The need for play: In a world of tests and stress, Muskegon Public Schools kindergarten program aims to bring joy to learning

Nelson Elementary School kindergartners participate in the district’s “Learn Through Play” class.

“Excellent job, ninjas!” Jennifer Gill says as a group of 15 small children sporting eye masks run around a Nelson Elementary School classroom, perfecting their kicks while clearing hurdles in an obstacle course.

As they make their way throughout the space that Gill has transformed into a “ninja school” last Thursday, the Nelson kindergartners complete math problems, work on vocabulary, and, as they wind down, practice mindfulness.

“Watch me! I’m a ninja!” one student yells as she completes an addition problem and proceeds to clamor through a tunnel set up as part of the obstacle course. As she emerges, the child lifts her hands in victory.

“I’m going to ninja school!” the student says as she completes a dramatic twirl.

This hour-long session with the Nelson students—one of 13 “Learn Through Play” classes Gill teaches throughout Muskegon Public Schools—is, for a ninja school, amazingly orderly. There are a couple timeouts, but those are short-lived. For the most part, the students are endless balls of energy gleefully helping one another with math problems, shining flashlights on vocabulary words that are hidden around the room, reading “Ninja Red Riding Hood,” and more.

A Nelson Elementary student participates in the ninja obstacle course.

“We’ve lost in kindergarten, in the state and countrywide, the need for play,” Gill says following the “Learn Through Play” class. “These kids are getting drilled and tested and they’re coming to us now not knowing how to interact. They don’t know how to play and share.”

“Play and learning go hand-in-hand; they are not separate,” Gill continues. “They’re intertwined. You can think of the class like a science lab, and play is the lab.”

Five years ago, when the school district first approached Gill about creating a program that focused on language, the educator quickly realized that a play-based curriculum would be beneficial for extra support with both reading and math. Now, she provides the “Learn Through Play” curriculum to all Muskegon Public School kindergarten students, including four classes at Marquette Elementary, two at Lakeside, two at Moon, two at Nelson, and three at Oakview.

Nelson Elementary students work together on a math problem.

After nearly two decades of an increased focus on testing following the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, educators across the country have lamented a loss of play in schools—especially in light of the fact that research routinely shows play is crucial when it comes to developing both social and academic skills. The National Association for the Education of Young Children in 2009 named play as a “central component in developmentally appropriate education practices,” and the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has recognized play as a fundamental right of every child. The American Academy of Pediatrics too credits play for its ability to build confidence, resilience and conflict resolution skills. And a wide range of academic research backs the need for play: a 2015 study published in the Journal of Early Childhood Research, for example, found that “in addition to improving play skills and narrative language ability,” play-based curriculum has “a positive influence on the acquisition of grammar.”

“When you’re moving, everything’s easier to remember and it’s more meaningful,” Gill says. “That’s how kids learn, not just by paper and pencil. This is how a kindergartner’s day should mostly be. It’s why behaviors are out of control these days. We should be using imagination, using what they’re interested in, having fun.”

With a play-based curriculum, Gill emphasizes, students are learning how to interact with peers, cultivating creativity, developing emotional intelligence, and building empathy.

“Play is joyous,” the teacher says. “It provides an outlet for anxiety and stress; the children are happier. The best part is when they leave, and they’re so grateful and have had so much fun. We need to get more of that into the classroom.”

Throughout the various elementary schools, Gill says she’s seen significant behavioral change when children have access to play.

“Students comes to school stressed, and they may not have the games at home or the parents who have time to play; parents are working third shift and are exhausted,” she says. “Play is a stress reliever; they’re laughing with their friends so hard. There’s real joy.”

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Incorporating joy and play into learning not only helps students to look forward to school, improve their academic skills and better connect them with their peers, it too is a piece of working with a population experiencing trauma in Muskegon County. Nearly one in three residents has experienced some kind of childhood trauma, according to a HealthWest study of 2,252 Muskegon County residents—more than twice the national rate.

With the “Learn Through Play” curriculum, students learn how to identify and cope with a wide range of negative emotions, Gill notes.

“During the last 10 minutes of the class, I do mindfulness: yoga, breathing techniques,” she says. “We try to give them chill skills they can use in life. They’re learning how to deal with anger and sadness.”

As the Nelson class winds down last week, students, still donning their ninja masks, sit in a circle and, together, say:

“I wish for you to have joy in your heart.”

Then, they stand, laugh and wave to their teacher as they leave ninja school.

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with Anna by emailing or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

One thought on “The need for play: In a world of tests and stress, Muskegon Public Schools kindergarten program aims to bring joy to learning

  • April 6, 2019 at 11:27 am

    Remarkable story; truly remarkable teacher. Thank you, Jennifer Gill, for your passion and dedication for the children of Muskegon.


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