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The 360 Blog

A 360-degree view of student-centered education, written by teachers and staff at Park Tudor School.

Play, Choice, and Downtime
Junior Kindergarten Team

Setting our children up for success starts in Junior Kindergarten. The Junior Kindergarten classroom provides an environment for children to explore, gain a sense of self, play with peers and build self-confidence. Children learn they can accomplish tasks, make decisions independently, and participate in activities that allow for creative growth, self-reflection, and decompression.

The Junior Kindergarten teachers decided to focus on play, choice, and downtime this year because they are important strategies for healthy brain development, and contribute to the cognitive, social, physical, and emotional well-being of children and youth. The young mind is remarkably malleable and is able to develop new habits with relative ease. Because we need skilled young people to be well prepared to be tomorrow’s leaders, we must recognize the advantages of play, choice, and downtime in our children’s lives.

One of the most important aspects of early childhood education is the importance of play. When we think of “play,” we think of free time or children’s choice time.  As Junior Kindergarten teachers, we always have an opportunity to make learning meaningful for our students, and “loose parts” is a great way for students to generate their own ideas into play. Loose parts are small items that can be moved around, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in many ways. There is no set of specific directions for materials that are considered loose parts. In the fall, our guest speaker Peter Gray, author of Free to Play, discussed how children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration. Students are deciding what to make and how to make it. Our students use their imagination when working together to discover and explore new items in different ways.  

When students are stimulated with TV and iPads too often, or thrown into non-stop activities during the week, they can become “mindless.” With our focus on “mindfulness,” we urge teachers and parents to let your child get bored. Play is a way that children learn and develop 21st-century skills. Toys with a specific purpose are not useful to children long term. They can turn those loose parts into anything they want. Instead of plastic food, give kids wine corks. The corks can become specific food, ingredients for soup, or a drink they can pour into containers. Let their imagination drive the play, not the toy. A plastic apple will always be a plastic apple.  As teachers, we can listen to and watch their interactions with one another. Children can represent their feelings/life experience by playing with loose parts.
So, if you have young children at home, let your child play and experiment with simple items. Watch them create stories and use their imaginations to turn a simple toy into something magical. The possibilities are endless!

play choice downtime image 1

Giving our youngest learners choices in how and what they learn promotes educational autonomy, making learning authentic and meaningful. An early childhood educator’s job is to guide children as they make sense of the world around them, while also balancing the responsibility of teaching them foundational academic skills. The easiest way to bring meaning to curriculum is to make it relevant for children.  Teaching a three-year-old about the complexities of the solar system in a space-themed unit would never be meaningful. Space is an abstract concept to children - they cannot touch a star or fathom the distances between planets.  Listening to children’s interests and considering what is developmentally appropriate is the best way to incorporate curriculum into their everyday lives.

MBE research has taught us that “offering students choice correlates well to engagement and achievement” (Neuroteach 91). A great example of this was the “Storytelling” unit in Mrs. Martin’s class. While listening to the topics of conversation and observing where and with what children were playing in the classroom, Mrs. Martin noticed a common theme emerge: storytelling. She used this to shape academic lessons within the curriculum to incorporate different ways people tell stories. Her class studied bookmaking, costume design, puppeteering, and theatre. She was then able to interweave activities that dove into these interests by having students sew their own puppets, go on a backstage tour of Park Tudor’s Ayres Auditorium, use face paint to turn themselves into characters, and write stories that eventually turned into their very own book they authored and illustrated.  By listening to the children and their interests, Mrs. Martin was able to subtly ask her students what they wanted to learn and then she incorporated academic foundations like print concepts, phonics, and early reading and writing skills.

play choice downtime image 2

Habits formed early in life will enhance behaviors through childhood into adulthood, and with mindfulness, we have the opportunity to give our children the habit of being kind, peaceful and accepting. In a world as complex as ours, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially when one is only four years old. Everything is interesting, exciting, and new! And while academic rigor and play are important, downtime is equally crucial for proper development.

If you don’t have the opportunity to incorporate a lot of downtime into your busy schedule, here are a few simple ways to quickly bring a moment of peace into your students’ day:

Mindful Moments (Minutes)
Before starting your day, take a mindful minute with your students. If your students cannot be focused for an entire minute, start with a smaller time-frame and build up to the whole minute. The more mindful moments incorporated throughout the day, the calmer the environment.This is especially useful when transitioning from one activity to another.  

Belly Breaths
You’re doing this all day anyway, so take sixty seconds to breathe with awareness. What does it feel like when you inhale? What does it feel like when you exhale? Place your hand on your chest or your belly and feel the gentle rise and fall of your ribcage and abdomen as you breathe. As you breathe, you can bring to your mind Thich Nhat Hanh’s short breathing mantra: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” With each out-breath, allow your lips to gently curl upward into a subtle smile (more Mona Lisa than “Say cheese!”).
Five-Finger Gratitude
Close your eyes, and spread out one hand like a starfish. With your other hand, gently touch each finger and think of one thing you are grateful for. Spend a few seconds with each thought, really appreciating the person/thing/fact/sensation that you are thinking of.

Consider some of the following books to learn more:

breathe and be book

Breathe and Be: A Book of Mindfulness Poems By Kate Coombs


Silence by Lemniscates

i am peace

I am Peace by Harry N. Abrams


The time students spend in our classrooms is used to develop a foundation for a lifetime of learning—and that matters! Take a few moments throughout the day to let your students play, make choices, and have downtime, even if it’s for a couple of minutes. The changes you’ll see to their academic focus and overall well-being will amaze you.  

The Junior Kindergarten team invites you to participate in a “Global School Day of Play” on February 5th. For more information, please visit