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Integrating play into the curriculum.

While integrating play into the curriculum usually is a priority for teachers of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children, it is generally abandoned for the higher grades. Yet play is deemed beneficial for all children (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 1988; Johnson, Christie & Yawkey, 1987; Piaget, 1962; Vygotsky, 1976; Wassermann, 1992). Children of all ages develop cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically through play. Play enriches the thinking of children and provides them with opportunities to create, invent, reason and problem solve. Furthermore, as children play, they learn social skills such as how to negotiate, resolve conflicts, take turns and share. Play opportunities help children develop friendships and provide a release from the stresses they face (Elkind, 1981). Play is also the primary way children develop physically.

Educators are often reluctant, however, to include play in the curriculum. Bergen suggests that "play has been undervalued as a curricular tool by educators and parents because society has defined the goals of learning, especially school learning, very narrowly . . ." (Bergen, 1988, p. 1). Yet, when the goals of learning are broadly defined, educators find that play is a highly effective vehicle for enabling "students to learn more about what is important in the 'hard line' curriculum areas of math, science, social studies and language arts" (Wassermann, 1992, p. 136). Wassermann (1992) suggests that "virtually every important concept to be taught - whether it be at the primary, intermediate or graduate level or whether it be in science, math, economics or business management - can be taught through the medium of serious play" (p. 137).

Play also "affords teachers the opportunity to go with the 'natural flow of learning'" (Stone, 1993, p. 3). Children love to play. In play, they are able to create new things, take risks without the fear of failure, direct their own learning and actively engage their minds and hands (Wassermann, 1992). This natural learning environment supports each child's construction of his own knowledge of the world and his place in it (Stone, 1995).

Integrating play into the curriculum first requires an understanding that play is valuable, that children learn through play, and, therefore, that play can be a beneficial component of the curriculum across the grades. Second, one needs to be committed to incorporating play into the curriculum. This becomes easier when using an integrated curriculum model.

The Integrated Curriculum

An integrated curriculum allows children to experience learning holistically, as it is in the real world, rather than segmented into specific content areas such as reading, science, social studies and math. Students must make connections across the disciplines (Jacobs, 1991). An integrated curriculum makes learning relevant and meaningful for children, and is compatible with our understanding of the ways children learn and develop.

The process of integrating a curriculum begins when the teacher (and students) select a theme, topic or concept to study. Take care to fit facts and topics together, ensuring that the theme study does not result in a series of disconnected activities. Global themes such as "change," "freedom" and "patterns" lend themselves easily to integration (Nielsen, 1989).

The topic is then placed in the center of a curriculum web. Various areas of the curriculum branch from the web, such as science, language arts (reading, writing, listening, speaking), math, social studies, art, music, health and physical education. Next, the class generates learning experiences across the curriculum around the common theme, topic or concept.

Integrating Play into the Curriculum

The first step toward integrating play into the curriculum is to branch it from a curriculum web, giving play an important place alongside the more accepted curricular components [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Next, brainstorm ideas for each web area, including play. Using these ideas, develop centers, projects and large and small group learning experiences.

For the play component, decide what play experiences and play types would be effective learning tools for this theme, topic or concept. Using Piaget's (1962) cognitive levels of play, these experiences may be classified as functional play, constructive play, sociodramatic play or games with rules. Functional play occurs when a child finds "functional" pleasure in interacting with the environment, such as moving something back and forth, splashing water or jumping up and down. The child engages in repetitive actions simply for pleasure. In constructive play, a child creates something, constructs a product or solves a problem. Building with blocks, painting a picture, sculpting with clay and creating a song or dance are all examples of constructive play. In sociodramatic play, children transform simple objects into play tools. A block becomes a car, and a stick becomes a horse. Children also take on fantasy roles, pretending to be a mother or father, Superman or Wonder Woman, a teacher or doctor, or Goldilocks or Papa Bear.

Figure 1 contains an integrated curriculum web for primary age children in which play is a prime component. Using the topic of "rocks," children will participate in centers, projects and experiences related to this topic across the curriculum. Young children will weigh rocks (math), classify rocks (science), find mountain ranges on a map (social studies) and read and write reports, stories and poems about rocks (language arts).

Adding the play component opens yet another dimension of exploration, discovery and enjoyment for children. For example, play experiences with rocks could include the following:

* dramatizing a fictional story such as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Steig, 1969) (sociodramatic play)

* feeling pebbles and rocks (functional play)

* washing rocks (functional play)

* pretending to be an archaeologist in a sand area (sociodramatic play)

* making rock sculptures (constructive play)

* building with rocks (constructive play)

* playing the game "Pebble, Pebble, Who's Got the Pebble?" (games with rules)

* exploring rocks (open-ended play experience).

A monster theme may include the following play experiences for primary children:

* dramatizing Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak, 1963) (sociodramatic play)

* creating monsters with math tangrams (constructive play)

* painting monsters (constructive play)

* building block monsters (constructive play)

* creating a monster dance (constructive play)

* playing "Monster, May I?" (games with rules)

* playing There's a Nightmare in My Closet (Mayer, 1968) with flannel graph figures on a flannel board (sociodramatic play).

Play experiences should also be an active component of the curriculum for the intermediate grades [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Consider the following play experiences that can be incorporated within a literature theme based on Sarah, Plain and Tall (MacLachlan, 1985):

* creating a play "house" similar to the one in Sarah, Plain and Tall; recreating several themes from the story (constructive play/sociodramatic play)

* creating travel board games for traveling by sea and traveling by land in the 1800s (constructive play/games with rules)

* playing games typical of the time period (games with rules)

* painting watercolor prairie flowers (constructive play)

* creating charcoal drawings of items from the story (constructive play)

* feeling shells from the sea (functional play)

* building replicas from the prairie house/farm using cardboard (constructive play)

* reenacting emotional issues from the story (sociodramatic play)

* reinventing uses for common tools on the prairie (constructive play).

The topic of archaeology also lends itself to serious play for older children:

* building a prehistoric museum (constructive play)

* creating sand replicas of pyramids, Stonehenge, etc. (constructive play)

* playing with excavation tools before learning the purpose of each (functional/exploratory play)

* inventing a prehistoric animal with paint or clay (constructive play)

* creating an archaeological dig (constructive play/sociodramatic play)

* making fossils with clay (constructive play)

* playing an "Indiana Jones" board game (games with rules)

* writing and then dramatizing a story involving a prehistoric time period or the field of archaeology (sociodramatic play).

Playing Across the Curriculum

Children also enjoy "playing across the curriculum," which involves finding avenues for play within the content areas. Play experiences are incorporated into math, science, social studies, language arts, art and music. Consider the following activities using the general topic of "change."

* changes in matter (science): blowing bubbles (functional play)

* changes in matter (science): growing crystals (constructive play)

* changes in color (art): mixing paints for art (constructive play)

* changes in feelings (social studies): acting out the change in feelings from Beauty and the Beast (sociodramatic play)

* changes in appearance (social studies): playing a game where one child changes his appearance and the other children guess what is changed (games with rules)

* magical changes in literature (language arts): acting out Cinderella or The Frog Prince (sociodramatic play)

* changes in shapes (math): creating designs with geometric shapes (constructive play).

If play is incorporated into an integrated curriculum, children can explore, discover, problem solve, invent, experiment, imitate, dramatize and enjoy both the content and the process of learning experiences. As Wassermann (1992) notes, ". . . play allows children to make discoveries that go far beyond the realm of what we adults think is important to know" (p. 133). Play facilitates children's development of knowledge, spirit of inquiry, creativity and conceptual understanding (Wassermann, 1992).

Children of all ages should be provided opportunities within the integrated curriculum to play with words, paints, cubes, problems, materials and music as they become the writers, poets, artists, architects, scientists and musicians of tomorrow.


Bergen, D. (Ed.). (1988). Play as a medium for learning and development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Elkind, D. (1981). The hurried child: Growing up too fast too soon. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Isenberg, J., & Quisenberry, N. L. (1988). Play: A necessity for all children. Childhood Education, 64, 138-145.

Jacobs, H. H. (1991). The integrated curriculum. Instructor, 101(2), 22-23.

Johnson, J. E., Christie, J. F., & Yawkey, T. D. (1987). Play and early childhood development. Glenview, IL: ScottForesman.

MacLachlan, P. (1985). Sarah, plain and tall. New York: Harper & Row.

Mayer, M. (1968). There's a nightmare in my closet. New York: Dial.

Nielsen, M. E. (1989). Integrative learning for young children: A thematic approach. Educational Horizons, 68(1), 18-24.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the wild things are. New York: Scholastic.

Steig, W. (1969). Sylvester and the magic pebble. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Stone, S. J. (1993). Playing: A kid's curriculum. Glenview, IL: GoodYear Books.

Stone, S. J. (1995). Wanted: Advocates for play in the primary grades. Young Children, 50(6), 45-52.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1976). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play: Its role in development and evolution (pp. 537-544). New York: Basic Books.

Wassermann, S. (1992). Serious play in the classroom: How messing around can win you the Nobel Prize. Childhood Education, 68, 133-139.
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Author:Stone, Sandra J.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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