Making Space for Play: Tapping into Children’s Play Personalities

LFA2018-Christine-HertzBy Christine Hertz, 2018 Literacy for All Featured Speaker 

Teaching children to read, write, spell, communicate and think critically is challenging work, but it is doesn’t have to be serious work. Teaching and childhood are messy, unpredictable, complex, and inherently steeped in curiosity, wonder and joy. As literacy teachers, we can get caught up in planning responsive lessons, delivering rich instruction and meeting benchmarks. Sometimes, we get so caught up that we temporarily lose sight of the children that are right in front of us.

Last year, while teaching a group of first graders a word study lesson on the silent e rule, I watched as a child carefully placed the letters T-A-P-E on the magnetic board in front of her. Next, she picked up her magnetic E and twirled it through the air. She leaned in close to the rest of the word and then pretended that the E was whispering to the magnetic A. A big part of me wanted to say, “Just go ahead and make the word, please.” But instead I, too, leaned in close and asked, “What’s that E saying to the A?” She looked up at me and said very slowly, “Time to be lonnnng.” We both cracked up. In just the first few minutes of the lesson she had invented a playful narrative that helped her remember the spelling pattern and cultivate tiny moments of joy and spark in her learning.

Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul writes, “Play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to invent itself.” Brown has found that there are very distinct ways people like to play.  He calls them play personalities. Identifying your students’ play personalities (or having them identify their own) is as simple as identifying the things that bring them the most pleasure, when they seem to lose time, and they can feel their creative juices flowing. Knowing your students’ play personalities can help you empathize with their very powerful human drive to play. They need play to feel happy, safe, and challenged– to feel like they belong.

Here are Brown’s eight play personalities and some ideas for incorporating them into your classroom:

Stuart Brown’s Play Personalities In the Classroom
Joker: The Joker loves to make people laugh. Their play “always revolves around some kind of nonsense.” (66) Find opportunities to give the jokers in your class time to make you all laugh. You could offer “open mic” moments in morning meeting, ask for silly sound effects during a read aloud, and provide unstructured times when jokers can entertain, laugh and be silly.
Kinesthete: This player “find themselves happiest moving.” (66) This isn’t just athletes, either, this can be the person who thinks best when walking. Incorporate a love of movement into the day with dance, yoga, flexible seating options and plenty of space for big movement. You might offer your writers a quick walk to generate ideas or weave whole-body movements into read alouds or shared reading.
Explorer: The explorer loves discovering new things: mental, physical, and emotional.(67)

 

Engage with your students over a shared sense of wonder. Incorporate opportunities for inquiry and exploring the community into their learning. Offer as much student-driven choice in reading and writing workshop as possible. Teach strategies for reflection to celebrate moments of learning and discovery.
Competitor: This player loves to turn everything into a game, and to win! (67)

 

Tap into the competitor’s love of challenge and drive to win by creating a game out of even the most unremarkable tasks, strategizing about what reading and writing moves would be most effective, and (always) encouraging good sportsmanship. You could also have them help organize a March Madness of favorite books or a class story slam.
Director: “Directors enjoy planning and executing scenes and events.” (67) Use the director’s love of organizing and planning to help orchestrate special events, units, and experiences for your class. You might have your directors plan end-of-unit celebrations, class bulletin boards, student-led book clubs, or open house events for families.
Collector: The collector enjoys the act of gathering, collating, organizing, and admiring objects and experiences. (68) Focus this passion for collecting on your classroom community. Have students document the year in photographs, curate a treasury of beloved stories, and keep portfolios of their work. You might have them use apps such as SeeSaw to digitally collect memories of the year or put them in charge of curating a shelf of the class’ favorite books or books that align to current units of study.
Artist/Creator For the artist, “joy is found in making things.” (68) Carve out time to make things not just for but with your students. You might have your students co-construct bulletin boards and charts or experiment with different genres of writing and ways to express their ideas.  You could even teach your students new art habits and practices (or have them teach the class!) just like you would writing lessons or reading strategies.
Storyteller:

 

The storyteller uses their imagination in all things, and also loves reading and watching movies. (69) Leverage the love of story to bring play and imagination into every area of the day. Invite storytellers to retell inspiring moments from the classroom or beloved stories and use their imaginations to inspire fellow writers. You might help them remember strategies and skills by incorporating little stories into your lessons.

As the new year begins and you start to get to know your students, take the time to investigate their play personalities. Chances are each individual student is a combination of the personalities listed above. If your goal is to make our lessons as engaging and as successful as possible, play is the perfect means to do so. Brown writes, “Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it.”

If you’re interested in more ways to incorporate play and child-centered teaching into your practice, check out my new book with Kristi Mraz, Kids First From Day One, and Kristi’s book, Purposeful Play, co-authored with Cheryl Tyler and Alison Porcelli.

Here’s to a school year filled with joy, wonder & play!


Brown, Stuart and Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Penguin Group/ New York (2010)

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