How to Make Time for Play in Kindergarten

Photo of girl holding clock. Text says "How to Make Time for Play in Kindergarten."

“Play is the work of the child,” stated Maria Montessori. She saw how play was the foundation for learning in young children. I currently work as a K-1 literacy interventionist – a role that is highly focused on academic achievement for children. However, I am a VERY strong advocate for play in early childhood classrooms, including kindergarten. When I taught kindergarten, I always included a solid chunk of “play time” in my day because I value its role in child development. I provided lots of different play activities, but a favorite was the dramatic play center (which I changed to a new theme every month.) I felt it was critical to include time for dramatic play in my classroom because I recognize the social and academic benefits of imaginary play.

However, in many classrooms today, teachers struggle to find time for play in kindergarten. The high academic expectations and intense curriculum demands leave little time for play. But with some creative scheduling, teachers can make play a regular part of their classroom routine.

Photo of young girl playing with play dough.

I have a lot to teach. How much time for play do I need?

There is not a clear cut answer to this question, but it is typically most effective to allow at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. This provides children time to become engaged in their play theme and encounter problems that they can solve creatively. This cooperative problem solving is powerful for young learners. 

30 minutes a day! How is that possible?

Like I said, you will have to be creative in your scheduling to pull this off, but it is possible. By building it into my routines and consolidating some activities, I was able to find 30 minutes a day (4 days a week) in a half-day kindergarten program. It took a lot of intentional planning, but it was worth it. If you are feeling crunched for time, start by considering your schedule. Where can you add play to your current routines? Which activities can you consolidate to find a few extra minutes? Keep reading for more details.

Build it into your current routine.

Think about your current schedule. There might be some places where you could make some small changes that would help you fit in 30+ minutes of play time in kindergarten. Even a few days a week is better than no play time.

Provide a Soft Start

In many schools, students stagger in over a window of time. This is often due to buses arriving at slightly different times. School may not start until 20 minutes after the first child enters the building. If your school serves breakfast, that might add another 10-15 minutes to the staggered entry. Many teachers fill this time with “morning work” worksheets or activity bins. Consider offering a “soft start” to your day, and allowing students to use the dramatic play center or other play areas in your classroom. Children will love starting the day with a fun, low-pressure activity. (And you will love NOT finding new table tasks for each day.)

Photo of a puzzle that is partially completed.

Create an Uneven Schedule

Personally, I love having my classroom schedule the same five days a week. But sometimes I need to sacrifice that easy schedule to provide what my students need, in this case, play time! You might find 20-30 minutes a few days a week by making some small shifts. And a few days a week is better than nothing! Here are some ways you might add play time with an uneven schedule:

  • alternate science/social studies instruction with play time (teach science/social studies one day, and have play time the other)
  • alternate outdoor recess with indoor play time (if you are fortunate enough to have an extra recess every day!)
  • meet with 4 small groups one day and 2 small groups the next (to make time for play on alternating days)
  • have a longer math lesson one day and a shorter math lesson the next (and add play time on the short math days)

As you look at your schedule, you may find some other ways to tweak your current routine a bit to squeeze in play time at least a few days a week. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments!

Consolidate Some Activities.

Sometimes our shedules include important activities that sometimes take a bit more time than they really need. By consolidating or shortening some of these activities, you might find time for kids to visit the dramatic play center after all. Here are a few ideas:

Switch up your brain breaks.

Do you do a lot of brain breaks during your day? See if you can switch your schedule a bit to provide some natural movement breaks, rather than stopping for 3-4 minute dance videos. Alternate time at tables with time on the floor, building in natural movement. For instance, after finishing some table work, call students back to the floor for the next direction (or a story). Add more movement by asking them to hop, march, take giant steps, etc. as they move. They can do the same movement as they return to their table spots for the next task.

Shorten your calendar time.

Some classrooms have 20-30 minutes of calendar time. First, that’s a long time for little ones to sit! Second, you could shorten it and add ten minutes to your play time. How do you do that? You might need to alternate some activities. If your students can count to 10, don’t practice counting the days at the month. Some days you can sing the days of the week song; other days do the months of the year song. One day read the calendar pattern; the next, practice math facts. But don’t do it all every day. Use your assessments to identify calendar math skills  your students already know and drop that from your calendar routine (or only do it once in a while.) You may be able to cut out 5-10 minutes. As an added bonus, your students are sitting for a shorter chunk of time!

Be intentional with rest time (if you have it).

I have typically had a much-needed quiet time in my room for 20-30 minutes in the fall (and some kids actually fell asleep regularly.) By later in the year, I have been able to shorten or eliminate it, depending on the class. That opened up a sizable chunk of my day for instruction or longer play time! You might be able to create time by doing the same.

Tighten up transitions.

This looks different in every room, but there are often ways to tighten up transition times. Some examples include:

  • set a timer for cleaning up tasks and getting to the carpet (make it a challenge)
  • practice and practice routines that have multiple steps so students do them efficiently (and without asking what to do next)
  • in snowy weather, have kids leave their shoes on the carpet instead of in lockers – you can read or give directions while they put shoes on (plus it decreases dilly-dallying at lockers!)
  • shorten your morning/arrival routine
  • shorten your end of the day routine
  • attach snack to play time, so kids can transition to play time once they finish eating
  • check your mini-lesson length – I know I tend to talk WAY too much!
  • change from whole class bathroom breaks to individuals going when needed
Photo of backpacks on a table at the end of the day.

There are no clear answers when it comes to tight classroom transitions. You will need to reflect a bit on your day and notice when you or your students seem to be inefficient with time. Stop and think about what is making it hard for the students: Too many steps? Bodies in the way? A traffic jam at the storage shelf? Then think if there are some small changes you can make to your expectations or your classroom arrangement that will make transitions easier.

It’s your turn to find time for play in kindergarten!

Early childhood teachers know the value of play in child development. But they face administrative pressure to cram in lots of academics! As teachers, we need to find the balance between academic learning and social learning. Preserving time for play in kindergarten (dramatic play, block center, sensory table, etc.) is one way to accomplish that balance. Hopefully these suggestions help you find ways to increase the play time in your kindergarten classroom! Please add to the comments ways you have made time for play time.

Text: "How to Make Time for Play in Kindergarten." Photo of a young girl holding a clock.
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