Play in the Classroom – Stop Making Play a Four Letter Word

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Have you ever heard the phrase, just playing”? I have. Many times. Often times I know it isn’t meant in a bad way at all.  For example, “Oh the kids are just playing right now.” But I think it’s time to stop making “Play” a four letter word and bring back authentic and intentional play in the classroom.

I get that it is likely meant to explain what they are doing. Still, my teacher self cringes at the use of the term JUST when next to the word PLAYING. Incorporating play can be both fun and beneficial!

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Bring back authentic and intentional play in the classroom and stop making play a four letter word! Practical tips for kindergarten teachers to incorporate to make a playful, educational classroom!

Play in the Classroom – Stop Making Play a Four Letter Word

Why do I cringe?

Because kids are never just playing.

They are learning.


Learning through play in the classroom is an amazing thing and something that is not accepted everywhere, particularly in a school setting.

Why is it that when kids walk through the doors of kindergarten the play is supposed to be only at recess?

When did it become a 4 letter word? (THAT kind of 4 letter word – the kind I won’t type here on this site!)

I have to say that I am beyond blessed to teach in a school and district that supports the idea of learning through play. My kindergarteners play EVERY DAY in the classroom. I am so thankful that this is not only allowed, but encouraged.

So, why am I defending play if I am allowed to incorporate it in my teaching?

Well, just because my kindergarteners can play does not mean I am not aware that isn’t the case elsewhere.

For all of my teacher friends who aren’t allowed to have play in their classroom, and for all of the 5 and 6 year olds (and even older, as I think 1st graders should play too) who are being pushed beyond their age – this needs to be talked about.

Play as a “4 Letter Word”

I have heard MANY reasons as to why kids aren’t allowed to play. Here are a few that I have read, heard, or had directly spoken to me at various trainings or interactions. While often we assume that it is mainly the “law makers” causing this issue – unfortunately some of these sayings have come from teachers’ mouths too. However, I do understand it is likely because of the pressure being put on them, unfortunately.

  • We can’t play and meet common core.
  • They need to learn how to do school.
  • They won’t be ready for 1st grade by just playing.
  • We can’t pass assessments if we are playing.
  • We don’t have time to play.
  • I will be in trouble if I let the kids play (The saddest one yet!).

Learning Through Play in the Classroom

Well, if kids aren’t just playing, then what are they doing while they play? Here are just some of the many things children learn through play in the classroom:

  • Decision making
  • Social emotional skills
  • Language development
  • Higher level thinking skills
  • Communication skills
  • Listening skills
  • Reading skills
  • Math skills

I especially like to point out social emotional skills. We often hear complaints of poor social skills in children and young adults. Just think about how that may be different if they had been given time to intentionally learn those things. This could be taught at a young age through authentic play.

Problem solving skills are learned through the solving of actual problems in social situations with peers. We can certainly learn some about them through read alouds and activities, but you can’t beat the real thing! A worksheet or sorting activity about decision making isn’t the same as doing it yourself.

Let’s Look at the “Play Problems” Again

Going back to the reasons that play is a “four letter word” – let’s look a little closer and examine the other side of opinions!

  • We can’t play and meet common core.  – Well, I have been doing it and I am by no means Wonder Teacher, so I do know it is possible! Especially when you look at the speaking and listening components of Common Core. Also, it depends on if you are having your students engaged in intentional play with intentional materials. Note: This doesn’t mean an educational game that you require them to play – I am talking about authentic free play, where the teacher has set up the environment but the student is given the choice. 
  • They need to learn how to do school. Really? At five? Pretty soon babies will be born and immediately we will be saying we need to get them ready for school and buying them desks. I exaggerate… but honestly, it gets to be a bit much! Kids should be able to be kids. They are still learning! 
  • They won’t be ready for 1st grade by just playing. Well, my argument here is that actually 1st graders should play too, and also we have already turned Kindergarten into the new first grade in some ways! But in all seriousness, yes, they will be ready. Taking time to play in addition to their lessons isn’t going to hinder them from growing as readers, writers, and much more. In fact, it helps them!
  • We can’t pass assessments if we are playing. This. is. SAD. It is sad that people feel they have to teach to the test, and sad that many teachers’ abilities are evaluated on these tests. 
  • We don’t have time to play.  Now, if you teach half day kindergarten I really, truly, understand this. I teach full day and I know that even then it can get busy. However, if we are expected to meet common core in half day as well as full day, shouldn’t we full day-ers be able to have time for intentional play each day? I promise you can still fit in everything else! 
  • I will be in trouble if I let the kids play (The saddest one yet!). This is something I sadly can’t fix alone and I know this isn’t the teacher’s fault. I can only hope that we teachers and parents keep taking a stand for play and its importance, and that those who make the rules will start to see the light! 

A Plea for Play in the Classroom

I think I am right (or I really hope) when I say that most teachers of young children really do wish they could play. I think many teachers know the importance of play in the classroom, and sadly they just aren’t allowed to without consequences that affect their job.

So it is not those teachers or individuals that this post is geared for – other than to back you up and encourage you to keep on keeping on, and maybe things will change!

This post is mainly a plea for people making the rules or people that honestly think kids have no business playing in school. For people that think playing is “just” playing and has no significant learning outcomes for children.

Think of adults who are inventors and constantly building success – do you think inventions don’t come about through play and exploration? One of my favorite quotes about play is  by Carl Jung – “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.”

Children want and need to play in the classroom. As teachers, we need to encourage this.

Children want and need to play. We are robbing them of this in many ways. I hope that things change, and I am always hopeful when I hear of other teachers and schools who are bringing back play in the classroom.

I am curious – can you play in your classroom? Is it free play and child directed? I would love to hear from you!

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  1. There is incredible pressure where I teach to use the 6 different curriculums that we are expected to teach and to help our students meet the state standards. Our district has set standards for us that are even higher than the state expectations, and our first grade teachers are constantly complaining that our kinders aren’t “ready” for first grade because their expectations are not developmentally appropriate. We get mixed messages from our admin- they want us to make Kindergarten fun, but they want us to make sure we are following the curriculum…. and sadly, there is not enough time in the day. However, I believe so strongly in the importance of play that I give my students 30-45 minutes every single day to have unstructured free play, at the expense of structured, teacher led lessons. I am keeping data on my students learning and hoping to prove that the children do just as well, if not better, with time for play based learning. My students are happy, well-adjusted kids who have all made academic progress this year so far. I am always afraid of “getting caught” letting my kids play, but that is a risk I am willing to take. The kids deserve to just be 5 and 6. Thanks for your article supporting play!

    1. Jane,

      We are so happy to hear that you enjoyed our article AND that you are such a big supporter of play in the classroom. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We hope you have a wonderful school year! 🙂

  2. Play should be allowed in Kindergarten and First Grade. Children learn so much socialiy through play. Should be part of the day in Kindergarten and in First Grade. They learn so much through play. All you have to do is watch children play.

  3. This is a great article! I fortunately teach in a corporation where play is understood to be a vital part of a kindergartner’s learning. My students have two 20 minute recesses in addition to our 25 – 30 minute free play time at the end of each day. The kids get to pick whatever they want to do & with whom they want to play. I have seen some amazing things happening during this play period! One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “Play is the highest form of research.” I have this hanging in my classroom.

    1. Linda, this is SOOO incredible! I have to get that hanging on my wall. What a perfect perspective. It’s so wonderful to hear that you are in a school that supports play as part of the kindergarten day!

        1. Wilma,

          We’re so happy you found this resource helpful. We love hearing from others that realize the importance of PLAY! 🙂

  4. We are supposed to be implemented a new program where kids play at centers, but it is all based on specific learning objectives. For example, in the blocks are we might be learning about wolves and the children can only build wolf habitats with the blocks. If a child wants his block creation to be something else, I am supposed to gently guide him to make a wolf habitat. I understand what the program is trying to do, but I don’t agree with limiting the imaginative play that happens spontaneously. I am supposed to question and provoke and assess learning in all of the play centers. It feels like I’m intruding on the natural play that happens when kids are given a variety of materials , time and space to create their own play scenarios. This fall will be my 2 nd attempt to implement this new program, which our district gets $$$$ for, and I will follow it but with a close watch on whether my students are benefiting from it. I didn’t realize that play could be so complicated or controversial. I would love to know how others use the “play to learn ” model successfully.

    1. I am completely with you on this Carolyn. I think incorporating some playful learning into your lessons is great – but if your school is truly wanting to support play, then there shouldn’t be restrictions during that play time about what children can build with the blocks. That really stifles their creativity and the purpose of free play and exploration. I like how your are testing it out and keeping track of what does/doesn’t work. Maybe your admin would meet with you about it and come to a middle ground? Keep me posted! I would love to know how it goes.

  5. This is a wonderful article. It makes me sad to hear people refer to kindergarten as the new first grade when our kindergarten children are still five and six year olds. They need to explore, play, and create, not sit and read and be assessed all the time. In am a big supporter of dramatic play stations. Right now I have a Vet office and a flower/ card shop. In both of these play areas, students are writing, using math and everyday language. It makes me smile to observe my kiddos using language like, “hello this is the Kindergarten Vet Clinic, how can I help you?” I see so much learning going on during okay time. It makes me so sad to read many kindergarten teacher blogs these days and see their schedules that eliminate just good old play. We need to be strong advocates for our kinders natural avenue for learning, play!

    1. I love reading about your dramatic play area Shawn! This is one area I am really working to up my game in next year – you have motivated me to keep working on that! 🙂

  6. I whole-heartedly agree with this. While I am not a classroom teacher, I run a before-and-after school program within our school district. The administrators keep forcing more academic things upon us and our time feels like an extension of the classroom. I am not saying we shouldn’t be doing things that better the child academically, but I think that a big part of making a successful child/student is the play time they have in my care. Do I think reading is important? Of course! Do I want to make the kids do lessons on sounds and blends to help them with their reading? No. That is what they need during the school day. What they need from me in after school is that learning that comes by playing: the decision-making, social emotional skills, communication skills…skills that are important as an adult to be a funtioning member of society, yet can not really be taught in a classroom. Thank you for this article and for supporting play. I am glad to see I am not the only one who thinks it is important!

    1. Hi Kelly! I totally agree with you that play is so important during the day! Especially after your kids have been in school all day already – they definitely need the time to play! I think reading after school and engaging in hands on learning is fabulous. There is a time and place for work after school, but I agree with you that when they come to you they need time to learn through play and focus on other important skills! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts! 🙂

  7. Sadly, the “I’d get in trouble” one is me. We are not allowed any play. We only get 15-20 min of recess once each day. I push that limit and keep them out a bit longer. I’d love to integrate play, and I think many behavior problems would be eliminated by letting the kids have a bit of down time, academics wise. I try my best to have centers that are academic but still fun in order to make up for the no play situation. I also do Friday Rewards for about 30 min on Fridays where the kids can choose fun activities in our classroom or can play with some other things I have purchased.

    Thank you for writing this! Keep pushing for play!

    1. Hi Meredith! I feel for you that you aren’t allowed to get in much play through the day – but kudos to you for pushing back a bit to give them that much needed recess time! I totally agree with you that many behavior problems could be improved with some down time! More focus on play and social skills would greatly help a lot of kiddos! You sound amazing in that you are working on making their learning fun in the situation that you are in. I bet they look forward to Friday rewards! I will be hoping for you that someday soon you will get to do those types of activities everyday! 🙂

  8. Hi Alex! This is such a great post. You make such a great point about how important play is in young children and work hard to debunk reasons that people give against play. I am a strong proponent of play in my classroom and am lucky I have a principal who believes in it as well. I have more time for play now that we are full day kindergarten. I fit it in when I could when I taught half day, but I was not able to do it as much as I would have liked. Excellent post!

    1. Thanks Suzanne! Moving up to full day kindergarten will definitely give you some more time to incorporate play! I am so glad your principal is supportive too – that will make a huge difference!

    1. They definitely learn a ton! I am thrilled to hear that you are able to make time for play even in a half day program! It is so important!

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