The STS Blog

Empowering Students Through Play
St. Thomas School

Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of The Builder, this article explores the role of play in learning and skill development.

At STS, we are committed to finding new and innovative ways to inspire our students. Many of these efforts result in children taking an active role in their lives and communities. Each age group participates in projects that have proven successful in teaching students through play. Today, we’ll look at how teachers of three different grades empower students to express themselves, grow creatively and strategically, and become leaders.

Beginning in preschool, STS students are encouraged to look inward to find the strength and skills they need to succeed.

Six years ago, preschool teacher Karen Szillat started a talent show project with her 3-4 year old students. “It started with two students who carpooled together writing a rap on their way to school that they wanted to share with me,” Szillat recalls. “I encouraged them to share it with their classmates and once they did, everyone wanted to participate. But rather than everyone learning the same rap, we explored ways each student could perform something they were good at.”

And so The Talent Show was born. Every year, preschool classmates and their parents enjoy each child’s 3-4 minute performance. This show exhibits the public speaking skills of even our smallest students. Studies show that a high percentage of people fear public speaking more than death.

STS teachers Szillat and Ilana Matt hypothesize that much of this fear occurs because children are only given opportunities to speak in public as adolescents.

“By teaching young children public speaking before they catch fears from other people, we can prevent roadblocks in the future,” Matt explains. “We get them used to that environment and develop a joy around sharing. That joy will help them when they have to use these skills to speak in situations they’re less excited about.”

These skills are exhibited in each child’s performance and during a short Q&A session after the act.

In addition to what happens on stage, children also exhibit new skills as respectful audience members. Abilities adults often take for granted, like waiting for your turn, asking thoughtful questions, or sitting and watching others, are showcased during the event as well.

However, the final show is just one piece of the program’s total effect on children. Parents come for the show, but preschool students and teachers work toward that big performance every day. “A lot of it is low key,” says Szillat. “It involves a lot of practice and growth over weeks and weeks. Everyone gets 3-4 minutes on stage, but they put in hours of preparation.” This preparation involves working on the basic building blocks of education like cognitive skills, planning skills, and language skills.

The project begins with each student deciding what their talent will be.

“As any parent of a 3 or 4 year old can tell you, these kids have no problem knowing what they’re good at,” laughs Karen, “but The Talent Show encourages them to think about how they can present a skill they already have on stage. A lot of them don’t realize that they have something worthwhile to show people. Little children are often only told, ‘You’re little’ or, ‘You’re cute.’ This project expands their ideas of what they can be.”

To accomplish this restructuring of students’ self-images, teachers use titles that children are familiar with, but may never have applied to their own identities before. Singer, scientist, dancer, or athlete are all examples. “We teach them that they don’t have to wait until they’re a grown-up to influence the world, inspire people, and be a good role model,” Szillat clarifies. “These identifiers put their skills in a bigger context,” Matt adds.

Of course, performing takes more than just choosing something you can do. Children get comfortable using a microphone by walking around class to ask questions. They practice their talent one on one, in a small group, in front of the class, and finally on stage. 

Lastly, the preschool talent show gives students the tools they need to prepare for the unexpected. “Two weeks out, we discuss what it is like to be a supportive audience member. How do you act if something goes wrong? If your shoe falls off? If they get scared? Children are taught it is okay to ask for help, like inviting a friend on stage as support, but also it is okay to offer help.” If someone trips and falls, children can whisper, “I believe in you!” No matter what their role is, they learn they can be powerful and make decisions.

These lessons extend to teachers and parents as well. “Parents often want to jump in and make everything perfect. As parents and teachers, we have to learn that things don’t always go as planned, but that doesn’t mean that something is ruined,” Szillat elaborates. The process of problem solving and the child’s autonomy are important. Szillat also explains that the Talent Show teaches parents that success comes in many forms: “Even the most confident kids can lose confidence, and everyone has to be prepared for dealing with that.”

Empowering students with life skills continues as they move through STS.

While the preschool talent show focuses on building internal skills, third graders are learning how to see themselves in a global community. To this end, the third grade class builds a Gingerbread Town at the same time as schools around the world.

The project started with The Microsoft Community of Educators collaborating on a single project. As a Microsoft Showcase School, STS is always looking for opportunities to use technology to broaden our students’ world views. Through video sharing, students can celebrate their creations with schools from Kansas to Chili. However, the process of planning and building their towns also teaches collaboration, problem solving, creative thinking, storytelling, and other STEM lessons.

Amy McGraw has been leading the Gingerbread Town project for years. “Obviously, what they want to build is not always the outcome. A lot of students come into the project saying ‘I want to build a mansion.’ But once we talk about what it takes to build a functioning community, kids start suggesting water treatment plants, for instance. A lot of thinking goes into what communities need to support each other and work. They take it to a much deeper level than the superficial.”

To solidify these planning skills, McGraw incorporate real-life scenarios, like building permits and blueprints. Every building proposed by a student requires a building permit that the student fills out and then presents to their group. The groups also create blueprints for buildings and neighborhoods.

Teaching collaboration at this age is so important because students are  just beginning to learn about the world outside of themselves. By instilling a process that requires approval and input from their peers, students are challenged to explain their reasoning. They also have to work with ideas outside of their own.

Considering others extends to thinking of people outside of the students’ socio-economic circle. For example, students are  asked to consider homeless people, sick people, and elderly people. By increasing their awareness of those outside their social circle, students want to solve big, real-world problems and start thinking about solutions by applying them to their neighborhood plans.

This project does not rely completely on group activities, however. While planning neighborhoods takes collaboration, building their piece of it is an individual process. Not surprisingly, students’ plans for buildings are grandiose in the beginning stages. “Their imaginations are so vivid. This project helps them learn the powers and the limitations of internal imagination by applying it to the real world,” says McGraw. Practical creativity and creative problem solving are just as important as an active imagination. For instance, many students’ plans look great on paper, but the graham cracker buildings become so heavy they tip over. They learn to see failure as part of the learning process in order to create a building that works in real life.

The final result is an impressive Gingerbread Town. The neighborhoods come together the night of the winter concert, where all STS students and parents can enjoy it. Using the playful project,  students feel motivated and engaged.

The sharing doesn’t end with the winter concert, either. As an international program, the class makes a video and shares it with schools around the world. Students can share and compare their final product, but also their process. “Next year we’re hoping to work with classrooms in Chili, and we’re looking forward to sharing with other communities more and more as the technology evolves,” McGraw says. Communication through this technology empowers students to share their ideas with strangers who share common interests.

Interacting with classmates shifts from the physical space to shared digital spaces in middle school.

Middle school Humanities teacher Jenna Gareis uses video games to teach complex historical events, particularly with the popular game Minecraft. “Minecraft is such an open platform,” explains Gareis. “Worlds can start with a completely blank slate and I love to see what the students can and will do with so much unscripted opportunity.” Creating scripts around historical events helps students understand how personal motives affect groups of people, even on a global scale. With this approach, students can better grasp complex historical and political times, like The Cold War.

Each student is assigned a particular historical figure to study and “become."  Linear time is suspended during the Minecraft Project, so Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, Ronald Reagan, Mao Zedong, and Joseph McCarthy can all live and interact with each other within the Minecraft world. By allowing each student to play an influential figure with conflicting or competitive goals to their classmates, they can compare and contrast personas, ideologies, and events outside of linear historical context.

Each student creates two secret and historically-accurate goals for their character to accomplish in the Minecraft world. “For example, Marx might want to hold weekly meetings with laborer characters to preach a future free of tyranny or Stalin might want to build an army (of sheep). The options are pretty endless.” Each student’s secret goals are sealed in an envelope only to be opened on the last day of game play.

While the characters’ goals are created individually, students take a collaborative approach creating their Minecraft world’s map and rules of play. As a result of having this amount of power and control in the game, compromises, deals, and alliances begin forming in the earliest planning stages.

The first day focuses on building their world and practicing staying in character. “On day two, I throw some history at them,” says Gareis with relish. “For example, I might tell the groups that they need to incorporate an iron curtain that now separates one side from the other, so they can no longer travel or communicate from side to side. I also use these daily challenges to foreshadow some topics we’ll study in depth outside of the Minecraft project like The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Space Race, and the Vietnam and Korean wars.”

At the end of each day of game play, students write a journal entry in the voice of their historical figure detailing the events of the day, interactions with other historical figures in their world, and progress or setbacks pertaining to their secret goals. Regularly and creatively documenting what they learned not only establishes basic note-taking skills, but also contextualizes individual events into a larger picture, manages goal-setting, and builds planning skills. Students are also encouraged to incorporate screen shots into their entries when appropriate, which teaches them how to use technology and visual aids as part of a proof-of-concept.

On the final day of play, their characters’ goals are revealed to each other. Then each student writes an essay detailing what they understand the Cold War to be about and how it occurred.

“This material can be pretty dry,” Gareis admits. “So it becomes much more real and impactful when history is condensed into the actions and personalities of representative figures and events. Add the empathetic factor of role playing and the sheer fun factor, and you have students learning, applying, retaining, synthesizing, evaluating, and creating on levels I could never hope to attain through a PowerPoint and note-taking.”

As a result, lesson retention is much higher when the students enjoy what they’re learning.

“It’s also just really fun to see how amazed students are that a game can be educational and that history can be a game. Understanding how interconnected characters were in their video game helps them draw connections between the effects of the World Wars on the Cold War.” Drawing connections between previous lessons also helps them realize that history is continuous and each action we take matters on a bigger scale.

Regardless of their age, empowering students takes creativity, support, and trust.

Students are most receptive to learning and leading when they want to participate. Making lessons fun is an essential component to that equation. Playing provides endless opportunities for teaching life skills to students who want to learn.