture. And I realized he’s gonna put the sled down there and come down the hill. And like you can’t see that. It’s not a lot of space to the wall. There’s a wall right on that gray concrete, and I’m against the wall taking photos. And I’m like, this kid is gonna crash into the wall, and there’s no other adult nearby. And I’m like, oh, my goodness, get your CPR ready. He’s gonna crash. So, he fixes the ladder, he gets back up to the top of the hill, and so I stand right at the bottom. And he’s looking at me and telling me to move. And I’m like, dude, you’re gonna crash, you’re gonna crash. And I suddenly moved, and he comes flying down the hill, and he turns right before he would go off on the end, and he gets up, and he goes to do it again, right? Like he knew what he was doing, and he didn’t need any help with that, and he needed me to get out of his way, right?
The fear was mine; it wasn’t his, right? And there was no adult there, ’cause he didn’t need adult supervision in that moment. I mean, there were adults nearby, and there were lots of us nearby. This is just one of the really, I love this for just the way they build in Anji, with all the different materials, the way they make these different structures, right? This was one of my favorite ones. The tubes that they use and all the planks, and they kinda build these complex structures. And when I asked them about, they talked about the kids going off to first grade and what’s that like. So, they’re trying to integrate it where they had the first grade teachers come and observe some of the kids who will be in their class next year, and they were shocked. They didn’t know the kids could do this. They were like, wow, we’re not really giving those kids an opportunity to do much, huh?
So, they have to see it, right? They have to see what those kids can do. And then this one, right? So, this is the one about safety. They know how to make it safe. So, when watching the girl in the pink trying to climb on this thing, and it’s not safe, right? That one plank is not completely secure. And she kept kinda like going for it and for it, and the other girl’s already ahead, and it’s not safe. And then finally she calls for reinforcement, and the girl comes behind her and holds the other ladder in so that she can now get across. You know, she knew it wasn’t safe, and she knew she needed help, and she knew how to do that. And so, it was really nice to witness that. They come out and they support each other, and they know when they’re gonna need that kinda help. Right?
And so, being in Anji made me realize that they’re just so, those children are just, they’re livin’ in this rural area and people think, oh, there’s all this rural poverty. Those kids are gonna be the most confident, happy people in the world because they spent their childhoods just pursuing all of their passions, and some, none of their passion, right? One day, these kids who sit there, I called these girls “the Greeters.” They just sat on the wall and just waved to everybody. They weren’t doing anything else, right? But that was what they were doing in that moment, and it was okay. Some of them are painting and doing other things. So, it was just beautiful to see. And so, the teachers do, so, the teachers have a few roles, right?
There are teachers there for safety. When they’re building, there are teachers nearby. I watched the video one time, and they were building some, they were trying to go through something, it was unstable. And while I’m watching the video, I kept reaching my hand out to stop it. But the lady who was there only had to do it twice. So, she put her hand in the middle and provided support. But she’s there, someone else is recording, right? Teachers are recording the play, they’re taking videos, they’re taking photos. And so, they have their different roles. And they do make that time to come together and reflect because that’s so important. And the teachers, what I saw was how much they were liberated.
When they let go of all the requirements and all the things children can’t do, they were able to see what children can do, and it changed their perception of the children as well. And so, you know, I talk about play as being freedom for children and liberating children, but it also liberates the teachers, right? And it was this kinda shared thing that I noticed as well, too. But they have to make time for that. And the cohort model with the Hatch Partners in Play, they came together for cohort reflections, where you have to make time for that. During the school day would be great. It would be nice that teachers didn’t have to do it at night and on the weekends. And there are ways to do that, right? How can you create time to bring in parents or other people to be with the kids so that the teachers can sit back and do the reflections together, because that’s what really drives that.
Mary Jane Maguire-Fong: You’ve identified some possible next steps for us in terms of advocacy, Denisha. And I think one that is very critical is in order for teachers to teach in this way, to observe, to document, to reflect, to use that to engage families, to use that to design curriculum, to use that to assess the learning, teachers need time to think together, to talk together, to interpret together the documentation they see. This is a lesson that was first brought to my mind by the teachers in Reggio Emilia, Italy. And when I had a chance to hear it, learn from the approach in Anji, it was actually the same respect for teachers need time to reflect together on their documentation. So, that is something that we’re gonna look at. I so appreciate you bringing in the documentation of the learning stories from your research, ’cause I do believe that’s a key part.
But it’s a difficult one to wrap your mind around what does it really mean to document in a way that liberates teachers, as opposed to feeling like a burden. So, we’re gonna look at that a little bit more next week. I want to leave some time for Elizabeth to identify any issues, burning issues, that may have come up in the chat. But I also want to give you a little, foreshadow a bit, maybe I’ll do that first, a little bit about how we’re going to go into some of these issues a little more deeply at next week’s webinar. We have another Jones. We have Marie Jones, who is faculty at American River College in Sacramento. And together with some of the inspiring stories that she’s bringing from the teachers with whom she has worked over the years, we’re gonna look at what does it take to design play spaces as environments for learning; how do teachers invite children to be involved in the routines of the day in very playful ways; how do we support children when conflicts arise when they’re playing?
So, throughout the Session Two, we’re gonna build out more the idea of what does it mean to observe, document, and reflect. So, Denisha, I cannot thank you enough for your wisdom, the insight, the passion, the stories that you’ve brought to California so late at night from New York. Thank you. Thank you so much. And I do hope that your words can continue to inspire all of us in this webinar, but all the children and families and colleagues with whom we work as well.
Dr. Denisha Jones: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Amy, I shout out, I know someone in the group. Amy was one of AnjiPlay people, so you have some amazing people out here in California. And I miss seeing… My mom lives in San Diego, and I miss it out there every day, but the East Coast remains home for now. So, I want to thank you all so much.
Elizabeth Crocker: So, I want to thank everyone for coming. And we were able to chat quite a bit. People were concerned about how to support kindergarten teachers because, and you address that so well, that they really, really, it’s not their idea to give all these tests to children. It’s something that’s assigned. And how do we help people break free and give children what they need? That came through strongly in the chat, so that was wonderful to see. And really thinking about using this tool. It’s not just advocacy. It’s what the state says they expect of us for early childhood, for early childhood’s birth through eight. And so, thinking about how we can use this book to support the shift and the focus on play is really important, because this is where the Department of Education says that our energy needs to be with young children.
And so that, I think this book will really support all of us in that work. And then there was a question about, talking about infants and toddlers, and that will come up more next time. We’re just really excited to have Denisha here. And research is on older children, but still there are children, their early childhood, they’re under eight. So, I was so excited to be with Mary Jane and with Denisha today. And thank you to all of you who gave up your evenings to be with us.