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What Makes Play Meaningful?

Marcia L. Nell and Walter F. Drew, authors of the book From Play to Practice: Connecting Teachers' Play to Children's Learning*, stress that there are five key elements of meaningful play:

1. Children make their own decisions.

Play is most meaningful when kids make the decisions about play. They choose the toys. They choose the activity with the toys. They decide what happens when and how. And oftentimes they learn best when the toys they are given are, as the authors note, "open-ended". Sugar Plum kids can imagine a block as a car or a bird or a person. (In contrast, a fire truck is - well - always a fire truck). What you might initially think are just "scraps" are actually intentional open ended toys in our classrooms: sticks, ribbons, paper squares, blocks, discs, etc. Our Plums get creative and make all sort of things out of these open-ended materials.


2. Children are intrinsically motivated.

Kids play because they want to understand the world around them. And they want to keep playing. So as they play, they figure out what they need to do when they interact with fellow Plums and their teachers to keep playing. (Finger in your Plum classmates' ear? That likely makes them stop playing. Okay, I won't do that again.) Ultimately, kids figure out that its more important to play than satisfy their own needs and wants at the moment. Ah ha! Self-control! Kids learn self control when they get the chance to play freely and learn these valuable lessons.

3. Children become immersed in the moment.

According to the authors, the best kind of play -- true play -- happens when kids are so engaged in the activity that they lose a sense of time and space. In this space, they take risks, try new ideas, investigate, and experiment. And that's when they can best learn.

4. Play is spontaneous, not scripted.

At Sugar Plums, we work hard to give our kids the time and space to be spontaneous, to take charge, and to set the agenda. While we have planned activities, sometimes our Plums want to go in a different direction, That's great. We follow their lead. Our kids are learning flexibility and seeing it demonstrated by the adults around them.

5. Play is enjoyable. As the authors remind us, "Play always has an emotional response attached to it. Without this emotional connection, the experience is simply an activity; it is not PLAY." At Sugar Plums, the greatest compliment we get from kids is giggles, screeches and belly laughs. That expression of pure joy when they are genuinely having fun!

Every day at Sugar Plums we work hard to ensure that our Plums are having truly meaningful play.

To learn more about meaningful play, check out the authors' book: From Play to Practice: Connecting Teachers' Play to Children's Learning.

*Source: Five Essentials To Meaningful Play. © National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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