I observed a half hour of socio-dramatic play in the gym room with preschoolers at Chinatown Learning Center. During the gym time, teachers split the group of twenty students into three groups in three areas of the gym- a slide area, an open area with different gross motor games, and a bike area. I observed a teacher interact with a rotating group of five to six students in the gross motor area with large blocks. The ages of the students ranged from three to five, and students’ responses to the teacher speaking in English varied, as students have varying levels of English proficiency.
The teacher first helped students set out the blocks, then said to students, “Let’s make an airplane!” Some students responded, saying “Ok!”, smiling and pulling out blocks. The teacher put some large blocks together and prompted students to add by saying, “We need a wing, why don’t you put that block here?” Students went along with the teacher, who seemed excited and interested. Once the plane was fully built, the teachers asked with enthusiasm, “Who will be the pilot?” with the first group. One or two eagerly jumped up, raising their hands. The teacher said, “Ok, if you want to be the pilot, you have to fly the plane!” and demonstrated turning the wheel different ways to go straight, up, down, left and right. A five year old sat and moved the steering wheel in all directions. The teacher then said, “We need passengers!” The students did not respond, so she pointed to the back seat and said, “Sit, sit!” Students responded to the gesture, sitting in the back. Then the teacher counted down from ten using her fingers, during which a few students stopped all action and stared. The teacher said, “Blast off!” and the pilot began moving the wheel. The teacher showed passengers how to put their arms out like they were flying. After about three minutes, the passengers got up, distracted by something. The teacher said, “Wait, you can’t jump out of the plane! Where is your parachute?!” Some children did not respond (probably due to lack of English skills), but one child quickly made the motion of putting on a parachute, then smiling and running away.
The last group of students had a four year old pilot (S.) who eagerly raised her hand when the teacher asked who wanted to be pilot. She followed the teacher’s movements for flying the plane in different directions. For about ten minutes, she played, moving the wheel in different directions and saying things like, “Here we go!” and making flying sounds. She then said, “We’re here!” The teacher played off of S.’s suggestion, saying, “We’re in the jungle!”, pretending to look around. S. sat and put her hand as a shade above her eyes, looking in all directions. Suddenly, S. said, “Oh no, there are tigers!” and pretended to get in the plane quickly. She then made shooting noises, pretending to fight off the tigers vigorously. Her face looked determined and her whole body launched into the activity. The teacher said, “Ok, I think they’re gone, let’s take off!” S. said, “Let’s go!” and made sounds for taking off, driving the plane. The other teacher banged a drum and said, “Clean up!” and S. and the other students stopped playing and began to clean up.
This play scenario with the airplane described remains unique, as the teacher scaffolded a higher level of play. When teachers do not engage with students during play, they miss the importance of sustained, shared thinking where adults and children co-construct understandings and explore cognitive challenges (Dockett, 2011). The play allowed different age levels of students to engage and students with limited English to understand the scenario with gesture and sounds. The teacher scaffolded a higher level of play in particular by helping students to enact different roles and giving suggestions for the narrative created together. Although students did not initiate the play, the teacher provided a scenario and had students play off of it on their own. The teacher supported students in using their sound and movement to create a scenario, and the teacher’s prompts helped sustain the play and supported students continuing to enact specific roles within the scenario.
As the teacher engaged students in play, I noticed different types of engagement. Students at different levels practiced language, socio-emotional, behavioral and general problem solving skills through the airplane scenario. Students had to persist at being the “pilot” flying the plane, the “repairman” fixing the wing, and even sitting still as the “passengers”, supporting self regulation and developing “[…] a more complex hierarchical system of immediate and long-term goals” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 7). Simply engaging in this play with others helped students to practice behavioral and social-emotional skills. They used blocks as a symbol for something else, saw their actions within a narrative, considered their role in relations to others in the play, and sustained their role. Bodrova & Leong (2004) explain how play supports,“[…] complex cognitive activities, such as memory, self regulation, distancing and decontextualization, oral language abilities, symbolic generalization, successful school adjustment, and better social skills” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 6).
As a future Early Childhood or early Elementary teacher, I hope to look for students’ natural excitement and engagement as a jumping off point for learning. Active engagement with students during play allows for teachers to connect with students emotionally as well as intellectually, supports students in knowing that teachers care for their self-worth, and gives teachers a chance to dive into students’ natural interest. However, in thinking of my own practice, I won’t be able to fully support students’ development without knowing their understandings, needs, and abilities and reflecting on how to support and extend these through play. A socio-cultural view of play sees educators’ roles as providing “[…] appropriate scaffolding and support as children are challenged to co-construct new knowledge, skills and understandings” (Dockett 2011, p. 35). The teacher must observe students to know where to focus their learning and what skills to develop through play. The teacher’s role also involves bringing in appropriate resources to support play. For example, in my future practice, I can consider bringing in images related to the imaginary scenario of interest to support students who are currently learning English.
In my future practice, I hope to be an advocate for the type of play observed in this report to both support students at their current level of need and to communicate with families. Bodrova & Leong (2004) explain how it does not occur to many teachers that they need to support play and that in recent studies, “[…] it was taken for granted that most children knew how to play, and those who did not would learn from other children” (p. 4). As schools section off students by age, students do not get a chance to learn higher levels of play from older students. Teachers must not only teach children how to play, but also observe and document students’ behaviors and dialogue to support their next level of learning. Simply understanding higher-level play remains important in being able to identify it and support it and results in “[…] a positive effect on development of foundational skills, including cognitive and emotional self-regulation and the ability to use symbols” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 6). With a push for academics and a pressure for school readiness, many preschool and early Elementary teachers currently see their roles as getting students to learn basic numeracy, phonics, letter and number recognition, and writing skills. However, many of the skills I observed the teacher support and students practice during the airplane play showed me how these skills are supported by play experiences. For example, simply using symbolic language with children “[…] involves cognitive decentering. This newly acquired competency will later enable children to to coordinate their cognitive perspectives with those of their learning partners and teachers” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 7). Many taken for granted skills that support students’ learning throughout school and create lifelong learners are given fertile ground to grow within play. An understanding of the importance of play as well as experiences supporting play can help me to develop a classroom that provides a strong foundation for students’ development and learning.
Bodrova & Leong (2011) Revisiting Vygotskian perspective on play and pedagogy: Rethinking Play and pedagogy in early childhood education: Concepts, contexts and cultures. P. 61-72. Routledge Press, New York.
Dockett, S. (2011) The Challenge of Play for Early Childhood Educators. Routledge Press, New York. p. 33-44
Kline, T. P., Wirth, D. & Linas, K. (2004) Play: Children’s context for development. Young Children: NAEYC. 58(3) p. 1-35.