It has been said that play is the work of children, yet more and more, play is being pushed aside to fit in more academics. As free time is being taken out of the school day, teachers are wondering how to incorporate play in their kindergarten day.
While creative free play is still a childhood necessity, you may find that it is impossible to include this time in your kindergarten day.
These suggestions will help you incorporate play in kindergarten when you don’t have time for dramatic play.
Why Is Play Important in Kindergarten?
While some may consider play a waste of academic time, it is actually one of the best ways for young children to learn naturally. According to the NAEYC, play helps children learn how to respond to situations that will naturally arise as they are learning. While playing, children learn to inquire about the world around them, problem solve, focus their attention, and learn perseverance (Gronlund, “How to Support Children’s Approaches to Learning? Play with Them!“).
Research has also shown that play activates the fight or flight response without actually releasing the associated stress hormone, cortisol. Because of this, signals in the brain are created that enhance learning. (Wang and Aamodt, 2012, Play, Stress, and the Learning Brain)
In my own classroom, I saw the benefits of play lived out. Students who began the year unable to interact with their peers, unable to work through big emotions, or with underdeveloped communication skills were able to develop those skills through play.
This was also a time when students could apply what they’d learned in class. Students would “play” with whiteboards, but really they would be writing! They would “play” with blocks, but really they would be sorting, counting, and going through the engineering process.
When you incorporate play in kindergarten, you give your students a chance to take what they’ve learned and build even more connections in their brain. Pretty powerful stuff!
But What If I Can’t Have Play Time in My Classroom?
While I firmly believe that creative free play is beneficial and necessary, it is absolutely possible to incorporate play in kindergarten without sacrificing academic time.
Ben Mardell, a research, educator, and director of Pedagogy of Play, said, “My take is that any activity can be play or not play. The secret sauce is playfulness. It’s like ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ in Mary Poppins. Even cleaning up can be fun, if you have the right mindset.” (Shafer, 2018, Summertime, Playtime)
That means, play can be incorporated into the majority of our day, while still meeting academic standards.
Here are ways you can incorporate play and play-based learning into your kindergarten day.
1. Free Flow Centers
Free flow centers in Kindergarten are a great way to incorporate playful learning into your day. Free flow centers give students choice over their work, promote independence and decision making, and allow for differentiation.
You can read more about how I implement free flow centers in Kindergarten here.
Even if you do not choose to implement free flow centers in your own classroom, there are some simple changes you can make to your centers to make them more playful:
- Use individual games or partner games
- Add in center activities that require manipulatives (example: building letters out of cubes, playdough, or popsicle sticks)
- Matching activities with themes that promote playfulness (example: matching lowercase letters on pictures of dog bones to uppercase letters on pictures of dogs. Students can pretend to ‘feed’ the dogs the bones)
If you’re looking for kindergarten centers that were created to promote playfulness naturally, you can find them here.
2. Use a Sensory Bin
Sensory bins are amazing because they encourage play while still providing rich academic practice. Sensory bins in Kindergarten allow for sensory stimulation, fine motor practice, and academic practice.
You can read more about how to set up a sensory bin in Kindergarten here.
Some easy sensory bin activities your students will love:
- Pull a letter and trace the matching letter on a recording sheet
- Pull a number card and pick out counters from the sensory bin to match the number
- Any matching activity or pull and color/write activity can be placed in a sensory bin for instant engagement!
3. Use Manipulatives
Kindergarten students are hands on learners. Many of our students are not ready for abstract concepts yet; the hands on practice must come first.
Before your students practice using a worksheet, practice using manipulatives! This is an easy way to incorporate play in Kindergarten.
For example, when we begin learning about subtraction in Kindergarten, we use counters and pretend they are “monkeys jumping on the bed.” Students can see a tangible example of what happens when we subtract or take away.
Some manipulatives you may want to use in your Kindergarten classroom:
- Connecting cubes
- Mini erasers
- Counting bears
- Letter tiles or magnets
- Toy cards
- Pom poms
4. Play Games Together
Games in the classroom don’t have to be limited to individual and partner games. Playing whole group games as a class is a great way to incorporate playful learning while building classroom community.
In my Kindergarten curriculum, I try to add in games and “secret missions” as much as possible to review and practice concepts. This is a great way to take something that could be repetitive and make it new again.
Easy games you can play in the classroom:
- Eye spy
- Search the room for cards you hang up
- Matching and memory games
5. Go On Scavenger Hunts
Scavenger hunts are an easy way to get your kindergarten students up and moving. These don’t have to be complicated!
You can grab a clipboard and search the school for shapes or for letters.
In math when we are learning about measurement, I give my students a blank piece of paper and have them fold it in half. They write longer and shorter at the top. Then, they take a popsicle stick around the room and compare it to objects in the classroom. They draw objects that are longer on one side of their paper and objects that are shorter on the other side.
6. Go Outside
An easy way to incorporate play in Kindergarten is to get outside! Of course, science is a great time to do this, but that doesn’t have to be the only time.
Ideas for going outside to learn:
- Search for living and nonliving things, examples of life cycles, or parts of a plant
- Write words or math problems with chalk
- Let students act out stories you’ve read
- Collect rocks and use them to measure, sort them, count them, etc.
- Act out math story problems
7. Begin Your Day With a Soft Start
If possible, begin your day with a soft start like morning tubs or bins. This starts your day off on a playful note and helps alleviate stress your students may be bringing from home.
But what if my students each breakfast in the classroom?
Mine did too! Students ate and when they were done they could bring a morning tub to the table. I made sure that they knew they didn’t have to rush because they would still have time to play.
Having students bring the morning tubs to the table also helped, because students who were eating still felt involved when they could talk to the students playing.
Easy morning tub ideas:
- Printable morning tub activities
- STEM materials like building blocks or tracks
- Fine motor activities like hole punches or pom poms and tweezers
I’m Sold! How Can I Get Parents and Admin On Board?
Just like you, parents and administrators want what’s best for children. The best way to show that play is helpful in the classroom is to provide evidence.
Have research articles ready to provide (the ones linked above are a great start).
Also document the benefits of play in your classroom. Document examples of students learning through play so you can show how effective it actually is.
Show how you are able to assess students by observing them playing.
Explain that this isn’t taking the place of academics; it’s simply a mindset shift towards how we approach academics.
In the end, our students need play!
I hope this post was helpful and gave you some ideas for how you can incorporate play in your Kindergarten classroom!
What are your favorite ways to incorporate play in the classroom? Let me know some of your ideas below!
Hi Natalie! I so agree with you on the topic of play in the classroom. I’m interested in implementing free flow centers in my kinder class for the first time and have taken the time to read through your blog post on the topic, but I have a few follow up questions.
1. How do you address multiplayer learning games? If it’s a two player game do you establish pairs in advance and allow a student to independently ask their designated partner to play a specific game of their choice? Or do you leave it up to the student to choose? Wondering how this plays out in real time and how I can model multi player games in a free flow choice driven center set up.
2. Can kinders actually manage their time in a station and move on to their other centers within our block of time? I’d like students to visit at least 2 or 3 centers a day but worry they lack the discipline to move from one to the other correctly.
Thanks for taking the time to read my questions!
Hi Chelsea! Happy to answer any questions, and you’re also always welcome to email me to chat further.
1. I let students choose their own partners. Sometimes they even choose to play the game on their own. I usually don’t put any multi player games out in centers until we have established a routine and students are independent in centers. By that point, we’ve practice playing parter games (usually roll a dice and move to that number) in math so they know how games should work.
2. They absolutely can! It takes a lot of modeling and you have to go slow introducing and practicing at first, but it will all pay off. I don’t monitor how many activities my kids do, but you could give them a paper to check off or hole punch as they complete each one. I have another blog post all about starting centers in kindergarten here: https://natalielynnkindergarten.com/starting-centers-in-kindergarten/
Thanks for the feedback. So you do let them pick their partners. I’m all for that! Do you let them pick anyone in class or only peers that are in their same group? Although I encourage students to work together at different levels sometimes I need them to work with a student at their own level.
They have to choose someone in their same group. Later in the year I sometimes relax that rule, but generally I want them working on activities and games that are at their level.