Play at Every Age: Structuring Play for Social and Academic Benefit

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Elementary and middle school educators who are dedicated to increasing play in learning look for opportunities to incorporate structures that engender play throughout the school day. While many decisions affect how educators structure play, students’ developmental levels are a key factor. There are some commonalities in play among all age groups, but there are also important differences based on developmental characteristics. When teachers examine play through a developmental lens, they can structure play to meet the unique needs of students at every phase of development.

Play for Students in Grades K–2

Students in early elementary grades are eager to use creative and physical play both in the classroom and on the playground. Students at this age enjoy unstructured and structured outside games and tend to follow the rules, though they may have difficulty with sportsmanship. Morning Meeting games that include movement, music, and rhyme are popular at this level. Younger elementary students enjoy having a repertoire of energizers that can be built into the school day to provide physical activity and fun.
Teachers of early elementary students can use Interactive Modeling to teach activities and ensure that social and emotional learning and safety are prioritized. Social and emotional skills such as cooperation, empathy, and self-control should be taught and reinforced during play and connected to learning throughout the school day.

Play for Students in Grades 3–5

Students in the upper elementary grades are growing rapidly and have lots of energy. They benefit from movement in the classroom through energizers and interactive learning structures. Students at this age enjoy creating their own rules and respond well to games that involve more complex steps and teamwork. They also enjoy taking a game and making variations of it to make it more of a challenge or more fun. During these games, they are more aware of fairness issues, resulting in more disagreements and arguing.

As friendships become more important at this age, inclusion and exclusion during play increases. Teachers of third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students can have students brainstorm and role-play ways to ask to play and also how to invite others into games. Teachers can also observe students in  unstructured play activities in order to  respond to any gateway bullying behavior

Play for Students in Middle School

Students in middle school experience rapid physical growth and hormonal changes, so they benefit from frequent opportunities during the day to pause, move, and interact through playful movements. Playful brain breaks also give them the opportunity to recharge and refocus their energies, while providing a structured way to connect with peers and teachers. This is critical, as peer relationships become more important than adult approval.

In addition, middle school students’ moral and ethical reasoning abilities increase, as do their awareness of and respect for other people’s points of view, feelings, and rights. Teachers of middle school students can use brain breaks to teach social-emotional skills such as assertiveness and empathy,  Interactive Modeling to teach activities, and reinforcing language to highlight important social-emotional skills. 

Educators who prioritize developmentally appropriate play see their students experience benefits such as increased social and emotional learning and increased cognitive engagement. When play is used to teach and practice social skills, rules, and expectations, the positive impact is realized within the classroom community and carries over to increased academic learning and caring social interactions.