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The Power of Classroom Playtime

Wonder, imagination, creativity and fun are terms often associated with playtime — but don’t forget necessary, fulfilling and fundamental to education. Play is essential for children and helps reinforce lessons throughout the year. But what kind of play reaps the best results, and what kind of educational toys and games are right for the classroom?

We talked to teachers and other experts to find out why it’s important to play at school and how the right educational toys can support curriculum.

Play with Purpose

“Play is fundamental to a child’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual development,” says Pendy Payne, a child and family therapist at Orenstein Solutions in Cary, NC. Both structured play, such as board games, and unstructured play, such as running around the playground, give children the opportunity to advance communication, conflict resolution, reasoning, problem-solving, friendship and emotional coping skills.

The key to making fun work in the classroom is matching the type of play with the grade level objectives. “You can't just have educational toys and materials present. They have to be relevant and purposeful,” notes Kathryn Starke, a literacy specialist for Chesterfield County Public Schools outside of Richmond, VA. She says to make sure the activity or toy is age-appropriate and enhances the classroom lesson.

Teachers often think that one toy or game fits all situations. “Make it a point to observe what excites or interests students,” says Payne. “The advantages of educational resources can be quickly lost if children don't connect with them, or become too frustrated or overwhelmed to effectively engage.”

Look for Logic

Having a boatload of games thrown in the corner of a classroom won’t help your students, but a carefully curated inventory of educational toys will. For instance, when Starke teaches place value of 100, she gets some children to play Chutes and Ladders, while others roll dice or play with place value blocks. This allows the students to learn at their own levels and enables her to scaffold the lesson to all groups.

Louise Weadock, a child psychiatric nurse and the founder of WeeZee: The Science of Play in Chappaqua, NY, says her favorite educational toys are challenging and interchangeable activities. Here’s what she suggests to look for when selecting toys and games:

  • Application: Toys and games should be age-appropriate, colorful and multi-sensory. It also helps if the toys can be used both by individual students and with a group of children. Select toys and games that reinforce your academic lessons. For example, if a health class is focusing on body image, then a puzzle or model of the human body is a perfect choice.
  • Challenge: Choose items that offer multiple challenges for learning and exploration, or ones that appear to be one thing but take on other dimensions as youngsters become involved. The element of surprise within play remains a winner for all ages.
  • Expense and Durability: Interactive, multisensory toys are the most engaging, but they can also be the most expensive. Select toys that will last the academic year or beyond to ensure you get the most for your money. Check online reviews and ask other teachers for their recommendations.

Think Big Picture

If children are having a blast while counting to 100, then the lesson takes on a new meaning. “Toys and games open up the opportunity for fun, and the association of learning with excitement can play a pivotal role in academic trajectories,” says Payne.

So choose classroom games and toys that students want to play with again and again. It not only makes the lessons a joy to teach, it makes the learning process worthy of high fives and lots of smiles.

Claire Parker has a solid understanding of education from more than a decade of covering the beat for award-winning national and local publications. She is also a venerable profile writer interviewing subjects from emerging artists to notable professors. She lives in Wilmington, NC, and relishes Southern gardens, outdoor parties and anything to do with saltwater and sand. Follow her on Find her on Google+.

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