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The (Not) Problem of Repetitive Play

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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In my work, as in the work of many people, I imagine, there are themes that come up again and again. Sometimes I get asked a question and I can point to a blog post I wrote or an article I read months or years earlier that touches on the same subject. Little kids have some very consistent interests; it’s why certain toys remain popular for generations. Building toys are one of those evergreen entertainments; kids can play with Lego or magnet-tiles forever, it seems.

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In general, my attitude towards the “problem” of repetitive play has been to encourage educators to look more closely at children’s play, to observe with a curious eye and to wonder about what they might be missing. In short, my approach has been to push back against our perception that there IS a problem at all. Often, when children return again and again to the same materials, they’re trying to figure something out and it’s our job to value what they’re doing enough to discover and support the intentionality of their play.

However, there are some times when repetitive play really is something to be concerned about and it’s worth spending some time thinking about how we might structure the environment and our interactions with children to support expanding their repertoire of play behaviour.

Recently, I was working with a teacher who was distressed by the repetitive play she was observing in her classroom. A group of boys consistently chose to visit the Lego centre and exclusively created spinning toys that they then “battled” against each other to see which one could withstand colliding with the other spinners. They resisted choosing any other material or building any other type of structure. It had been months of repeating the same play behaviour and they were unfazed. The teacher had tried her best to extend the play towards an investigation into rotation, more broadly, but they were unmoved. The Beyblades continued to duke it out.

When I began observing their play, I positioned myself right in the centre just to see what effect my presence would have. Sometimes, just having an adult body in the space is enough to shift the play subtly. It didn’t work in this case, the boys just moved the play away from me. Not to be deterred, I followed them and began asking them questions, essentially being a brat.

“Do you always make spinners?”

“Why do you always make spinners?”

“What do you like about spinners?”

“Do you know how to make anything else out of Lego? Are you sure, because all I see are spinners.  How do I know that you know how to make other things.?”

Essentially I did my best to make their play a bit uncomfortable by being, politely, annoying. At the same time, I was building with Lego myself, struggling to make something as unlike a spinner as I could.

They were, as I had suspected, up to the challenge my behaviour created.

Slowly at first but soon with increasing enthusiasm, their play changed. Some of them began building other things, others drifted off to other areas of the classroom. Suddenly the marble run came out and building took off in that area. Those that had stayed with the Legos began creating patterns and characters, building houses and stories.

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Did I commit the cardinal sin of play-based-learning here? Is changing the play because of an adult agenda against the rules? That’s definitely up for debate and you might disagree with me in the comments. The reality is that we work in a system that places certain demands on us related to assessment and reporting. When children’s play is especially repetitive, it’s hard to write report cards. What are our next steps?

It’s also true that we’re seeing, anecdotally at least, that children are coming to school with less play vocabulary than we would have expected in the past. Due to the ubiquity of technology, concerns about safety and other societal pressures, their exposure to materials, to outdoor environments, and to other children is often less robust than that of children from previous generations. They may genuinely struggle to know how to play with the diversity of materials and contexts we’re offering in a Kindergarten class.

So while it may not fall within the paradigm of purely emergent curriculum, I think there is some value to modelling and disrupting play that has become rote. Some adult intervention in certain moments, when the play has been closely observed and other interventions (changing the environment, for instance) have been tried, does help to move the learning forward. One of the biggest things I learned from the RECEs I’ve worked with is that an adult, working in role in the play space, can often help children succeed in the classroom better than any behaviourist intervention. Erica McWilliam, in her 2009 essay “Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to Meddler” suggests that adults should be “usefully ignorant” as they meddle in students’ learning to nudge it forward.

“If teachers can understand the value of being “usefully ignorant” about learning options and possibilities, at the same time as they are expert in their disciplinary field and their pedagogical practice, who are active and inventive in the classroom, who challenge and support, who do not make things too easy, and who are not the only source of authority, who use processes of discovery, critique, argument and counter-argument effectively, who enjoy learning themselves and who do not rush to rescue their students from complexity—such teachers will contribute immeasurably to the creative capacity of their students now and in the future.”

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Sometimes that looks like asking some annoyingly dumb questions. Sometimes it looks like building or drawing something yourself and wondering aloud how to make it better. Sometimes it looks like wearing a funny hat and pretending to be a flower. Our work, sometimes, looks an awful lot like play.

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Emily Caruso Parnell is the Kindergarten Program Consultant in the Rainbow District School Board in Northern Ontario. Since beginning her teaching career in 2001, she has taught all grades from Kindergarten to Grade 12. She has taught in public, private, and independent schools. Emily is also a dance educator who holds an MA in Dance from the University of North Carolina Greensboro as well as a Bachelor of Education from the University of New Brunswick, an HBA from York University and is a Registered Teacher of the Royal Academy of Dance. Emily is also a student in the Ed.D program in Distance Education at Athabasca University. 

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