Prioritizing Play

by Krissy Hufnagel, Tina Darling, Kelly Bello, and Soroya Smith

Krissy Hufnagel is an Innovative Learning Coach for grades preK-6 in Mason City Schools in Mason, OH. She is passionate about growing a school culture in which the whole child is at the center – focusing on the development of student mindsets, areas of passion, and unique talents.

Tina Darling (kindergarten), Kelly Bello (first grade), and Soroya Smith (second grade) are teachers at the Mason Early Childhood Center. They are passionate about creating engaging and enriching learning experiences for all of their students.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of a play than in a year of conversation.”


We are educators that believe in the value of play. In 2016, a group of teachers in our building discovered the book Purposeful Play, by Kristine Mraz, and decided to do a grade level book study to learn more. We knew that we were seeing students struggle as the result of kindergarten becoming overwhelmingly academic, and we wanted to find a balance. This was the beginning of our shift in thinking. Additional groups across our K-2 building read the book and began to consider the value of play in our classrooms. We continued to read and study the idea. Our continued learning firmed up our belief in the direct correlation between the rise of anxiety and depression and the decline of play that Dr. Peter Grey speaks of in his TedX talk.

We are on a mission to grow students who are creative, innovative, and collaborative. We know that to grow divergent thinkers, play is critical.

Knowing and understanding, however, do not begin to have the impact that experience does. On February 5th we participated in Global School Play Day 2019. We committed to giving our students a full day of unstructured play. We let them struggle to communicate, collaborate, and create without interference from adults. For one full day of school, we handed the reins over to the students and simply sat back and observed.

We learned more about our students during this day of observation than we could have imagined. We spend hours each week carefully crafting lessons that foster our students’ academic and social emotional growth, but what we saw during #GSPD2019 was that many of the things we thought we were teaching, children achieved through play without any adult structuring required.

Throughout the day spontaneous experiments were conducted, imaginations led to the creation of unique experiences, children problem-solved and negotiated next steps, and they demonstrated that through play they were learning.

One student, who is coping with the grief of losing two family members, worked through those emotions through play. The children playing with her were able to empathize, comfort and bring joy to one another, showing an amazing ability to understand a concept that would be difficult for any six year old.

Another student created a game similar to checkers by using a checkerboard-like fabric and cutting out red and black circles from construction paper for checkers. When he tried to play his game with a peer and realized that the game pieces and the board were not matching up accurately, he decided to make his circles smaller, changed some rules, and then declared that he was flexible!

A few of our second graders reflected that this opportunity allowed them to make new friends and learn things that they had in common. The following day, we saw that these same students were demonstrating a greater level of trust in one another.

Our observations allowed us a deeper understanding of our students. We have focused this year on teaching mindsets of empathy, resilience, persistence, flexibility, and optimism. These skills were evident throughout the day. We were also able to see who took longer to connect, who demonstrated empathy for others, who stepped up to lead and so much more. Taking this day gave us a greater insight into our students and who they are as humans.

But, this was not our biggest take away. We step away from Global School Play Day with a renewed mission. A mission to defeat the decline in school engagement that happens as students get older. A mission to create an environment that has a seamless melding of learning and play. We challenge our colleagues, not just in early childhood, but through high school to consider this notion. How can we all ensure that our students have time to engage in open ended discovery?

We want our students to see that learning happens all of the time and that school is not a place where you comply and chase good grades, but rather a place for creativity, questioning, experimentation, failing forward and reiteration. We want to change the world by changing school and empowering our students to be the creators of the next amazing thing that will make our world a better place.

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