Purposeful Play: A Review and a Giveaway

9780325077888When my daughter was three years old, I visited every preschool within driving distance, searching for just the right one. I saw schools of all shapes and sizes, of varying philosophies and curricula. The one thing I was most interested in was: Is there enough time for play? Will she be happy? Will she be able to move around, make choices, talk, sing, dance, and make things?

Then, when my daughter started kindergarten, I found myself asking, once again: Is there enough time for play?

Then, I started thinking about the many classrooms where I work: Is there enough time for play? Earlier this year, in this post, I made play my One Little Word (OLW) for 2016.

In the new book Purposeful Play: A Teachers Guide to Igniting Deep & Joyful Learning Across the DayKristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler have laid out the research and practical advice that many of us have been looking for. In our heart of hearts we’ve known that play is crucial to learning, yet time and time again we find ourselves putting play aside.

The book begins by addressing, head-on, the misconception that teachers must make a choice between academics and play. “The Common Core State Standards are an endpoint, not a curriculum. Imagine the standards as a destination, like a point on a map. Reaching that destination involves and endless array of choice” (p. 5). Purposeful Play articulates the message that many teachers have been waiting for: We can teach everything we need to teach through play. We don’t have to choose one or the other–academic success or play.

The book is divided into three very practical sections, each designed to provide an overview for teachers who might be new to play-based learning, and a nudge for those who are long-time advocates. Each section is jam-packed with theory, research, and practical advice for creating classroom environments that support play-based learning, and how to coach into children’s play once it’s up and running.

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Section I: All About Play: The Reasons, Research, and Resources
This section lays out the nuts and bolts: lists of materials, pictures of classrooms, and charts galore (no surprise there, with chart-master Kristine Mraz as one of the coauthors). From the block center, to dramatic play, it is easy to see how play supports the work of reading and writing workshop. For a literacy person like myself, this section was both affirming (yes, we can play!) while at the same time, pushing my thinking about the types of play that children might engage in:

Fantasy Play

Constructive Play

Games with Rules

Rough and Tumble Play

Personally, as a literacy researcher and literacy coach, I have studied fantasy play, constructive play, and games with rules in depth. I’ve long held these near and dear to my heart as crucial to children’s literacy learning. Writing workshop can spill right into choice time easily and vice-versa. Simply by offering up paper and materials in the block center, clipboards in the dramatic play area, and notepads near the sand-table.

But the rough and tumble play section caught me by surprise. After reading the book, the need for this type of play seems so obvious to me — it’s difficult to believe that I had overlooked it for so long.

Section II: The Work in Play: Using Play for Social and Emotional Growth

This section is the perfect blend of practical tips and teaching points for coaching children as they play, combined with big thinking about educational philosophy and social justice. It covers everything from teaching children how to really look at other people’s faces to read their emotions and empathize with others, to strategies for sharing, taking turns, and solving big problems in the world outside the classroom.

This section provides an eye-opening connection between social-emotional learning and literacy. Practical advice on teaching children to empathize with others in real life is presented, and then connected directly to being able to empathize and understand characters in books, and through writing. Connections like these – from children’s real-life social skills to important literacy skills – are found on almost every page.

Section III: The Play in Work: The Whole Day Can Feel Playful

The final section provides an incredibly useful tool for reflecting on writing workshop, as well as across the curriculum. It isn’t a huge stretch to see how play is woven into the fabric of writing workshop. Day-in and day-out a writing workshop is built on the premise of children being writers. They take on the role of author, complete with published books, publishing parties, and all the rest of the trappings of real, live writers. They dramatize stories, acting parts out with partners, reading with storyteller voices during narrative units, “Discovery Channel” and “Wild Kratts” voices during informational units, and “Presidential” voices during persuasive units. As teachers we can use silly songs, goofy voices, and materials like “magic revision pens,” glittery tiny-topics notepads, and special pink or green paper booklets to make writing playful and engaging.

Some of the book’s most powerful advice about play pertains just as much to adults working with children as it does to the children. Play is a mindset. The role of play in the classroom doesn’t only improve kids’ learning lives; it makes teachers’ lives that much more joyful, purposeful, and sustainable. When we take on a play-based mindset in the classroom, we shift the focus from outside pressures, to the lived-experience of all the people in the classroom, children and adults included.

This book is just the right book for any writing teacher looking for infusing their entire day, including literacy time, with more joyful, playful learning: for children, and for teachers.


  • For a chance to win one copy of Purposeful Play: A Teachers Guide to Igniting Deep & Joyful Learning Across the Day please leave a comment on this post by Sunday, May 22nd, 11:59 p.m. EDT. A random number generator will be used to pick the winner.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid email address when you post your comment, so we can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the email field only. Heinemann will ship to winners in the United States only.
  • If you are the winner of the book, you will receive an email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – PURPOSEFUL PLAY. Please respond to the e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days.