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A Case for Tinkering, Exploration, and Play for Every Grade Level

This blog post is inspired by the work of Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab. His Lifelong Kindergarten team at MIT Media Lab developed the Scratch programming software. He is also the author of Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. To learn more about Mitchel Resnick, please visit a collection of his work here.

What is the best invention of the past 1,000 years?

When I heard this question for the first time on this TED Talk, my mind went straight to Google...

Followed by paper, the printing press, the telephone, the Internet, the light bulb!

So what is the best invention of the past 1,000 years?

Mitchel Resnick, founder of Scratch programming software, thinks it is kindergarten.

And now, I think he might be right.

In this blog post, I’m making the case for kindergarten. More specifically, I’m sharing ways that we can incorporate some of the pillars of kindergarten – tinkering, exploration, and play – into every grade level.

A Brief History of Kindergarten

The First Kindergartens

Educational theorist Friedrich Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany in 1837 with the guiding principle that children should learn about the world through “through creative, imaginative, and spontaneous play” (Smithsonian, 2017).

Some of Froebel’s followers brought the concept of German-language kindergartens to the United States. In 1860, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody opened the first English-language kindergarten in the United States and popularized the concept among English-speaking Americans (Smithsonian, 2017).

As an educator, Peabody was a spokesperson for the kindergarten movement, supporting Froebel’s theory that play should be shaped and encouraged with young children.

Dramatic Changes in the Past Few Decades

Since Froebel opened the first kindergarten in 1837, several of the core principles still exist in kindergartens today, including reading and telling stories, singing, learning to share, and making friends.

In the past few decades, however, the kindergarten experience has shifted as “academic skill-building has really taken center stage” (Daphna Bassok, National Education Association).

Mitchel Resnick’s research supports this claim, writing “In today’s kindergartens, children are spending more and more time filling out worksheets and drilling on flash cards. In short, kindergarten is becoming more like the rest of school” (Edutopia, 2009).

In sum, research over the past few decades, including the Crisis in the Kindergarten report, affirms that effective play-based learning may have an essential role in cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development.

Play Makes a Comeback

Since Crisis in the Kindergarten was published in 2009, I do believe that play has made a comeback.

(And in some kindergarten classrooms, play may have never disappeared at all.)

In my experience as an educator, I’ve witnessed many kindergarten teachers incorporate play regularly into the school day. And I think that many educators know and value the importance of play in the lives of young children.

Perhaps in response to worries from teachers and families, many states have been “rethinking the kindergarten curriculum and encouraging districts to revive time for block-building, coloring and imagining invisible force fields” (The Hetchinger Report).

Despite this reprioritization of play in kindergarten, I do continue to observe that as children progress throughout the school system, play slowly starts to disappear from their lives.

“Kindergarten is becoming more like the rest of school. Exactly the opposite needs to happen: We should make the rest of school (indeed, the rest of life) more like kindergarten” – Mitchel Resnick, 2009

Play After Kindergarten

As students get older, finger paint and wooden blocks might not serve as tools to teach and learn advanced concepts. But that doesn’t mean play should disappear altogether.

In particular, play can help prepare students for a future in which they will need to invent solutions to new challenges.

In kindergarten, students often take an idea and transform that idea into a project. Students practice creativity and collaboration, as well as create innovative solutions to both fictional and realistic problems.

While this still happens after kindergarten, particularly in project-based learning, I can’t help but wonder how we can infuse more creativity and playfulness into the learning experience for older students.

What does play look like after kindergarten? To me, play looks like tinkering and exploring. Let’s take a look at some examples of how to incorporate play into every grade level.

Exploring Student Interests and Passions with Genius Hour

Tech companies like Google began implementing Genius Hour (sometimes called 20% Time) a number of years ago where employees are allotted 20% of their work time to pursue on their own passion projects. 

Some of Google’s biggest products including Gmail and Google News came from Genius Hour projects.

In addition to creating new products, many employees are actually liking work more. When people spend time pursuing their passions, they are happier, they learn more, they contribute more. They innovate.

In the education field, many teachers have used Genius Hour with a similar premise: students can spend a certain amount of time (decided by either the teacher or school) to work on their own self-guided passion projects. 

In a Genius Hour project, students have several weeks where they research topics of their choice and create final products to share with the community – either their school community or the community at large.

Genius Hour is the most effective when (1) students are deeply passionate about their project topics and (2) there is a purpose to their project and a real-world application.

Learn how to implement Genius Hour in your classroom.

As a teacher, you can implement Genius Hour – or a modified version – into every grade level and every subject area. Curious how? Check out this blog post to get started.

Creating and Learning with Scratch

Scratch is a block-based programming software, developed by Resnick’s team at the MIT Media Lab. With Scratch, students can program their own interactive stories, games, and animations, and then share their work with the global Scratch community.

In my experience teaching computer science, I’ve noticed that most websites teach students to code through programming puzzles. Scratch does the opposite.

With Scratch, students start with a blank (albeit digital) canvas, and learn to code through creative exploration. There are no right answers – only play and discovery.

Students still gain fundamental computer science skills, including computational thinking, as well as knowledge of concepts like conditionals, loops, and sequences.

As a teacher, you can encourage creative learning with Scratch with (almost) every grade level and every subject area.

For example, as a Language Arts teacher, you might have students program and write their own interactive Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories in Scratch. Or, as a Math teacher, you may choose to teach about coordinates using Scratch.

I do not recommend Scratch as a programming tool for pre-readers.

Tinkering and Building with Makerspaces

Makerspaces give students a place to learn through tinkering, exploring, building, and imagining – while also learning collaboratively (

Many makerspaces incorporate technology, but they don’t have to! In fact, some of the most successful makerspace projects use only low-tech tools, like wood, cardboard, and other recyclable materials.

You also don’t need to have a physical makerspace in order to bring tinkering and building into the classroom! Students can build so many innovative solutions and prototypes with smaller tools like clay, paper towel tubes, and shoe boxes.

In makerspace project, students can pursue self-guided Genius-Hour-style topics (like making jewelry or building robots), or students can be tasked with building a solution to a real-world problem as part of the curriculum.

As a teacher, you can even create standards-aligned makerspace projects. To spark some inspiration, consider perusing these examples from MakerEd.

A Case for Tinkering, Exploration, and Play for Every Grade Level

While many kindergarten classrooms celebrate and value play-based learning, tinkering and exploration slowly disappears as students progress throughout their years in school.

Play inspires imagination.

Play sparks creativity.

Play ingites passion and purpose.

And play leads to learning.

Consider this blog post a case for tinkering, exploration, and play for every grade level. Consider incorporating the ideas in this blog post – like a Genius Hour, Scratch, or makerspace project – or, consider incorporating your own idea of play in your classroom.

Thank you for reading today’s blog post all about bringing play into the classroom. What other ideas do you have? Let me know in the comments below!


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