Monday, July 30, 2012

Play vs. Academics: Not a dichotomy

Don't you just love it when someone else is able to verbalize something you've been struggling with? That happened today when I read Amanda's post, Play vs. Academics. This article hit home in so many ways. As a formally trained educator (I’ve taught middle school up through graduate school) who has decided to homeschool, this dichotomy of formalized learning vs. play is at the heart of the issue of why my views of teaching and learning are changing.

Its was the last few sentences of her article that really hit it home for me: 
“In reality, a play-based education is not only more responsive and developmentally appropriate for young children, but it also teaches them not only how to answer, but how to think. Not just to recite, but to inquire. Not simply to complete worksheets, but to build connections. Academic content isn’t just taught, it’s meaningfully constructed.” 

I have been struggling with this because I'm working through what school at home is supposed to look like. I have to stop myself as I find cute worksheet and resources from all these wonderful teacher and homeschooling mom websites. (Which is why I love the name of Amanda's website, "Not Just Cute.") Cute graphics that have the purpose of keeping kids busy, it NOT what I want my homeschool to look like! This concept became crystalized for me after I bought a workbook that teaches “logic.” My 5-year old son was so bored, and I wondered, what’s the point? Sure he’s seated, has pencil in hand, and it looks like he’s in “school,” but that’s not learning. The concepts being taught in this workbook, are things our family talks about all the time, all day long, as we live our lives. And I believe learning in context of life is so much better than formalized learning. 

I am realizing that so much of what I learned, and enforced as a teacher isn’t the best way to teach, or to encourage student learning–Instead, its best for managing large number of students at varying levels. I'm having a hard time, with all sorts of regrets of how I taught all the students I've had in my 17 years of formal teaching career. And while I understand some of that is just what you have to do, its not what I want for my own kids! I want to raise thinkers, curious kids who know how to ask good questions, and be able to find reliable answers! 

Unraveling this false dichotomy of play vs. academics impacts not only how I interact with my preschoolers, but also with middle and high school students. I am in charge of providing two-90 minutes of hands-on STEM experiences for boys ages 12-18 once a week. And what I've learned, is that they need time to "play." Most of the labs Ishare here at have this play built in. I've stopped writing labs that have the procedure written out for the students. Instead, I present them with an issue, a problem, or a question, and they have to solve or answer it. Often, this means I "dump" a bunch of materials in the center of the work station, some items I think they'll need, and others items are just a best guess of what they might want. And the boys always know to ask for something if they think it may help them solve their problem. 

I encourage them to play for at least 15 minutes and to NOT write anything down. 
I encourage them to talk things out, either to themselves, with a partner, or with me. 
I encourage them to be wrong, and never to laugh at someone whose idea didn't solve their problem.

Then, after they've played a while, I ask that they begin testing their idea by collecting data, in order to  determine if their idea to solve the problem or answer the question, in fact solves the problem or answers the question! As the teacher, I'm less stressed, because I'm not trying to make sure "get it." Instead, its about the process of learning, the process of thinking, the process of problem solving, without the fear of being wrong. During the data collection stage, I emphasize accurate measurements, organization into tables, with clear units. Student must also spend time accurately describing their procedure. This is important that they be able to communicate how they conducted their experiment to someone else. At the end of a session we debrief about what ideas worked, what ideas didn't, what we could do next time to improve our procedure.  Its during these last few moments where I make sure students don't leave with any major misconceptions, and that they have a big picture of why we care about what we learned today. Again, learning in context is important. If we can't honestly answer the question, "Why should I learn this?" I don't believe they should have to learn it! 


  1. "If we can't honestly answer the question, "Why should I learn this?" I don't believe they should have to learn it! " Nailed it! Love your book by the way, I am using it this year!

    1. Mrs. glad to hear you agree with me (of course!) But as a teacher who never officially "practiced" science, this isn't always easy, ya know?

      Glad too that you're using my book. Would love feedback after you have students using it! :)


  2. I am new to your site. This is my second year homeschooling & am struggling with the decision as to whether to continue with it. This post explains exactly how I'm feeling & yes, I feel guilty about it. It feels right in my heart to school my children this way, but I'm having a hard time convincing my mind that it's ok to not school exactly as the public school system is doing. Thanks for making me feel better. :)

    1. Jennifer, thanks so much for your kind words! And I'm glad you can relate to my own struggles. Sometimes I just think, "What is school, anyways?" Sometimes our formal school is done by 10:30 in the morning, and the rest of the day is life skills, logic, and other helpful stuff a 5 year old should be learning.

      I hope you can connect with some homeschoolers locally to get support. If you feel in y our heart it is right to continue, you'll need help convincing your mind! And keep in mind, sometimes homeschooling might be a bit for one kid and not the other....its not an all or nothing thing!

      Its great to live in a country where we have choices! Thanks so much for leaving a comment! Blessing to you and your family!



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