Ask the Expert: Interrupting Free Play

by Shannon Ford, Paths to QUALITY Coach

As I walk into the preschool classroom, I see children organized neatly in learning centers during free play; some are playing with the blocks, some are cooking dinner in home living, some are creating a collage at the table, and the others are squeezing and rolling play dough. Conversations are comfortable and children are engaged.

Then IT happens. The buzzer on the timer goes off and the children must now move one center to their left. Moans and groans are heard, towers are knocked over loudly, scaring the children who are cleaning up their collage materials, one boy begins to cry because he just put on the doctor’s coat, and two girls begin arguing about who will be the mom when they get to the home living center. The teacher sets the timer for 15 minutes and the children begin to explore and create as they did 15 minutes before.
Scenes like this are playing out in classrooms across the state as teachers continue to interrupt play. But do teachers (and parents, for that matter) understand what happens when play is interrupted?

When we interrupt play, we are telling the children that what I (as the teacher or parent) have planned for you is more important than what children are currently doing. It tells the children that they’ve had plenty of time to build that block tower and they should be done by now. Engagement and creativity are hindered. Problem solving and critical dialogue becomes stalled.
I’m trying to put myself, in my adult role, in the children’s shoes. Imagine me, sitting at my desk checking my emails. I’m responding to a teacher who has a 4 year-old who won’t stay quiet during naptime. All of the sudden, my boss comes in and blows a whistle. She says, “Ok, Shannon, time to get working on that Child Care Online profile.” My mind begins racing: Are you kidding me? But I’m not done; I haven’t answered the teacher’s question. I have 37 more emails to check. But no, my time is up and I must now work on something dictated by someone else. I have been totally interrupted. I am moaning and groaning. I am upset. I am anxious. I am worried. I am stressed. I had such great ideas to share with that teacher. Now I have to work on this Child Care Online profile, which is so boring. Why can’t I just keep responding to my emails?
Long periods of uninterrupted free play give children time to fulfill their needs. Uninterrupted play helps a child feel safe and respected; it helps children trust the adults in their classroom. Finally, uninterrupted play shows children that their ideas matter and they are valued in this classroom community which teachers work so hard to create. Why in the world would we want to interrupt that?

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