All Articles Education Voice of the Educator How the power of play builds connections, minds

How the power of play builds connections, minds

Here's how physical activity, SEL and STEM can build happier students.

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

How the power of play builds connections, minds

Allison Shelley/Deeper Learning

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“Go be awesome!”  isn’t an empty catchphrase at Brookwood Elementary School in Forsyth County, Ga. It’s a palpable presence that gives rise to student and teacher empowerment and reinforces the three pillars of the school’s mission: connection, collaboration and conceptual understanding. 

Brookwood’s quarterly, no-tech Day of Play and daily, high-tech Innovation Station are pretty awesome themselves and are just two ways staff and students put their hearts and heads into the mission, according to teacher-librarian Sarah Leonard, instructional technology specialist Maureen Paluzzi and Principal Tracey Smith. At SmartBrief’s recent STEM Pathways Summit, the enthusiastic trio explained how Brookwood puts all these components together.

Set the stage with enthusiasm, intention  

Great ideas often fall flat without complete staff buy-in and a strong school culture. Smith, Paluzzi and Leonard know that creating that pairing isn’t a one-and-done task; it requires daily attention. At Brookwood, that starts with upbeat music, which is playing as staff and students arrive on campus. “We want it to be amazing when you walk in that building every single day,” Smith said. 

Choosing a meaningful motto like “Go be awesome!” helps too, and it’s exchanged without artifice between teachers and students throughout the day. 

But the umbrella for these and other tools is Brookfield’s 7 Mindsets playbook, which includes “everything is possible” and “the time is now.” This deeply ingrained school culture is detailed on the school website and reinforced constantly. It builds students’ feelings of trust, belonging and significance at school. That, in turn, allows for the collaboration needed to help students learn and for the rigorous curriculum and high expectations that ensure conceptual understanding. 

Live and breathe SEL daily

The pandemic magnified for educators the trouble students — especially young ones — have sitting still and focusing for long stretches. In addition, research shows kids don’t play anymore like they used to, Smith said. Previous generations played outside with neighborhood kids after school until dinnertime, giving themselves daily, parent-free, trial-and-error SEL lessons. Paluzzi pointed out that today’s students tend to play inside, alone, in front of a screen after school — limiting opportunities to develop those crucial skills. 

So the Brookwood staff not only schedules two recesses per day for students, but they also bring that old-fashioned “let kids be kids” experience to life with a Day of Play four times a year. It’s a literal daylong, “unstructured structured” opportunity for kids to integrate among grades for play and exploration, with an emphasis on outside activity and the five Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, competencies. Aside from coaxing students to interact with kids they don’t already know, staff members are encouraged to remove themselves from the adult role and take the opportunity to be a kid again by playing along with the students and building relationships with them on an entirely different level. 

Teachers can dole out occasional “play passes” that let a few students at a time pop inside the media center for short periods to get creative with Legos or play collaborative board games — “finding their niche and finding different people to play with,” Leonard said — often discovering the data clerk or other staff members elbows-deep in the Legos as they use their own play passes. 

During the Day of Play, the adults don’t going to step in to navigate any problems students have with each other. The kids know their job as they play is to share, be nice to others, work on teamwork skills, practice winning and losing gracefully, manage anger, learn from and teach peers, nurture and believe in one another, and remember that they’re a family who can always talk things out. 

Or, as Leonard put it, “lose, smile and try harder next time.” 

As a bonus, students are having fun and moving a lot, which has decreased behavioral issues. 

Broaden SEL skills with STEM projects

The cooperation and creativity generated during the Day of Play pay off during Innovation Station time, which is one of the school’s specials. Students are asked to brainstorm school-related problems and use STEM skills in fun ways to find solutions, either individually or in small groups. 

The current problem students identified is not enough indoor recess, so teachers have tasked them with designing and building games to play inside using Google Slides and the school’s 3D printer. The middle of the library has been turned into an inspirational makerspace with circuits, a marble run and puzzles spread out among tables and a STEM cart stocked with items for older students to use with adult supervision. 

Students break down the entire process into steps, creating a challenge card for each one. 

Interdisciplinary learning often comes into play, as it did with two students’ checkers game that used turtles and foxes as pieces and incorporated the creatures’ natural habitats into the board. 

Trial-and-error is part of the exercise as students figure out how to shape their ideas to match the printer’s capabilities and limitations, and how to troubleshoot and resolve problems — such as a ball that isn’t big enough or pegs that don’t fit into holes. When one student’s figurines for her board game first printed out, she was “super excited then super upset.” She’d forgotten to make their feet flat, and they couldn’t stand up. “So she took the concept, went back to improve it and is still working on it” almost five weeks later — truly taking ownership, Leonard said.

Throughout, students learn it’s OK when two people have the same idea, and they have fun seeing how differently they’re approached. They share ideas with each other and spark more ideas still. They illustrate their knowledge and practice communication skills as teachers ask directed questions about the problem, the process and how the 7 Mindsets have been incorporated into the result.

Smith said Brookwood teachers don’t talk a lot about test scores and milestones because “everything we do is based on standards, but we’re not hammering it down their throats.” 

“These kids are going to do great,” she said. 


Diane Benson Harrington is an education/leadership writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her at [email protected].


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