Trust Play by Brandy McCombs, M. Ed.

Being a first grade teacher, I get asked a lot about play within the classroom. Do I use open-ended materials? Do I allow the students to have time to simply explore loose materials? How does play even look within a first grade classroom? Generally, I smile and try to read the person to see how deep of an answer they truly are looking for of how deep of an answer they are truly ready to receive.


For some reason over the years, the classroom has turned its back on play. Yes, we could debate and discuss different policies and choices as to how we got here but let’s just accept the fact: play is scarce in classrooms. I want to shed some light on this topic through the eyes of a first grade teacher and it is not me!


I recently conducted a qualitative study on play within the first grade classroom. According to the interviews, observations, focus groups, and surveys one conclusion was reached: Play is Vital.


Play is Vital.

The first grade teachers participating were from Australia, British Columbia, and Central United States and they each reached the same conclusion: Play is Vital.

“Play is about enabling children and giving them that trust to use that time to further their understanding and their learning in a way that is really going to be meaningful for them,” one teacher shared within the focus group. Another teacher chimed in with, “Play is crucial in my classroom. It’s something that happens first thing in the morning and at the end of the day.”


As the academic piece was connected to this discussion, one of the teachers boldly proclaimed, “I think looking up play as the major learning source is the most important because that’s how kids learn and that’s how kids want to learn and they don’t realize that they’re learning.”


Play is Learning.

Throughout all the discussions, surveys, and comments, three themes emerged to support the vitality of play: communication skills, problem solving skills, and social emotional skills. Hmmmmm. It seems like I have read about these skills somewhere before…That’s right! These would be categorized as 21st Century Skills (Thang & Ling Koh, 2017). Isn’t it ironic that the very skills many are desiring of our children teachers are proclaiming they are found right in the middle of play!


Play is Organic.

One powerful insight was shared by a teacher within this study. She explained how she was mentoring a new teacher specifically within the use of play in the classroom. “You must trust the organic nature of play. Allow the student to experience it. Trust it.” Oh how she could not be more correct. Play is at the very organic heart of learning and as teachers we must embrace it and trust it.


Educators and Parents, I want to encourage you to take a step of faith and increase play within your dominion. Offer open-ended materials, loose parts, blank paper, time to fiddle, time to build, time to explore, and time to get dirty. Listen to the conversations occurring, capture the problems being solved, and savor the growth of a child. Trust play.


As teachers shared their powerful insight, three common themes emerged to support the vitality of play: Communication Skills, Problem Solving Skills, and Social-Emotional Skills.



How a first grade teacher describes play within her classroom and the benefits thereof.


Thang, F. K. & Ling Koh, J. H. (2017). Deepening and transferring twenty-first century learningthrough a lower secondary integrated science module. Learning: Research and Practice, 3(2), 148-162, https://doi.org/10.1080/23735082.2017.1335426

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