"It is a happy talent to know how to play"
Children have always played - that is nothing new. Children have also always played in school, whether that be at break times, in P.E., or through tabletop activities in the classroom. However, we now know that, although these types of play have their place, we also need to ensure that we are allowing for the provision of “true play” in the infant classroom.
What is true play? True play is “deep and uninterrupted engagement in the activity of one’s own choice” (Anji Play, 2021). This seems relatively simple until you mix it up with the Irish education system, which, in the primary context, consists of the national curriculum and Aistear. Now, not only do we have to consider true play, but we also have subject objectives, themes and play centres all squashed into a short day – how do we do it all?
In this post I am going to share my classroom play practices for September and demonstrate how I attempt to fit these seemingly conflicting ideas into one very busy hour in the day. Bear in mind that I have said “attempt” – I am not claiming that it is perfect, but it’s fit for purpose and constantly evolving the more I learn.
So, do I allow a free for all, pull everything off the shelves and go wild for an hour? Absolutely not! We have 20+ (sometimes 30+) children in our rooms – that is not feasible or reasonable. I have my four play centres – socio-dramatic play, small world play, construction play and sensory play. For the first couple of weeks of school, like so many others, I use a play rota, where each group takes a turn at each centre on a different day of the week. I find that this is appropriate in the early days with Junior Infants as rules, routines and expectations need time to set in and a more structured approach helps with this. In these first weeks, the rota looks like this:
However, by the end of the month the play rota in the traditional sense is set aside. The children can now choose which centre they want to go themselves. Each group gets a different day to pick first and on Fridays we do outdoor play. The only stipulations about choosing are: if the group is full you must pick something else and you can’t choose the same centre two days in a row. This means that the children aren’t always doing the same thing, but they can choose to move between just two or three so they aren’t forced into a type of play that they dislike. They won’t learn anything if they are bored! I also have the areas set up in advance of school starting for September, but after this the children will help with the planning and set up of the areas. The more choice and input they have, the more engaged they will be. This is a very rough and ready example of the class plan for “The Campsite” last June:
The children always give so many suggestions that wouldn’t cross my mind but are very important to them so I would highly recommend getting the class involved in the planning process after September.
I like to start with the Home Corner in September when working with Junior Infants as it links to the familiar, but The School is a nice one for Senior Infants. As you will see from the pictures, my resources for the home corner are haphazard, mismatched and that kitchen could be older than me – but there has never been one word of complaint from any child that I have taught. Honestly, they don’t see the blemishes that we see, they just want to get stuck in and start playing!
There is absolutely nothing fancy about this set up (apart from maybe the little hotpoint washing machine). There is a mix of toy and real food and utensils. The mobile phone is an important addition due to its central role in everyday life now - play is about practising for real life! There are also lots of informal literacy opportunities.
Using pictures to help to “read” words is an important step on the emergent reading journey. There is also an Irish book with vocabulary related to the house. The primary language curriculum advocates for Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and the transfer of skills between languages so child friendly books as Gaeilge are an important addition to the classroom. There are some storytime books left nearby to “read” to the baby. Finally, I have a vertical writing space beside the socio-dramatic play corner for the children practise their emergent writing during their play if they wish.
Small World Play
I have set up a doll’s house for September in the small world corner. It looks quite sparse but this is intentional as it is located beside my shelves of loose parts. The children are free to take what they want to add to their small world. This element of choice is so important in our goal of getting closer to true play.
In terms of literacy opportunities, I like to label some the key items in the small world, while the mini blackboard is there for mark-making and emergent writing during this time. You will also see a weight balance on top of the loose parts shelf. This is a great resource to have near loose parts to add some informal mathematical exploration during play.
The jaggo blocks are the main event in the construction area while I have access to them (they are a shared resource). They are placed beside shelves that are filled with smaller construction and STEM materials and the children can choose what they want to use. This freedom in using resources can be daunting to begin with but if everything has a clear place, the tidy up really isn’t that bad and the benefits in terms of increased motivation and deeper play are huge.
Planning and designing has an important role in construction play. I have laminated graph paper for drawing plans. There are images of famous buildings and bridges surrounding the construction area as a source of inspiration. Aside from the obvious links to shape and space, mathematical thinking also comes into play (literally) when the children start to explore their constructions with measuring tapes. Having a box of high vis jackets and a tool set helps everyone get into role.
Sensory play in my classroom changes week to week. We are starting with playdough but sensory play can also be sand, water, rice, slime, shaving foam, etc. This type of play doesn’t have to just be about the sense of touch – adding scents, a variety of colours and materials that make different noises can really elevate sensory play to higher levels.
Usually, sensory play will take at the tuff tray because it is often also messy play but not always! I have laid out certain basic playdough tools as an invitation to play but the children have access to more tools and a box of loose parts which they can use as they want. I have a selection of playdough mats for each theme for children who want them but most of the time they are not used, and the children prefer the more open-ended tools.
Final tips and thoughts:
As I start to wrap up this long and rambling post (hopefully I didn’t lose too many readers along the way), here are some final, practical points that I consider important:
3-5 minute sand timers are the best thing you can buy – I have enough for each group and they are a life saver in terms of turn taking and avoiding arguments. Teach the language from day 1 - “I would like that toy when the timer is up please”. This sort of independence is key to the teacher actually being able to assess and interact during play.
Don’t force a particular type of play. You can demonstrate, model and gently encourage but if children are making animals with playdough instead of furniture for a house, LET THEM! Aren’t they still developing their fine motor skills? If the house is being robbed instead of having a nice family dinner, aren’t they still in role? Engagement, language, dispositions and skill development is what we want to see!
Tidying up – Have a clear place for everything, set clear expectations from day 1 and have a go to tidy up song (but turn the whiteboard off or everyone will be watching the screen instead of tidying!). And also, you have time after school to finish tidying so don’t stress if it’s not perfect – learning is messy!
Give the children free access to the library and writing table if you can. Every year my writing table is one of my most used resources in the class. There is a huge demand for bits of scrap paper for making “signs” to add to the play centres and a wide variety of pencils, pens and colours encourages this for even the most reluctant writers. This is what my writing table looks like this year:
Thank you all for reading and enjoy playtime with your infants – it really is the best time of the day!
Eva O’Neill is a primary teacher in County Mayo. She completed her M.Ed in Early Childhood Education with Marino Institute of Education and has spent most of her teaching career with infants, usually multi-grade. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in the infant classroom is a key area of Eva's interest, with read-alouds and play as central agents in achieving this.
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