When you think back to your grade school days, what comes to mind as one of your favorite activities? Many of us might say, “Recess!” Children look forward to this time of day during which they can break from academic studies and socialize. But what if play was integrated into academic studies, rather than set at a designated time? When it comes to paving the way for a new pre-K curriculum, is integrated play the way to go?

For kids, play is fun, exciting and refreshing, so why not integrate more organized play into pre-K classrooms? Nancy Nager and Shael Polakow-Suransky, authors of the New York Times op-ed “The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K,” think so. The authors emphasize that school curricula should maintain a balance between traditional academia and organized play: “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor. . . . As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills.” Instead, the authors write, teachers should integrate more purposeful play into the classroom curriculum, and that play should be at the core of such a curriculum. Instead of separating play from formal learning, Nager and Polakow-Suransky argue, it should be a part of learning.

Edward Miller and Joan Almon also discuss this need for play strategically incorporated into regular curricula in their ”]book [PDF link] Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. They write that school curricula need to “be broadened so that children who excel in nonacademic areas also have a chance to show their skills. . . . Children of all ages, but especially younger ones, need a broad-based curriculum that includes play, recess, the arts and a wide range of activities.” Incorporating play and outdoor activities into children’s everyday school routines, in addition to regular recesses, will enhance their learning environment, making it more dynamic and allowing those students who may not excel in specific academic studies the chance to do so. Another link Miller and Almon connect to the overall importance of well-balanced pre-K is that such activity can reduce childhood obesity. They write that some health professionals have found a link between the decline of outdoor play and the rise of childhood obesity; therefore, play may indeed be the way to go in the case of building a solid and dynamic pre-K foundation.

Many schools and organizations across the country provide such needed social and outdoor interaction for children, both in the forms of outdoor lab courses and external programs. One such organization is Save the Bay. Save the Bay is an environmental nonprofit organization located in Providence, Rhode Island, and for almost 30 years its Explore the Bay (ETB) program has hosted students across southern New England. Save the Bay runs a variety of programs in its on-site, “living” classrooms in Providence, in which children participate in lab-based activities with water tanks and tide pools, and learn about marine life and other topics in environmental science. The ETB center is also home to their education vessels, on which students cruise on the bay and participate in hands-on activities, including testing water quality and examining organisms from the bay.

As part of my work with the Watershed Action Alliance, another environmental coalition in southeastern Massachusetts, I visited Save the Bay and witnessed firsthand this type of interactive learning. I visited on a day when two buses of students came, and I was able to tour their interactive classrooms, vibrant and full of water tanks for lab activities. One of the walls even boasted a mural of the Narragansett Bay watershed, so the students could literally see a snapshot of their environment. I also stepped aboard the Alletta Morris, one of Save the Bay’s vessels and floating classrooms, where students would later take a ride out onto the bay. Before I left, I saw the children arrive for afternoon activities, and they seemed excited and enthusiastic with anticipation for their day out on the bay, a refreshing break from their regular classrooms.

Teachers, parents and administrators alike are increasingly seeing the multitude of benefits students receive from organized play and outdoor classroom curricula. With the help of organizations like Save the Bay and Nature’s Classroom and ideas such as school gardens, schools are incorporating such play. Whether it’s a floating classroom in the form of an education vessel or organized play in a traditional classroom, children across the United States are thriving and benefitting more from the dynamic, interactive play afforded while in school.

Did You Know?
Nature’s Classroom, an environmental education organization located across New England and in New York, has hosted over 750,000 students in its programs since its inception. Nature’s Classroom hosts students from schools all over the Northeast in summer camps, weeklong seminars and day trips, fostering a sense of environmental awareness, critical thinking and community in its students. The organization uniquely supplements students’ in-class learning with curriculum-based learning in the outdoors, in the form of activities such as a math class in the woods, where students might create a geodesic dome or navigate the forest using a map and compass.