Three Tips to Bring Play-Based Learning to Your SEL Curriculum

By Anita Compart

Even as life returns to normal in a post-pandemic world, students and educators continue to grapple with the challenges of this once-in-a-lifetime situation. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recently found that 70 percent of public schools reported an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services at school since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, while roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of schools also reported an increase in staff voicing concerns about students exhibiting symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and trauma.

One of the unique challenges I’ve had in my own classroom is how to address the limited social interaction and lack of structured learning environment that many students experienced during these past few years. Adjusting to the “new normal” of school led to an uptick of outbursts and other disruptive behaviors. In response, I’ve turned to play-based learning, which at its core is learning through the act of playing. As LEGO Foundation’s 2017 white paper, “Learning Through Play: A Review of the Evidence,” noted “Through active engagement with ideas and knowledge, and also with the world at large, we see children as better prepared to deal with tomorrow’s reality…from this perspective, learning through play is crucial for positive, healthy development, regardless of a child’s situation.”

A play-based curriculum allows you to meet students where they are, which makes for more engaged learning. Below are three quick and effective tools I’ve used to bring play-based learning into my classroom:

  1. Use Music!
    Music is a great way to teach everything from the alphabet to colors. Every morning in my class, we do a sing-along that helps students learn about the days of the week, special holidays, and how calendars work. Use music to practice vocabulary, learn about different cultures, or even to teach a new language. Music has been found to increase confidence, develop emotional skills, and boost critical thinking.
  2. Try a Service Dog!
    While it would be great to bring a live service dog into the classroom, that may not be feasible. A great addition to my classroom has been Bouncy’s Ready to Learn Resilience program from Ripple Effects. A breathing animatronic service dog, Bouncy, anchors a social–emotional learning program that includes books, apps, activities, and music videos. I use Bouncy to demonstrate age-appropriate social–emotional skills in an innovative way via group activities and individual interventions.
  3. Get Cooking!
    Teach concepts like math, teamwork, and cognitive skills through an everyday activity like cooking. I’ve set up a play kitchen in my classroom that allows students to learn how to assemble ingredients, count and measure, and work together to achieve a goal. The play kitchen area is also a great way for students to destress. For example, if they need a break from class, they might head to the kitchen to whip up a pretend treat before settling down with a favorite book.

These are just a few of the countless ways you can bring play-based learning to your classroom. Let your imagination soar!

Anita Compart is a special education teacher with Jane Westerhold Early Learning Center, part of Community Consolidated School District 62 in Des Plaines, Illinois. You can find her on Twitter @AnitaCompart.

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