Utilizing a hands-on, child-centered learning environment in the early years isn’t exactly a cutting-edge educational practice. Educators and developmental specialists have long known that young children need sensory experiences that allow them to touch, smell, taste and immerse themselves in a lesson in order to learn. That said, what happens when the same children who spend the day finger painting, acting out pretend scenes, and exploring the scientific process first hand grow into tweens and teens? Carrying this concept of ‘playfulness’ into middle and high school is important as it boosts brain development, ignites creative abilities, and builds social skills as well as life skills.
The need for creative outlets doesn’t simply switch off when a child ages out of elementary school. Adolescents need the chance to experience creativity, use their imaginations, and interact with materials in hands-on ways. Even though educators and parents may not think of “play” as being part of a middle or high school curriculum, there are plenty of ways in which schools can provide teens with opportunities to express their creativity.
The Return to Free Choices
Step into almost any early childhood education center and you’ll find at least one free choice time during each day. Mixed into the lessons and structured activities are free play times—where children get to pick and choose what interests them. If a child feels like finger painting, free time allows for them to do so. On the other hand, if the child feels like building with blocks he or she may do that.
Using this approach in the middle or high school classroom helps to build creative abilities and allows for health and brain empowerment. This isn’t to say that high school students should have free reign over their assignments or what they do all day at school. Instead, they should be given the opportunity to explore areas of interest within the classroom. Perhaps allowing them to have a choice between 3 different projects instead of just assigning one; or allowing them to have a list of books they can write a book report on instead of just assigning them to read one.
Building Maker Spaces
Tinkering isn’t just for tots. Creating maker spaces or ‘fab labs’ within high schools provides teens with opportunities to get truly hands-on. These spaces offer students of all needs and abilities (including special education students) the chance to take what they’re learning in school, expand upon it, and create their own ideas.
Maker spaces open up a world of creativity to teens, allowing them to design and invent with materials that they may not otherwise have access to. They can use real-world building tools (such as wood, hammers, nails or recycled/scrap materials) to create projects. Many high schools offer “fab labs” where students can make jewelry or design and sew their own clothes. This type of creativity not only adds to brain development, but also builds critical-thinking and life skills that teens will need after graduation.
By the time that many children reach the teen years, the days of a quick pick-up baseball game are long gone. Adolescent athletes train, compete, and repeat—all with the goal of winning. Instead of enjoying the game or playing for fun, middle and high school sports often turn into a high-pressure form of competition.
Providing teens with the chance to play a sport just for the sake of the game takes the pressure off and allows them to get creative without the anxiety of competition. Encouraging group or team play also builds social skills. Likewise, playing instruments/music for fun with friends supports the development of creative musical talents without glorifying competition.
Integrating the Arts
Unlike preschool, or early grade school, high school arts are often relegated to specific classes. If the student doesn’t have a talent or focused interest in drawing, painting, dance or drama, he/she may not have the opportunity to build creative abilities through the arts.
Arts integration allows teachers to bring these subjects into other areas, encouraging teens to make discoveries and express themselves in imaginative ways. For example, instead of reading and writing term papers about books, a literature teacher could have the students create their own mini novels and act them out. Integrating the arts gives the students an alternative means of self-expression and opens up a new, deeper way of learning. It puts the students at the center of the process and requires them to think outside of the box, instead of simply memorizing what someone else has said.
After all, teenagers need to find their talents and their interests—they need to be able to recognize what they’re good at and what they enjoy, so arts integration can only help to narrow down those interests.
Learning in the Real World
Pretend play isn’t exactly synonymous with high school learning. Even though tweens and teens aren’t playing dress up in the same way that a preschooler would, they can still benefit from ‘make believe’ experiences.
This takes a real world turn in the upper school curriculum, with middle and high schoolers working on project-based activities. Students are given a problem to solve and must create a solution. This may include a current event, a mystery, or even an employment-related issue.
A learning process that integrates play encourages a deeper level of creative thought, improves life skills and encourages teens to think in new ways during teacher-centered classes. Through the use of maker spaces, arts integration, real-world play and scientific inquiry, middle and high school students can develop and grow in ways that go beyond the school walls. And with that, they develop and shape their futures.
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At James Stanfield, We Think You Should Know:
Using creativity and play at all ages in the classroom is a great way to help students develop both social and emotional intelligence. This type of learning is called social and emotional learning, or SEL, and it refers to a student’s ability to express emotions appropriately, show empathy for others, build positive relationships and generally make good decisions. At Stanfield, we believe that for students with special needs, honing in on SEL is the key to social success. Check out our products in the LifeSmart Curriculum, like DateSmart that integrate social and emotional learning.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.