Learning Opportunites through Play

Day Sky and Night Sky

In our school it is essential that children spend a considerable part of the day learning through play. We believe playing is an absolute necessity that children have. In allowing and promoting play throughout the classroom, the children are far more engaged, relaxed, and happy - which allows the children to be themselves. When children are in their authentic state of self, they can truly learn and develop emotionally, cognitively, and socially. Additionally, when children are playing and being themselves, the adults around them can observe their level of knowledge and stage of their emotional, cognitive, and social development.

A recent child-led and play-based project emerged in the Day Sky and Night Sky Classrooms. The children in this room love to cook. They use real and pretend foods, play dough, sand, dirt, sticks, rocks, loose parts, and anything else their imagination can turn into a meal!

It is truly amazing to see a child being so resourceful and imaginative by transforming anything available to them to carry out their ideas. When a child has the space and freedom to think and create their own ideas, they will naturally develop skills that will serve throughout life, such as: focus, determination, willingness to learn, and self initiation. This is not only true of children, but all ages of people. When someone feels that own part of something, they willingly work harder to realize their vision because they feel a sense of owndership.

As the children cook (or engage in any form of play), it allows vast opportunities for the teachers to infuse academic work into their play. Social and emotional development happens naturally from open ended play. The teachers richen the experience by first asking questions:

"How do you make that type of food?"

"What are the ingredients?"

"Where does that food come from?"

They are endless questions that can led to the science of foods, different forms of cooking, raw vs cooked foods, cultural eating/cooking, geography, etc. One this day, as the teachers questioned the group, the answers helped the teachers realize that the children did not have a true understanding of the words "recipe" and "ingredient". This project could have taken a number of different paths but the teachers chose to explore the meaning of these 2 words.

The children were then promoted to write these words while discussing letter sounds. The teachers are also continually discussing what these words mean and are asking the children to create simple recipes they commonly pretend to make.

The following developmental/academic skills were incorporated and/or naturally occurred as part of this child-led, play-based project:

Literacy: Writing the words "recipe" and "ingredient" and many other words included in recipe lists that extended from this project

Mathematics/Fine Motor Skills: As the children "cook", they often have to count how many plates/bowls are available and then make the correct amount of "food" to fill them. This reinforces one to one correspondence, addition, and number sequencing.

Collaboration/Language: The children had to communicate with each other what they were cooking, make decisions on who was cook which items, and decide on recipes.

Cognitive Thinking: The children used loose parts to create their "foods" and build knowledge to understand the differences and similarities between foods that are ingredients vs recipes. The children also had to create recipes.

Social/Sense of Self: Taking turns, helping each other, working on a collaborative project with their peers.

Parental Support: Anytime a parent takes the time to do an activity with their child - especially an activity that is an extension of school work - the child receives the message that their work  and learning is important and valuable. Please extend this project at home by discussing these terms at home! Let your child help you make a fruit salad (or any simple meal) by helping to create a recipe by selecting all the ingredients. You could also discuss a meal you plan to make and have your child help you make the recipe list for the grocery store. Feel free to take pictures of this process and to bring from home so they can share it with their class!

Sugar Beet Popscicles

As a continuance of our classroom exploration of beets, the students recently engaged in a time of sensory play involving sugar beet juice popsicles. Sensory play is comprised of any activity that excites a child’s senses, encouraging them to engage in developmental processes as they play, satisfy their curiosities and express their imaginations.

In a PBS article, Danielle Steinberg explains the value of sensory play in childhood learning:  “Children (and adults) learn best and retain the most information when they engage their senses… By giving children the opportunity to investigate materials with no preconceived knowledge, you’re helping them develop and refine their cognitive, social and emotional, physical, creative and linguistic skillsets.”

Freezing the sugar beet juice into popsicles using ice cube trays allowed the children to gain a new perspective of the veggie while building upon many of the skillsets mentioned above. As the students interacted with their frozen treat, we posed several questions regarding its physical characteristics:

  • How does it feel (hot or cold)?
  • What color is it? 
  • Is it hard or soft?
  • What is happening to the popsicle when you play with it? Why is it changing shape?

Asking questions challenges children to solidify their thoughts and ideas. Discussing topics and hearing other’s explanations expands existing knowledge and ideas. These conversations are also important because they increase children’s communicative skills, as they practice adequately articulating their personal thoughts.

As the children used their senses to make observations, they were able to build upon their understanding of cause and effect, temperature and texture. The dark, rich coloring of the juice kept the children’s visual senses engaged, encouraging them to study it further. Using their sense of touch they noted the stark difference between the hard, cold popsicle and the warmer, squishier beet the children had previously encountered.

Another primary lesson the children took away from this exploration was the process of physical state change. Using their senses of sight and touch to observe the frozen cube melting into a warm, sticky juice allowed the students to better grasp this considerably challenging scientific concept.

We will continue to study the beets via different methods and in different environments. The more we explore and observe the food, the deeper an understanding we have about its characteristics.

Making cupcakes in play dough (Sensory)

Recently, the children in House Room have been spending time “baking” cupcakes in the playdough area. To spur on the children’s interest and support their exploration, we decided to ask them what other materials might be needed to continue making the cupcakes.

The children listed some various items they felt they needed to continue in their baking endeavor. The list included:

  • Baking tins
  • Utensils
  • Spatulas/whisks
  • Mixing bowls
  • Sprinkles
  • Cupcake liners

Later that day we introduced all of the new materials that the children requested, along with some flour to enhance the experience. Immediately, the children got back to work creating their cupcakes. With access to the new tools, many of the children began to create their own versions of cupcake recipes. They also began to help their friends with create their own recipes and obtain ingredients.

Dramatic play experiences like this one are important in childhood social, emotional, cognitive and creative development. The children showcased their imagination by role-playing as bakers. They merged make-believe and reality by using both real kitchen materials and representative materials like playdough as props for their baking. Inventing new “recipes” put their creativity on display, but also showed their understanding of the need for processes in real life.

The creative and imaginative aspects of dramatic play are important because they reveal a child’s understanding of real life activities, ability to make connections between real life and make-believe and challenge the children to be resourceful when filling in the gaps between reality and pretend. The inventive aspect also instills a sense of independence and confidence in one’s ability to put their personal thoughts and ideas on display.

This activity also increased the children’s group work and communication skills and allowed them to foster positive relationships with their peers. They worked as a team to form the list of needed materials, practiced sharing resources and ideas, helped one another complete tasks, showed support by learning about other’s recipes and built upon leadership skills through the teaching their own recipes.

Dramatic play is a valuable aspect of our curriculum because it encourages children to explore a variety of creative ideas, build upon cognitive processes and skills and use knowledge from past experiences to further understanding of real world concepts.

Cauliflower Soup

Over the course of this week, the students in Wonderland Class learned a great deal about an important part of the human body by studying about bones. As a part of the study, the students were asked what they might need to keep their bones strong. Some of their answers were:

  • “Exercise and lifting stuff!” (The student was referring to working out to keep our bones strong.)
  • “Drink milk. It has protein!” (The student was telling us about protein and where it can be found.)
  • “Our bones break without good stuff for them.” (The student was telling us what happens when our bones do not get what they need.)

Student feedback has a great deal of influence on our classroom projects. Because we believe learning should be student led, we use questions and statements from students to determine the direction of projects. These statements influence the project work because it helps the teachers analyze how much the children know, in which direction their minds are going or what areas they need practice or improvement in.

After this conversation, the children were introduced to the mineral calcium and learned about its role in the human body. After doing some research, we decided to make calcium rich recipe- Cauliflower Soup. During the process of creating this recipe, the children were also introduced to a new vegetable that many of them hadn’t been familiar with - a leek.

After discussing our ingredients and their smells, textures and physical characteristics, the children began measuring and adding fractions with our measuring cups. Once we had all of the ingredients mixed, we took our pot to the kitchen where they let it simmer until snack time.

Throughout this experience the children got to practice their research and mathematical skills, both of which are foundational aspects of learning. They also learned about the process of cooking, and how to do so in a healthy way, which instills a sense of accomplishment and independence. Understanding the roles of vitamins and minerals and how to cook healthily are all important in maintaining a healthy body.

The cauliflower soup was a recipe that the children really enjoyed! It was a delicious treat for our taste buds, healthy for our bodies and an exciting intellectual endeavor. While consuming it was an enjoyable experience, being able to discuss its benefits as we ate together also served as a fun, communal learning experience.

Nutrition: Baking cupcakes (Food as a Language)

Lately, the children have taken great joy in making their own cupcakes in the play dough area. To further explore this interest, we decided to allow the children to bake real cupcakes for their Food as Language exploration. As a class we discussed all of the ingredients we would need to bake cupcakes. The children’s involvement in baking their play dough cupcakes prepared them for this moment and they knew exactly what was needed!

After gathering all of the necessary ingredients and utensils, we began exciting process of making our treats. Everyone in the classroom had the opportunity to help make our cupcakes. We all worked together to measure the wet and dry ingredients, stir the batter, place the cupcake liners in the pan, grease the pan and filled every liner with batter.

While the process required a great deal of teamwork, the children also learned the importance of taking turns. Each child had their own job to do, whether it was placing liners in the pan or pouring the batter. Having individual responsibilities within the group gave each child a feeling of importance and showed them that each member of a team is valuable.

Cooking is also always a great math lesson. Measuring the right ingredients, counting out the amount of cupcake liners needed and having an idea of how much time the treats take to bake all build upon counting skills and an understanding of measurements and time.

One other interesting concept to point out is the role of dramatic play in this experience. As noted above, the children had been making their own pretend cupcakes prior to making them for their Food as Language. When it came time to bake the real cupcakes, the children were prepared to do so. When they were working with play dough, they still discussed the ingredients that their cupcakes might require. They still practiced working together to create them, and determined who would fulfill what roles.

The children’s time of dramatic play (pretend, make-believe, role play etc.) equipped them with many of the skills necessary to complete the task in real life. This is one reason why dramatic play is extremely valuable and encouraged. Not only is it a momentary expression of creativity and imagination, but it also gives children good practice for real life experiences.