How I elevate learning through play

Michelle Colte of Hale Kula Elementary School in Wahiawa, HI was named the inaugural School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year in September 2014. Be sure to also read posts by School Librarian of the Year finalists Andy Plemmons and Colleen Graves.

“Mom...what are you doing?” My ten year old daughter, Olivia, eyed me skeptically. She caught me sitting on the floor, re-adjusting the position of a motor perched on top of a tongue depressor. I reconnected the wire to the battery and set the contraption back down on my chart paper. “Trying to make a scribble bot for the class I’m taking...but I can’t get it to move!” I wailed.

A clothespin flew off the motor and across the room.

“Way to go, mom. Epic fail!” she giggled.

I laughed with her. “No, not a fail...what can we do differently?”

For our second attempt, we switched out the clothespin for an eraser, re-taped the yogurt cup to sit lower on the pens and tried again. The scribble bot wiggled and squiggled in circles around the chart paper. “We did it!” she exclaimed.

Olivia’s creative substitutions and readjustments carried us to success. She didn’t stop there, but kept churning out questions, “What if we used crayons instead? Could this work on cement with sidewalk chalk? Can we use a different battery?” Her barrage of questions made me smile. These questions reflected an imaginative mind, ready to tinker with new possibilities.

Olivia is a hands-on, visual learner. She can watch a YouTube video, stand before a mirror and weave her long brown hair through her fingers with ease, recreating the same braid she saw in the video. On her own, she searched for and subscribed to YouTube channels that interested her: Seven Super Girls, Cute Girls’ Hairstyles and Fun2draw. Not only did she access digital information, she began creating her own videos to share her knowledge.

Yet in school, Olivia struggles with reading, perceives herself as a failure due to her “partially proficient” scores and views research as drudgery because she’s assigned a topic with a small group of students who need extra help rather than pursuing her own topics of interest.

Olivia’s struggles have led me to re-examine how I teach and what learning looks like. How can I, as an elementary school librarian, foster opportunities for playful discovery and exploration? How can I incorporate hands-on learning, driven by students’ own curiosity? How can I tap into their current interests and also expand their thinking by exposing them to new concepts?

This style of learning is different from what I experienced and pushes me outside my comfort zone. My query has led me to adopt a new mindset:

  • Jump in and learn alongside the students. Be a “meddler in the middle” to as Dean Shareskisaid in his presentation Whatever Happened to Joy?
  • Accept failure as a part of learning and an opportunity to create new solutions.
  • Ask for help! When my colleagues and I first used MinecraftEdu as means for students to synthesize their learning, we reached out to Minecraft ninjas like Shane Asselstine, Doug Kiang and the Google+ Community, Minecraft in Education. We also deferred to students when we, or their peers, had questions. Students felt empowered to show me and their peers ‘how to...’ We found that Minecraft levels the playing field, letting a varied group of students showcase their collaboration, communication, problem solving skills and perseverance.
  • Make time to play. As I read Wes Fryer’s “Playing With Media,” I kept thinking, teachers need this time too. Time to explore multimedia, synthesize their learning and create digital products.
  • Expose students to new literacies. When my principal asked me to facilitate a coding club, I felt a twinge of panic…”Anyone can Code, but I don’t know how to code...” Instead, I connected them with code.org’s tutorials, facilitated conversations, encouraged reflection and created an atmosphere for learning. Students explored Scratch, created criteria for “awesome” games and set to work creating in Scratch.
  • Go unplugged. We invited soldiers from our military partnership to celebrate our school wide, 2nd Annual Cardboard Challenge. There's something about a cardboard box that inspires creativity. Students built games, cars, puppet theaters and more. They teamed up with peers, parents & soldiers to build, adjust & rebuild.

In addition to a new mind frame, I've also looked to museums and other libraries for inspiration:

  • The Exploratorium and The Tinkering Studio: The Exploratorium aims to “change the way science is taught” by providing active engagement where students naturally begin to ask and investigate their own questions, just like my daughter did with the scribble-bot. Follow them on Twitter @exploratorium and @tinkeringstudio and keep an eye out for another class like this one.
  • Q?rius at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History: Pronounced “curious,” this hands-on, inquiry based exhibit kept my daughters busy for hours last summer. They retrieved artifacts from drawers, scanned the code and learned more about each item at a computer. The Q?rius Blog gives me ideas of expeditions, questions and experiences I can mirror in my own community and on their website, students can participate in live web chats, do activities and more. Check it out!
  • The Bubbler: The Bubbler is a Madison, Wisconsin Public Library Program that encourages participants to learn, create and share. We visited during The Big Draw event, met and spoke with artists, drew with Crayola window markers and sketched on a giant wall mural.
  • Lamar Library’s Makerspace: Created and managed by maker, teacher and librarian Colleen Graves, the Lamar Library website is one of the most comprehensive, detailed sites for a newbie to makerspaces like me. I can’t wait to click on her links and find projects I can use with my elementary students.

Albert Einstein said “Play is the highest form of research.” I invite you to adopt a playful frame of mind, stimulate curiosity, and empower learners to explore their world in new ways.