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Want to Incorporate More Play in Learning? Try the Play Workshop Structure

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Preschool students build a structure from plastic interlocking tubes.
 (Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

“Too often we refer to play as just play,” said Kristine Mraz, adding that the “just” implies that it has no purpose or value. As an early childhood educator, instructional coach and coauthor of Purposeful Play, Mraz advocates for incorporating guided play as a central aspect of the classroom rather than an activity reserved for recess. According to Mraz, guided play broadly refers to educational activities that are gently steered by an adult using open ended questions and prompts, while still giving children the freedom to explore a learning goal in their own way. 

The benefits of guided play are well-documented. “Teaching children through guided play supports key aspects of their learning and development at least as well, and sometimes better than the traditional direct instruction they usually receive at school,” noted Mraz. Studies indicate that children who engage in play-based learning often outperform their peers academically and socially. Additionally, children who attended play-based early childhood centers were less likely to be referred for services for their social-emotional needs. 

But the misconception that play detracts from learning can prevent schools and teachers from integrating it more. Schools often limit play to recess or the end of the day, thus missing its potential as a robust instructional method. “Play is the journey that brings us to standards,” Mraz said “It’s not a time of day. It is a method.” During a talk at The Educator Collaborative 2023 Gathering, Mraz outlined an approach known as the play workshop structure that can help teachers incorporate play into subjects like reading, writing and math. This approach includes three main components: choosing, gathering and clean-up.

Choosing: Pick your play

In the choosing step of the play workshop structure, students are given the autonomy to select the activity they’d like to do. “We can invoke a playful spirit any time we bring up choice. The more choice, the more it feels like play,” said Mraz. Many teachers find it effective to use centers or stations to offer activity choices in the classroom.


For example, if a teacher is focused on guiding students through creating a story using a sequence of events, they may offer students the option to draw their story, use a variety of materials to construct it or engage in dramatic play to act it out. “These all bring us to the standards, but they bring us there in a way that leverages kids’ natural inclinations to play,” said Mraz. She recommended Susan Harris MacKay’s book Story Workshop as a resource for using play to meet learning standards related to storytelling

Mraz also encouraged teachers to be flexible. Initially, she required students to select a path and stick with it. However, she has since realized that being adaptable can improve student engagement and creativity. “Some days [students] just might need to move around, or sometimes doing something in one area actually inspires [them] in another area,” she said.

Gathering: Construct ideas 

After students have played, the gathering phase provides time for students to share their thoughts, reflect on their experiences and collaboratively build knowledge. Mraz suggested that students sit in a circle for this phase. Teachers may guide students to explore various content areas, reflect on themes from the play, address problems that came up or discuss the materials being used. “In order to construct knowledge, you have to have opportunities to process it with people,” Mraz said. 

In one class, Mraz used gathering time to talk about different ways to share materials. Students identified different sharing strategies they used during their play, such as taking turns, splitting items or finding additional materials. Mraz created a chart with these strategies and asked if any students had experiences that could be addressed with those ideas. The activity built on students’ reading and problem-solving skills, Mraz said. 

To help teachers build their facilitation skills, Mraz recommended Hands Down, Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind and Christy Hermann Thompson. “[It’s] a brilliant text on how to develop these circle conversations in your classroom with tons of practical strategy,” said Mraz.

Clean up: Collaborate toward a shared goal

The clean-up phase of the play workshop structure is not merely about tidying up but about instilling a sense of responsibility and cooperation. While the usual approach might have each child cleaning up their own play area, Mraz suggested organizing clean-up to reflect how it works in the real world. For example, in a family, clean-up tasks are often shared: One person might clear the table, another might wash the dishes and another might dry them. Students can follow a similar structure.

Instead of “clean up your own mess,” Mraz uses the message, “our community works to make our space clean.” She assigns specific roles to small groups of students, such as table wipers, block cleaners and a timer setter. “Every child is able to contribute to clean up in a way that plays to their strengths,” she explained.

Mraz acknowledged that while play-based learning is familiar to many early childhood educators, incorporating these strategies can be daunting for teachers who rely on traditional methods. Even small shifts can make a significant difference, she said. “Is there one small movement you can make that brings us closer to a world that values children in their natural state, so that children grow to be the people who value one another in their natural state?”

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