Incorporating Play-Based Learning in Writing Workshop at any Age: Starting With What Matters Most




On Friday morning, my family and I got up super early, packed the last few things we needed, and hopped in the car for the long drive south to spend a week on the beach together.

Sounds simple, right? Well, no, not exactly.

In actuality, we spent the previous day cleaning, sorting laundry, tracking down missing items, kid-wrangling, and running last minute errands. By the time we finally hopped in the car, hours of behind the scenes work had taken place.

And, true to form, we hadn’t driven two miles when we realized we had forgotten one important thing – the car was almost out of gas! Thus, we made one last important stop before embarking on our trip.

Preparing for the school year is much like embarking on a journey–a ton of behind the scenes work takes place before the kids even step foot in the classroom. If planning for a family trip takes a lot of work, just multiply that work times one hundred.

And, just like our station wagon before a long drive, a writing workshop needs fuel to run. Before you embark on the adventure that is your school year, you will want to consider: How will you fuel your teaching? What is it that inspires you? Why do you come to work each day? You can choose to fuel your writing workshop in different ways.

Personally, I like to think of the fuel as containing two main ingredients:

  • rigor (expectations, routines, getting stuff done)
  • joy (play, experimentation, curiosity, exploration)

While rigor and high expectations may be key in a highly effective writing workshop — so is joy. In a writing workshop devoted solely to rigor and expectations, children will perhaps continue to write–but they are bound to run out of fuel if the workshop is running only on rigor, and not enough joy.


Infusing our classrooms with curiosity and wonder is a first step toward a more joyful and playful writing workshop. Recently I had the opportunity to gather ideas for fostering curiosity and wonder from an amazing preconference institute at ILA, titled Igniting a Sense of Wonder: Fueling Curiosity, Empowering Learning. A rock star line-up including Georgia Heard, Chris Lehman, Linda Hoyt, Kristin Ziemke, Ellin Keene, Mary Howard, Jennifer McDonnough, Seymour Simon, Doreen Rapport, and Michael Shoulders. They shared an entire day’s worth of amazing ideas. I left the day with my mind spinning with ideas–but also feeling a little overwhelmed. I knew I wouldn’t be successful if I tried to take on everything at once, so I decide to to focus on just a few ideas that felt doable. I decided on Wonder Walls, mindset read-alouds, and a few other key ideas to experiment with this year in my work as a literacy coach and consultant.

Wonder Walls: Set up a white board, or chart, or bulletin board in your classroom (or hallway, or even in the staff room for adults) where kids and/or adults are invited to write questions and wonderings of all kinds. I plan to model my own questions all the time, encouraging other teachers to do the same.

Curiosity, Wonder, & Play Mindset Read-Alouds: I plan to infuse my work with books with the theme of wonder and curiosity and facilitate discussions about curiosity with teachers and students alike. A few great titles: What Do You Do With an Idea? and What Do You Do With A Problem? by Kobi Yamada; The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires; Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty.


Writing partnerships provide a consistent structure for all kinds of play-based work inside writing workshop. Within the Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (by Lucy Calkins & Colleagues), we coauthors built in many minilessons that could lend themselves to joyful, play-based work. Some of those minilessons fall into several categories:

Drama: Writing partners can be taught different ways to dramatize their work. From simply reading with very dramatic voices, to using props like popsicle stick puppets, blocks from the block center, a pretend microphone for reading your work to your partner, or construction paper cutouts.

Games: Writing partners can invent games to play with their writing. Turning the task of checking high frequency words into an impromptu word search, seeing who can come up with the most compliments, using a spinner to decide who is going to read what – these are all ways to infuse gaming into your writing workshop.


Writing workshop is inherently based on choice: choice of topic, choice of which strategies to apply, choice of how to move from one stage of a writing process to the next — even inventing one’s own process along the way.

Some classrooms also expand the choices to more obvious play-based options, by making use of choice time centers during writing workshop at various stages within a unit of study.

Blocks: Big blocks and table top blocks offer endless possibilities for supporting writing work–from dramatizing scenes using the blocks as basics puppets and props, to stacking the blocks as a strategy for turn taking in a conversation (each partner adds a block each time they add to the conversation), to creating a 3D representation of the setting to better envision or remember a scene for writing.  Kids are geniuses at finding ways to utilize blocks to support and extend their work as writers.

Art and/or Maker Spaces: The art center or maker space that might normally be reserved for a separate “choice time” can be opened up as an option during writing workshop, offering various materials to turn writing time into true book-making time.

Dramatic Play: Perhaps your classroom already has an area (or two) devoted to dramatic play. (Upper grade teachers, this includes you!) Maybe you have a corner filled with costumes and hats or props; or perhaps a puppet or doll corner, or stop-action movie making center. You might invite groups of children to sit among the puppets, dolls, or props during writing workshop and allow them to use the materials to storytell their ideas before writing them down, or to dramatize a draft they’ve been working on. Even if you don’t have a designated area, a simple basket of open-ended props can spark ideas and inspire kids to play with their ideas for writing (and yes, even older kids love to dramatize and role play).


Whether it is creating a space in your classroom for curiosity and wonder, or fostering joyful partnership work, or opening up more play-based choices, finding something that inspires you in your teaching will be the key to fostering joy and a spirit of play in this year’s writing workshop.

Starting with What Matters Most in Writing Workshop


  • This giveaway is for one copy of The First Six Weeks of School, 2nd Edition. Many thanks to Responsive Classroom for donating a copy of this book.
  • For a chance to win one copy of The First Six Weeks of School, 2nd Edition, please leave a reaction to any post in the blog series, including this one, by Sunday, May 8th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Dana Murphy will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce in our blog series’ IN CASE YOU MISSED IT POST on Tuesday, August 9th at 11:59 p.m. EDT.
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