Purposeful Play: Connecting Play and Learning in Preschool

By Molly Breen

Purposeful Play: Connecting Play and Learning in Preschool“Play is serious learning,” quipped Fred Rogers famously. Vivian Gussin Paley devoted a lifetime of teaching and writing to the power of play, describing play as the work of childhood in recognition of its central role in child development. Dozens of other early childhood thought leaders have researched and written about the power of play in early development, backed by neurological evidence of its positive impacts.

And yet, when we think about play, what kind of a mental image does it conjure? For the average person, and even parent, we may see children with faces beaming, engaged in lighthearted and open-ended imaginative activity. We may think about fantasies and creative projects that are meant for the very young—a delightful vision.

For those of us in the early education game, we might imagine a very different variety of expressions and emotions, and a whole range of activities. When Mr. Rogers spoke of play as “serious” and Paley wrote about it as “work,” they were swinging a spotlight on some very important truths about the role of play in child development:

  1. Development occurs through direct experience and playful abstraction of “real life.”
  2. Development occurs as a result of interacting with others and playfully exploring social norms.

The truth is that play is both joyful and serious; it is both work and, well, play.

As educators, we may be looking for the purpose in play—evidence to connect standards to the lived experience. We may ask ourselves: What lessons are embedded in these play scenarios, and how can I document growth and connect this play to learning and development?

In my setting, two common themes for social and emotional development explored during play are rejection/acceptance and conflict resolution. Really, these are just two examples of the many nuanced social and emotional lessons that emerge from play!

“Can I play too?” asks one preschooler of the group of three, busy in the play kitchen setting up a fresh exploration of Family. The group pauses, looks around at the current cast of characters, and one child speaks up for the group, “No. We already have our family.”

Does this scenario sound familiar? How about the other common exclusionary tactic: “No! Only girls/boys can play this.” Heartbreak! Rejection! Despair! Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but these kinds of scenarios come up frequently in preschool and often require some teacher guidance.

When children are rejecting someone from the group, it is generally because they, too, have been excluded and they want to understand the other side of the power dynamic. And while we value Paley’s adage that “you can’t say you can’t play at school,” sometimes it is true that there is a mode of play going on that deserves some reverence and may not accommodate an interruption or a new character. Although the initial rejection may be a bit painful, it also presents an opportunity for growth. With teacher guidance, the rejected child can identify their disappointment about the exclusion and learn ways to cope or find a suitable solution. This will ultimately lead to a sense of resilience and self-sufficiency. For example, in our setting we encourage children to first ask, “What are you playing?” instead of “Can I play?” By removing the power of potential rejection from the question, the opportunity for exclusion is reduced.

Next, we are all about empowering children to build awareness of their own inner voice. We do this with a simple mantra: Who knows best about you? or YOU know best about YOU. This empowers the disempowered or rejected child by helping them remember, despite the rejection, that they are the captains of their own destiny when it comes to play and that they can make their own fun.

Sometimes coming up with a solution within the play scenario doesn’t require a teacher’s guidance or intervention. I’ve witnessed elegant problem-solving and compromise from a distance. (I encourage you to wait out guiding a solution, if possible, rather than immediately instructing the group toward an outcome. Or simply try wondering aloud: “I wonder what we could do?”) Excited proclamations of solution burst forth from the group: “You can be our dog!” or “We need someone to deliver the packages!” Suddenly there is a new character, the play has become more intricate, and the wound of rejection has been healed.

There is no better context to experience these emotions than in the serious work of play! It is precisely because play is open-ended, imaginative, and fantasy filled that there is flexibility and even joy in encountering emotional pain or other positive social challenges and then shifting right back into the creative work. Look closely at children’s beaming faces, listen carefully to their fantastic imaginative narratives, and lean into the purpose of play.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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Achieving Goals with Self-Regulation

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Achieving Goals with Self-RegulationThe new year always brings a new round of resolutions. Some of us want to be more active, read more, lose weight, or learn to destress or declutter our lives. If you are like me, you may have fallen down on your resolutions now that it’s mid-February and slipped back into old habits.

In most cases, the reason people fail at their resolutions (or goals) is because of self-regulatory failure. Self-regulatory failure undermines our abilities to overcome barriers, develops a negative self-belief, and depletes our self-control. Cognitive neuroscience research suggests that those who are most successful in achieving goals are those who deliberately focus on a desired outcome, receive intermittent rewards along the way, and are supported by valued individuals or groups.* This is why Weight Watchers is so successful.

Self-regulation is a conscious management system that involves the process of guiding our feelings (affect), monitoring behaviors, and thinking efficiently (cognition) to achieve success. These three dimensions are called the ABCs of Self-Regulation for Learning. They make up a learned process that develops in four stages. Listed below are the stages, with ideas for assisting students in achieving worthy educational goals.

Stage 1: Modeling and Observing

Students need to watch others managing their ABCs. Teachers can overtly demonstrate how they monitor their affect, behavior, and cognition. At this stage, the teacher is the “sage on the stage,” providing direct instruction on the setting, managing, and adjusting of goals. Teachers can:

  • Establish a learning environment that makes all students feel confident to take intellectual and creative risks in achieving goals
  • Model how to set goals
  • Share with students what they do when they are feeling stressed when working toward a goal
  • Show students that making mistakes is a joyful part of the learning experience and provides opportunities to adjust the goal

Stage 2: Copy and Do

After students have been exposed to effective modeling, they can begin to copy the strategies. At this stage, the teacher facilitates goal attainment by being readily available when students need support. Now is the time for teachers to:

  • Provide opportunities for students to stretch intellectually and creatively
  • Offer graphic organizers to assist students in problem-solving
  • Give students supportive descriptive feedback toward reaching their goals
  • Allow time during the day for students to discuss and reflect on how they are progressing toward their goals

Stage 3: Practice and Refinement

As students feel more confident about themselves and their abilities to achieve, they should be allowed to practice and refine their strategies toward reaching a goal. At this stage, the teacher is the “guide on the side,” the coach. Teachers can:

  • Let students put into practice the learning behaviors they have acquired so far
  • Support students in deciding on graphic organizers that can be most beneficial in achieving a goal
  • Keep students focused on monitoring their goal achievement and provide suggestions for adjustments or changes to the goal
  • Encourage students to continually self-assess, seek out peer assistance, and reflect on their approach toward the goal

Stage 4: Application and Independence

After much hard work and practice, students are now ready to independently set, monitor, adjust, and assess goal attainment. At this stage, the teacher acts as a consultant to the student, making suggestions for adaptation or refinement of achievement toward individual goals. The student will:

  • Independently decide on a goal, checking with the teacher when necessary
  • Record a goal and create steps to achieve the goal
  • Identify barriers to achieving the goal and prepare themselves for the bumps in the road
  • Document their learning and goal attainment in the fashion that fits them best
  • Celebrate the learning process

In the classroom and beyond, self-regulation is what we use to control impulses and deal with uncertainty, and it motivates us to achieve worthy goals. The process of goal setting, monitoring, adjusting, and achievement is a lifelong skill. It is a learned process that must be directly taught and supported. It is our duty to prepare our students for the challenges ahead.

Bonus! Download a graphic organizer for creating goals for primary, intermediate, and secondary grades.

*Hofmann, W., Schmeichel, B. J., and Baddeley, A. D. “Executive Functions and Self-Regulation.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16, no. 3 (2012): 174-180.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

Differentiation For Gifted Learners


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Help Protect Kids from “All Too Common” Cyberbullying

By Judge Tom Jacobs, author of What Are My Rights? Q&A About Teens and the Law (Revised & Updated 4th Edition)

Help Protect Kids from “All Too Common” CyberbullyingContent Note: Includes descriptions of sexual harassment, ableist bullying, and suicide.

The headline says it all:

Bullying and Cyberbullying Are All Too Common

According to the more than 1,000 parents who were surveyed, more than half of their children experienced bullying before the age of 19. And nearly half of the reported bullying incidents were through the internet or social media.

Even though society frowns upon all forms of bullying, cyber abuse is particularly offensive due to its ubiquity and potential for harm. Every cyberbullying case is deeply personal for the person who is targeted. In some tragic cases, the pain of being cyberbullied has led to suicide.

Consider 18-year-old Jessica Logan, a high school senior in Ohio. She sent her boyfriend a nude cell phone picture of herself, a practice commonly referred to as sexting. After they broke up, he sent the photo to other students at their school. Jessica was harassed and taunted, which led to depression and absence from school. Two months later, Jessica hanged herself in her bedroom.

Jessica wasn’t the first person to succumb to “bullycide.” Children as young as eight years old have ended their lives out of fear, frustration, and loneliness.

Cyber abuse knows no limits with regards to location, gender, or age. It is a 24/7 global phenomenon. A September 2019 United Nations poll showed that a third of young people reported being a victim of online bullying. What’s more, teens become adults who enter the workplace, where cyberbullying doesn’t necessarily end.

An example is Ralph Espinoza, a California corrections officer at juvenile hall. Espinoza was born with no fingers or thumb on his right hand. He was generally able to function, although limited in performing some tasks. He was self-conscious about people seeing his hand and often kept it in his pocket.

Coworkers referred to Espinoza as “rat claw,” and the word claw was written in several places in the workplace. Coworkers created a blog where one of them posted, “I will give anyone 100 bucks if you get a picture of the claw. Just take your hand out of your pocket already!” The blog could be accessed from work computers. After a coworker alerted Espinoza to the blog, he began to monitor it.

Espinoza reported these incidents to his supervisors, with no response. Coworkers were not interviewed, and no formal investigation was conducted even though 15 suspects were named. Espinoza suffered physical and emotional trauma from these events, and a doctor diagnosed him with high blood pressure, insomnia, and depression. He filed a complaint against the county and others based on his disability, harassment, retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury found the county liable for having knowledge of the harassment and failing to take remedial action to correct it. Total damages awarded Espinoza came to $820,700.

Parents and educators must be vigilant in their efforts to recognize, identify, and educate their children and students about cyber abuse. However, since teens are generally ahead of their parents and teachers when it comes to digital devices and platforms, adults are at a disadvantage when trying to monitor their kids online. Many kids have second or third accounts unbeknownst to their parents, or they are using platforms that adults aren’t aware of. That is where the danger exists.

Experts recommend regular, honest discussions with kids about all things internet. There are many resources to learn about the subject, including Stopbullying.gov, the Cyberbullying Research Center, and the Trevor Project.

Cyberbullying is a legal as well as a social problem. But in most cases, litigation should be a last resort when confronted with an incident of abuse. Use education, diversion, and alternative dispute resolution to achieve satisfactory, equitable, and timely results. At the forefront in the effort to curb cyber abuse are parents, educators, and law enforcement. Together, our kids will survive their adolescence and develop into responsible, caring adults.

Judge Tom Jacobs, Free Spirit Publishing AuthorThomas A. Jacobs, J.D., was an Arizona Assistant Attorney General from 1972 to 1985 where he practiced criminal and child welfare law. He was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1985 where he served as a judge pro tem and commissioner in the juvenile and family courts until his retirement in 2008. He also taught juvenile law for 10 years as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. He continues to write for teens, lawyers, and judges. Visit Judge Jacobs’s website AsktheJudge.info for free interactive educational tools that provide current information regarding laws, court decisions, and national news affecting teens.

Tom is a coauthor of Every Vote Matters and the author of What Are My Rights? and They Broke the Law—You Be the Judge.

Every vote matters

What Are My Rightsthey broke the law

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Don’t Miss the Moments: Slow Down and Take Time to Listen, Laugh, and Learn with Your Children

By Nefertiti B. Poyner, Ed.D.

Don’t Miss the Moments: Slow Down and Take Time to Listen, Laugh, and Learn with Your ChildrenIf you were to make a list of everything you wanted to complete this week, it would likely be much longer than you anticipate. The cold, hard fact is that life can be one busy ride. In order to accomplish more, you’re inclined to rush things. For those of us who are parents, we often feel as though there is never enough time in a day to complete all the tasks on our to-do list and take care of our children and families.

We might want to think about the message we are sending our children as we hurry through our days without taking time for each other. That time might be sharing a laugh, smile, or warm “huggie”—which is what my 4-year-old calls a hug. One important thing that both my children have taught me is to appreciate each moment, even the seemingly inconsequential ones. A few weeks ago on a drive to the local drugstore, I thought my 15-year-old would never get to the end of her ever-winding tale of selfies, upcoming parties, sweet-16 birthday plans, and her need for an allowance increase. To say that the conversation was exhausting is an understatement, but as I reflect on our seemingly idle chatter, I realize that it was the best few minutes we had shared in a very long time.

Recently, I have made conscious efforts to slow down with my children. Not only do I feel that it is better for their well-being, I am also finding that I enjoy parenting so much more. Do not let life get so busy that you don’t notice your child has styled her hair differently, or that your 4-year-old completely dressed himself without anyone having to ask. While parenting can be tough, it also comes with great joy. The benefit of slowing down for me is that I enjoy being with my children even more. When I’m not enjoying parenting, it’s usually because I am not in the moment—I’m either rushing to get somewhere or I’m thinking about all the things I should be doing or need to get done. When I slow down and let go of all those other things and just allow myself to be with my children, to relax and enjoy them . . . I feel alive, present, and so very grateful.

If you are ready to slow down and find greater joy in everyday moments, keep these ideas in mind.

1. Resolve to slow down.

Step 1 is consciously stating to yourself that you will slow down, beginning right now. Keep the idea of slowing down in the forefront of your mind. Accept the fact that more isn’t necessarily better.

2. Reflect on when you feel most rushed.

Is it in the morning when you’re getting ready for work, or when you’re preparing dinner in the evening? Maybe you’re going at high speed when you’re trying to get the kids out the door to school. Be aware of when you find yourself feeling the most need to move quickly, so you can brainstorm methods to slow down at those times.

Don’t Miss the Moments: Slow Down and Take Time to Listen, Laugh, and Learn with Your Children3. Notice if certain people or things going on around you compel you to hurry.

Trying to get to the bottom of why you’re rushing will help you figure out how to slow things down. For example, if certain people are frequently telling you to “hurry up,” find time to talk with them about the situation.

4. Share your feelings about wanting to slow down your pace.

If you have a partner, you might also find it necessary to explain that you’d prefer your partner to avoid saying anything to rush you. Problem-solve together on how you’ll change your actions to accomplish your goal of slowing down.

5. Make adjustments to your schedule.

For example, if you feel most hurried in the morning, try setting your alarm for 15 minutes earlier to give yourself more time. Take advantage of the power you have by doing something as simple as getting up earlier. If you constantly rush the kids to get out the door, try talking briefly with them and tell them that they’ll need to start getting up 10 minutes earlier so that mornings aren’t as hectic.

6. Examine your overall schedule.

Are you consistently in a rush because your schedule is crammed? Are you trying to do too much in a day? Look over your daily schedule with a critical eye. What can you omit from your schedule today? What can you say no to? You’ll be relieved after you make some adjustments, allowing you more time to enjoy the company of your children and family.

7. Remember that you can be a lot more efficient, happier, and calmer by slowing down your pace.

Maybe you can’t attend a book club, volunteer at your place of worship, and go grocery shopping on Thursday afternoons—and maintain your sanity. Give yourself permission to let something go, or rearrange your schedule to have downtime between duties. When you slow down, you can better focus on each of the activities you choose to do. You’ll find them more rewarding and invigorating when you don’t have to rush from one activity to the next.

Slowing down your life will bring a new vitality to your existence. No moment with our children is too big or too small. These special moments are what life is really all about. Vow to enjoy every single minute of it by slowing down your pace.

Nefertiti B. PoynerNefertiti B. Poyner, Ed.D., is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native now residing in Eastern North Carolina. Currently employed by the Devereux Center for Resilient Children (DCRC), Nefertiti is an author, public speaker, and provider of professional learning experiences for early care and education professionals. She is co-author of a Teacher’s Choice Award–Winning resource, Socially Strong, Emotionally Secure: 50 Activities to Promote Resilience in Young Children, as well as Building Your Bounce: Simple Strategies for a Resilient You, a resource designed to help caregivers build their own resilience. Learn more about Nefertiti and the Devereux Center for Resilient Children at centerforresilientchildren.org.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Enter to Win the Kids Can Cope Series!

Enter to Win the Kids Can Cope seriesThis month we are giving away the first four books in the Kids Can Cope series. These books offer kids a wide range of practical strategies they can use to cope with difficult feelings and situations. One lucky reader will win:

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you help kids cope with challenges.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry. Entries must be received by midnight, February 21, 2020.

The winners will be contacted via email on or around February 24, 2020, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Winners must be US residents, 18 years of age or older.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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