Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deliberate Play

If you read this blog regularly you will know that I place a high value on play (see all posts on play here). I have argued previously that play:
  • Is best when kept simple (see previous post here).
  • Can be structured and unstructured.
  • Can be self-initiated or initiated by others (especially parents and preschool teachers and carers).
  • Has extraordinary potential to develop creativity and problem solving.
  • Offers countless opportunities for children to learn.
However, there is a fine line between being deliberate in play and simply taking over the child’s play to turn it into school. While I’ve said before that we need to be careful not to make every instance of play a lesson, in the busyness of life it’s far more likely that we’ll do the opposite, that is, we’ll just let our children amuse themselves. While it’s important for any child to do just this, and parents can’t be on task all day, play offers a wonderful opportunity for children to learn many things. I would suggest that just as we say that parents should read to their children each day, I believe that parents should also be more deliberate about stimulating learning in at least one period of play each day.

This post is about how we can do this. I want to share an example of a play situation with one of my grandchildren just last week and then tease out some of things that I was doing.

Cooking with Sam

My grandson Samuel (who turns 4 in three months) loves lots of games – cars, Thomas trains, kicking balls (in fact all sports), rumbling, painting, cooking etc. When he was staying last week after playing with cars for 30 minutes, he pointed to a box of children’s kitchen cooking utensils and imitation food, and indicated that he wanted to “play with these”. I took a plastic children’s table outside and set up the utensils and ‘food’. My wife Carmen said, “put the sheet underneath, he’s used to pretty messy cooking” (see opposite). Carmen often lets our grandchildren have noodles, water, playdough, rice and flour which they ‘cook with’ outside. She would also have a dish of water and a towel on hand, and it’s always outside in the yard or on the back patio. Our grandchildren ‘bake’ cakes in an imaginary oven under one of my garden seats. When I discover some of their dishes days later, they are usually mouldy and definitely not edible. I decided for a more basic imaginary cooking session with Sam, no flour, rice, water etc. just plastic food, some utensils and lots of imagination.

Here’s roughly how it went.

Could I have a salad sandwich Sam”, handing Sam some of the food.
Okay”, says Sam. “You need toast too”.
All right, and don’t forget the tomato”.

Sam cooked and I ate most of the time. The dishes moved from assorted sandwiches, to toasted sandwiches, to cooked chicken, an unusual fruit stew, fruit soup, fruit salad etc. We made cups of tea (with milk and sugar) and drank them between the many courses. Occasionally, I would take over the cooking and give him one of my specialities – pineapple and strawberry pie, chicken casserole and so on. We sustained the cooking for almost an hour and only then stopped because it was almost our lunchtime.

What I was teaching Sam

Throughout the cooking I was conscious that there were some things that I was trying to teach Sam. Some of these emerged simply as a result of the play. For example, I noticed that when I asked Sam for a spoon that sometimes he grabbed a fork. So throughout our extensive meals I made sure that I kept asking him for a full set of cutlery – “and don’t forget my spoon”. But there were many other learning opportunities that the cooking activity offered. Here are just some that I can recall:

  • I was constantly introducing new or reinforcing old vocabulary – stew, soup, bake, fry, heat, cool, stir, serve, cucumber, salt, lifter, pot holder, strainer.
  • I was constantly reinforcing language concepts – off/on, hotter/colder, sharp/blunt, high/low and sweet/sour.
  • I was modelling some of the speech sounds that he still has to learn, particularly some initial consonant blends (e.g. ‘tr’).
  • I was reinforcing social conventions and manners – “Could you pass me the tea please?” “I’d like sugar as well, please.” “Would you like some soup Sam?” “Could you help me clear the table please Sam?
  • I was teaching him about safety – “use the pot holder Sam, that’s hot!
  • I was reinforcing basic language recount structure – as I structured a meal situation (over and over again), I was demonstrating the basic elements of recount - first we do this, then this, followed by that etc. This type of structure is the foundation of the recount structure that is often used to tell about the events of the day when you ask your child (for example) to “tell Daddy what happened today”.
Summing up

This type of play where an adult tries to more systematically provide opportunities for children’s learning is very important. While the example I have used was structured around cooking, it could just as easily have been focussed on water play, cars, playing in the dolls house, the sand pit, play dough etc. I believe that some of this type of play should occur each day at home. This type of play, which I call "Deliberate Play", involves an adult more systematically reinforcing a variety of things that you are trying to teach your child. While the aim is still to play, you are more consciously observing your child's learning and offering support. If you’re reading this as a preschool teacher, then you will recognise that these opportunities will usually be group activities or occur within learning centres. While you may be interacting with 4-6 children, all will have the opportunity to learn even if you are spreading your targeted comments or questions around the group. I hope that parents and preschool carers and teachers can recognise in the example above some of things that you do each day with your own children. At the very least I hope that this will reinforce some of the ways we can support our children’s learning through play.

Related Posts

'The Role of Adults in Play' (here)
All my previous posts on play (here)
'Nurturing Creativity in Children' (here)
'Guiding Children's Learning' (here)

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