The Work of Childhood

The Work of Childhood

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –  Fred Rogers

When I was about five years old, and my sister was around seven, our hands down favorite activity was to play “Little House on the Prairie”. The books had been read aloud to us, we religiously watched the TV show, and all I wanted in life was a bonnet. (which I am still waiting on, by the way)

We used to go to the basement and tie our rocking horse to the small slide we had, thus making a wagon, clutch blankets around ourselves and proceed to reenact our favorite scenes, usually resulting in my horrific death. (If you know the show, you know there are a surprising number of horrific deaths, and let’s not even talk about the clown episode. But seriously, tell me in the comments if you remember the clown episode.) Ostensibly we were just “playing” but on another level we were working on our understanding of narrative structures, developing self regulation by inhabiting characters older than us, building a working knowledge of history, and navigating problem and solution. In short, we were learning.

Too often, people think children learning should look like scaled down versions of adults learning. Static seating, serious faces, ponderous silence, but in truth that is not even the best way for adults to learn. Raucous and joyful engagement activates many more neurons that passive and disinterested (but often quiet and managed) compliance.

It horrifies me that teachers need to fight for play in their classrooms, that blocks are being hauled out and easels repurposed to hold teacher supplies. People ask, how do you have time to play? I wonder back, how can you not afford to play? Perhaps if we are more empowered with ways to explain how play helps children, and have a systemic plan build rich language, literacy, and math use in our play we can win back the blocks, and win back the right to play.

When I say PLAY, You say….

Let me first be clear about what play looks like in my room, and what I am envisioning when I say the word play as it pertains to choice time. It is NOT “recess-like” play. There is no “tag, you’re it”, there is no running, there is no standing around the water fountain talking about who you want to marry. (Any kindergarten teacher knows this may be the hottest recess topic out there). There is a place for all of that, even the marriage talk, and that place is recess. When I say choice time, I am talking about sophisticated pretend play where children take on a world, construct it, and inhabit it for a period of time along with a small group of peers. Right now I have a group playing “Family”, a group playing “Animal hospital”, a group playing, “Olympic Snowboarders”, a group playing, “Bakery”, and group playing, “Train”.

The difference between recess play and choice time play is that I see recess play as working kids bodies, choice time play is about working your mind.

Play, Like Wine, Improves with Time

When people see choice time in my room at this time of the year, I am often asked, “How did it get this way?” You would see (for the most part) kids, working cooperatively, building and role playing around a topic of their choosing for a week’s time. Now, let’s get this out of the way: there is still much to fine tune. Some kids still struggle to pretend and drop out of a role after a few minutes, some groups splinter into factions and play in groups of 2, rather than 4, and sometimes kids want out of their center when things aren’t going their way.

But the way we got here, is the way you get anywhere, small continuous effort applied over time. Let’s take a walk through the seasons of choice time. Pretty much all of this was taught to me by the lovely and brilliant duo of Cheryl Tyler and Alison Porcelli who wrote Boosting Language Acquisition in Choice Time. If you do not own it, buy it and read it. It will take you one day and transform your teaching life.

A small note: in my room, and many rooms that have used Alison’s and Cheryl’s book, I treat choice time as a workshop. This means we start with a small lesson about play, kids go off to their centers, and then we come back together with a share. The lessons range from things like compromising with your center mates to persisting to build and create despite setbacks.

Fall: Materials Based Play and Exploration

In the fall, children choose their centers based by material name: blocks, painting, cardboard, art, sand table, and legos. Children tend to stay in their center for 1-2 days and the work is mostly about exploration and construction. Children are understanding the materials and working on stamina to stay in their center for the full time (45 minutes). At this time I teach routines for clean-up, ways to solve problems, ways to make a plan before you build. All very abstract concepts when applied to writing, but very concrete when applied to the materials of choice time. Often my reading, writing, and play lessons overlap at this time of year: persisting when something is hard, planning before you start, asking another for something you need.

I have books available for inspiration and often spend much of choice time giving different centers books to help them build their castle, or make a bus in cardboard. I also have writing materials available so children can make signs like: “Fragile” or label aspects of their construction. This gives a very real purpose to reading and writing and builds extensive oral language. I often use the strengths of choice time to support the reading and writing teaching I am doing, often trying to make one blend into another.

Focus and Links to Literacy:

  • stamina
  • revision (changing what you made so it looks even better)
  • persistence
  • optimism
  • resilience (if it falls, you try again)
  • planning
  • working with peers

Late Fall to Winter: Intention Based Play

At this point in the year, children are starting to gather first around an intention. A child will submit a play idea (e.g. I want to play animal hospital) and children who are drawn to that idea meet together. Children plan both what they will construct to make the space they need to play, and also who will take on what role. Groups are free to use all the materials to create what they need, with the exception of sand table because it sounds like my worst nightmare to have kids carting sand around the room. Sometimes groups will commandeer an entire space, like the blocks area, with the understanding that other groups may come and take the blocks they need for their pretend play.

Additionally, reading and writing (and math) are essential elements of the construction and play process. There are signs to make, books to reference, a restaurant needs to make menus and receipts, the train needs tickets and a schedule. Often at this point, children are playing within a narrative structure- a problem arises, solutions are sought, the problem worsens.

My role is now to enter the play as a proficient partner. I go to the animal hospital and pick up my pet requesting exit instructions. I go to the castle and claim that if they patrol to the east of the castle they may see a dragon. I coat the classroom in the richest language  I can imagine in the moment and try to find the interesting aspect of whatever play scenario they have chosen. In short, I engage and I play too.

Consider this, when children pretend to be others they are experimenting with empathy, point of view, and social imagination, all important reading (and life!!) skills later in life. When a child picks up up block and calls it a phone it is metaphor and symbolism in its early stages.

It is not always fair to look at what adults do and scale it down for kids, maybe the thing that makes strong thinkers and critical citizens later in life, is the chance to try those things first in play. If I can look at a block and call it a phone, can I later understand that authors use symbols and that something is not always as it first appears? If I can pretend to be an animal doctor and in the same week be the puppy getting a shot, am I not gaining experience with different points of view?

Focus and Literacy Links:

  • planning for materials and roles
  • sustaining a character (dialogue in writing, fluency in reading, inference in reading, show not tell in writing)
  • building more and saying more (elaboration)
  • keeping it interesting (adding problems and solutions in writing)


All along children use this time to replicate and cement what they are learning about the outside world. Truthfully, what starts in choice time often becomes a whole class inquiry (castles, construction, Olympics) which then fuels richer, deeper play in choice time in the winter. This recursive process becomes the bulk of the work in the spring as children pursue their own inquiry topics and use their play to better understand and generate more questions.

For example, children playing castle may read and research about castles teaching them that they should refer to the king or queen his or her highness. In the course of playing and using this language, they may encounter that they are not sure what to call the knight, thus fueling more research and more inquiry. Used in this way, play helps children construct understanding, but also identify areas of wonder.

A Note About Materials:

This is my dream list of materials for a rich and purposeful choice time:

  • hollow blocks
  • unit blocks
  • paper
  • paints
  • cardboard, all shapes and sizes
  • tape, staplers, glue
  • sand/water table
  • fabric in different colors, shapes, and sizes
  • general craft supplies: paper bags, popsicle sticks, puff balls, cotton balls, etc

A Few Resources To Help You on Your Way:

  • Tools of the Mind by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong
  • Young Investigators by Judy Harris Helm and Lillian G. Katz
  • Play! by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan
  • Supporting Language Acquisition in Choice Time by Alison Porcelli and Cheryl Tyler

Let’s Keep the Conversation Going!

Join me (and Cheryl Tyler, author of the above book) along with Valerie Geschwind for a twitter chat about the power of play in the classroom. We will be talking about play in the full range of elementary grades and ways to make it rich and purposeful! Foll0w me @MrazKristine and use the hashtag #tcrwp to be a part of the chat Wednesday, Feb 12 at 7:30 PM.

Leave your favorite pro-quotes play and books your love in the comments (and please, someone tell me you remember that clown episode!)

  • Lisa
    Posted at 20:34h, 10 February Reply

    Don’t recall the clown episode, but the one where the boys tried smoking is unfortunately seared (pun intended) into my memory. Best advertisement for the dangers of smoking ever.

    • kristimraz
      Posted at 20:41h, 10 February Reply

      Could there be a more violent show for children? Trust me, you are glad you don’t remember the clown 🙂

  • KeeneonEd
    Posted at 00:43h, 11 February Reply

    Love this! I will have a million and one questions for you about it on Wednesday. Thanks for sharing!

    • kristimraz
      Posted at 20:54h, 11 February Reply

      Bring ’em! Can’t wait for the chat!

  • Renee Dinnerstein
    Posted at 04:41h, 11 February Reply

    You might want to check out my blog about Choice Time, Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play
    ‘Some years ago I did a calendar day at TC with Lisa Rippegar and I made up a draft of some possibilities for change across the year (it must have been, perhaps in 1999 or 2000). It looked something like this:

    September – December Focus: Conversation and use of materials

    Children become familiar with a variety of materials in the various classroom centers such as unit blocks, dramatic play materials and dress-up clothes, sand and water, sand and water tools, science tools such as magnifying glasses, droppers, shells, classroom animals, art materials, math manipulatives, puzzles, and listening center apparatus.

    Children explore a variety of ways to use these materials. Their discoveries are documented by a teacher, shared and displayed.

    Often, activities and constructions are of the moment and last only for that day. Children are learning to work in small groups and in partnerships. Partners are learning to share materials and help each other solve problems.

    January – March Focus: Adding details, innovation (out-of-the-box thinking)

    Children are encouraged to build onto a project such: adding more details to a picture; adding signs, toy people and animals to a block structure; changing the dramatic play area into a doctor’s office or post office; adding materials such as food coloring or soap suds to the water table; creating scenes in the sand table with science and art materials.

    Children are beginning to label projects and to use print more naturally in all centers.

    Groups and partners are beginning to be more “planful” before starting an activity.

    There is more use of talk as a means of sharing ideas.

    April – June Focus: Combining conversation, innovation, and literacy skills in class inquiry projects

    Children are beginning to stay at centers for two or more days.

    Centers more clearly connect to Social Studies, Science and Read Aloud themes, such as a group project to construct a bridge during a bridge study, creating a 3-D map of Wild Island during a reading of My Father’s Dragon or working on a class book to accompany a science study.

    At this time, the teacher is more able to step back and observe. Children are more self-sufficient and are also more adept at meeting the needs of their classmates.

    Children are using more print to label and describe projects. They are including more sight vocabulary (“the” and “my”) on their signs and messages.

    Children share with their work partners at group meetings.

    • kristimraz
      Posted at 20:55h, 11 February Reply

      Thank you so much for sharing this valuable resource with all of us! As I reflect on my own learning path, I can see your footprints in the teaching of those that taught me. The world so appreciates the work you do to support and stand for children.

  • Ginger
    Posted at 17:09h, 11 February Reply

    Oh goodness the mime clown face…poor Sylvia!!! Didn’t they blame her? Sometimes i tried to be sick and stay home to watch that show!!!!

    • kristimraz
      Posted at 20:55h, 11 February Reply

      One day Ginger, you and I will get a coffee and talk about this and all the other things we probably have in common!

  • Bianca Lavey
    Posted at 00:04h, 12 February Reply

    I’m so glad you wrote about this Kristi! Have you ever seen the video “An Amusement Park for Birds” from Reggio Emilia? It’s a beautiful and inspiring documentation of what can be possible and how the entire community supported the work of the children. I think I might have cried a little watching it…how awesome to think that this could happen in our classrooms too.

  • claire
    Posted at 02:45h, 12 February Reply

    Love love love the idea of incorporating choice time into my 2nd graders’ day! All the research I have read focus on PreK and K, but I know there must be ways to make it relevant and rewarding for 7 and 8 year olds. Would love to hear your thoughts on this here or in the chat!

  • Christina
    Posted at 23:29h, 25 March Reply

    I love all the work you do with play in the classroom. Are you aware of any resources (blogs,books) that are directed towards older kids? I teach 5th. Thanks!!

  • Pingback:Is It Too Late to Play? | janetkwest
    Posted at 12:01h, 24 August Reply

    […] The Work of Childhood […]

Post A Comment