Play Is The Way: Reflections, Learnings and Resources from Our Conference

How can early childhood educators skillfully and intentionally guide children's learning through play?

This question inspired The Jewish Education Project’s conference, Play is the Way, for Jewish early childhood educators in New York.

As discourse continues among educators about the loss of play in early childhood and pressure still mounting for educational professionals to present a more “academic” curriculum, we knew it was time to dedicate our annual conference towards a deeper understanding of play and play-based learning. To do this we offered educators time to play to deepen their own understanding of the power of play firsthand!

In March 2017, over 400 Jewish early childhood professionals from 60 schools across Westchester, Long Island, Manhattan and surrounding communities attended one-day workshops. Our conference partners, Drs. Walter F. Drew and Marcia L. Nell, of the Institute for Self Active Education, facilitated the play workshops that incorporated time to play and important time to reflect with colleagues.

“When teachers play, they learn to see the materials and their possibilities for learning through the eyes of a child.”

Susan Wood, Executive Director, The Children’s Center California Institute of Technology

During the workshops educators were immersed in material-rich play activities. Although it may seem surprising that teachers in a 2’s, 3’s or 4’s classroom do not engage in play, the reality is teachers often set up play for children but rarely experience it for themselves.


The following excerpts from Walter and Marcia’s book, From Play to Practice, underscore why they believe conference and workshop settings designed for educators to experience play are so important:

“Everyone can do this, but it is nearly impossible to truly understand and value unless one has direct, personal sensory experience. Reading doesn’t do it. Writing doesn’t do it. Talking doesn’t do it. Each of these however, is an important tool to reflect and share insights from the intentional play experience.”

“When offered a carefully structured setting, open-ended materials, and a sensitive play coach, teachers can refocus and rethink the role of play in children’s development.”

Ahead of the conference, loose parts arrived at our venues that would be placed on large round tables to welcome educators upon their arrival. Most of the materials were discarded factory items that have been repurposed for classrooms and these types of workshops. The boxes contained Dr. Drew's Discovery Blocks plus squiggly items, cloths, disks, sticks, feathers, and pegs.


“When was the last time you joyfully played?” This opening question got educators thinking back to their childhood or recent playful moments with their children. Discussions had the participants contemplating the connections between a sense of wonder and play. But it was the intentional play experiences themselves that had the biggest impact on the participants.


One of play activities, Solo Play, challenged educators to spend 15 minutes individually and in silence, exploring and creating with the materials. It might sound easy but many educators afterwards talked about their inner struggle to “let go”, to “stay focused on their own build”, or “to not feel compelled to build something representative” or something predictable. Some joked that they had the urge to “topple” another’s creation and others found it “hard to concentrate for that long”. Still others said they “found the experience with the music and the solo play calming and energizing all at the same time”.


The Cooperative Play activity was similar in length but required participants to work together at each table on a community build. The energy in the room was dramatically different this time around, with plenty of chatter, negotiating, planning and storytelling going on. After this experience, Walter and Marcia encouraged each group to tell their “group story”. Many educators shared that working cooperatively was unexpectedly challenging. Through this process, they expressed a greater empathy for their own students experiences and began to think differently about the variety of materials they were offering and where they were offering them in their classrooms.


Having both play activities back-to-back, with time for reflection in between, helped educators understand in a more profound way that each student brings something unique to the play experience and that it all has an effect on others in the group. The participants also noted that in play all children bring with them different interests, personalities, and capabilities.

“During this play I couldn't stay in the chair. I felt compelled to move around.”

Shulie Stern

“I’m wondering now how are children negotiating with or appeasing other children's tendencies towards controlled orderly play vs more abstract expressive play.”

Lauren Axelrod

“I wonder if children feel compelled to use all the materials we put in front of them?”

Ronnie Becher


An important part of the workshop for educators is putting the learning into context for themselves and their work with children. To do this Walter and Marcia ask participants to journal how the experiences are inspiring them take action in their classroom. Here are some examples from those reflections:

"Remember the perspective of the child. They are real people with likes and dislikes. Strengths and areas for growth. In attempting to manage a classroom, do not lose sight of this."
Conference participant

"I usually have a plan and a reason as to why I give them certain things to play with. I think it would be great to give them the opportunity to use different materials and make things using these random objects. I realized not everything has to be structured."
Alisha Makhanlall

"Listen carefully to what children say. Learn what they are interested in then provide the prompt/materials. Observe what they do with the materials. Let them discover the joy of learning through play."
Satomi Yamagiwa

"Reflect on my expectations for children's play. Do I expect some children to be more interested in group play than they are comfortable with / ready for?"
Stephanie Levy

"I am more aware of my role as a teacher in relation to the way children play. I will go back to the classroom and see if things need to be changed!"
Randy Wideltz


The second part of the workshops focused on understanding of the process of play and the different roles educators assume in these settings. Educators learned that while children are engaged in play in their classrooms, they themselves play a particular role and that those roles often fall into one or more of the following: The Supporter, The Appreciator, The Spectator, The Clarifier, The Negotiator, The Model and the The Interrupter, the last of which has a negative impact on children. Our facilitators also shared knowledge about the process of play informed by their ongoing research and facilitation of play experiences for children and adults.

Here is a condensed version of Walter and Marcia’s Process of Self Active Play:

  1. Developing the power of concentration.

  2. Develop the capacity of elaboration and imagination.

  3. Develop the ability to organize ideas around a central concept.

  4. Develop self control of the mind.

  5. Develop mental silence and sense of peacefulness.

Walter and Marcia believe that a joyful sense of control can take shape in the lives of children through play and often making peace out of the chaos in their lives. With that, it’s hard to argue for any other type of experiences happening in our early childhood classrooms day after day.

With Gratitude: We’d like to thank our wonderful local partners and conference hosts - Sandi Bettan at Midway Jewish Center (Plainview, NY) and Lisa Gershon and Mia Kargen at Larchmont Temple (Larchmont, NY). 

Conference resources:

  • Watch the Video Journal from all three conference days.

Other play resources:

  • The Mind Lab at the Providence Children’s Museum which conducts ongoing research with their collaborators at Brown University and Providence College about how children’s thinking and learning develops and how self-directed activities illustrate specific ways that kids learn through play and exploration.

  • Free e-course by Morgan Leichter-Saxby that shares the vocabulary of Playwork, “a decades old approach to working with children and supporting their play for its own sake.”