Like their students, Hewitt’s faculty and staff are lifelong learners who find joy in discovering new ideas and collaborating with peers. This was clearly evident in a recent professional book study in which the kindergarten team and I came together to think about how we could infuse more independence, inquiry, literacy, and math into student play. The kindergarten teachers were eager to find thoughtful ways to create playful experiences that stimulated curiosity and supported creativity in their students, and so together we engaged in authentic professional discourse around the book Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning through Inquiry and Play, Pre-K-2 by Renée Dinnerstein. Rich with research-based principles designed to encourage mindful interactions amongst students, the book aligned with Hewitt’s academic philosophy and commitment to developing agency, inspiring creativity, and valuing voice and choice among our youngest learners.
Our book study took place during weekly meetings in which we discussed new chapters, recorded important ideas and takeaways that we wanted to put into practice, and reflected together on changes that had been implemented in the classrooms the week before. After reading the “math center” chapter, for example, in which Dinnerstein suggested equipping choice time centers with tools to support mathematical thinking and recording, we brainstormed what sorts of math materials to offer the kindergarten students, eventually settling on clipboards and pencils. Margaret Brown, a member of the kindergarten team, was struck by how this simple change in materials had such a meaningful impact on the way students played, noting, “Giving clipboards and pencils out at the math centers prompted students to engage in entirely new activities, and they began using tally marks and addition to take surveys during choice time.”
The book study inspired other small but significant changes that motivated students toward more mindful and collaborative play interactions, including decorating the block area with photographs of real-world structures, introducing clay and finger paints at an art station, and adding animal costumes to the dress up area. Each of these subtle changes was met with great enthusiasm by the kindergarteners, who quickly found ways to incorporate the new materials into their play. Teacher Megan Mulvey remembers, “You could hear the delight in the classroom as we introduced each new activity or material, and we watched as our students fostered new friendships and strengthened old ones based on their mutual interests in new types of play.”
In addition to inspiring new choice time centers, Dinnerstein’s book also prompted the kindergarten teachers to engage in discussions about how to design a classroom that invites independence. Kindergarten teacher Meredith Miller noticed that, “Changing the system of how students signed up for choice time centers encouraged the kindergarteners to make decisions independently and without teacher involvement.” With this in mind, the teachers began to structure choice time as an opportunity both for play and for their students to engage in social-emotional learning. Rather than facilitate activities or step in when small problems arose, the adults became thoughtful observers, allowing students the space to be fully present in their interactions and to navigate challenges during play independently. And, when they saw a particularly successful problem-solving strategy put to use, the teachers led classroom discussions in which the kindergarteners were able to learn from one another about how to compromise and work through disagreements together.
Knowing that play is important work in kindergarten, the grade level team at Hewitt used research on this topic to ensure that their students had new and exciting chances for creative playful experiences. Reflecting on her takeaways from the kindergarten book study, teacher Lindsey Brown noted, “There are many ways to facilitate play, and so many opportunities for complex play in our classrooms. We’ve learned how we can weave play into every aspect of our day.” While their professional book study certainly benefited their students, the kindergarten team was also quick to point out how valuable it was for them, as educators, to participate in a collaborative learning experience. Like their students, the teachers enjoyed the many benefits that come with learning in partnership with their peers, and gained as much from one another as they did from the book they read together. As they expertly put the research on girls’ learning into practice in their classrooms, these kindergarten teachers modeled for their students that they, too, are eager to study, try out new ideas, take chances, experiment, and grow.