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The work of play: What parents and educators need to know

Omaira Column Pic

Omaira Alam –

The past couple of weeks I have been teaching at the Ramadan school, a child-enrichment program offered at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe – ICC – for children whose parents would like a chance to pray tarawih in peace.

I was specifically recruited to help in designing and implementing a program for the 6- to 8-year-olds. Each day, post-iftar, I head to the mosque to deliver a thoughtful lesson related to Islam, fasting, Ramadan and all things good and holy. One of the key elements of my lessons, and a very necessary component is play; unstructured opportunities for free play within the larger structure of the lesson.

Parents and educators balk at the thought of not having students spend time “constructively” through early reading, writing and math programs; through having every minute accounted for; through teacher-directed lessons that control the child’s every movement. At the root of this – and not just for the Ramadan school – is the fear that our child will fall behind, not know enough, and not be good enough to compete and be successful in today’s world.

Fair enough.

One of the big pieces coming from a large body of research is the detrimental effect of starting too early, too soon with a curriculum with an overly academic focus. Even the State of Arizona recognizes the need to delay formal education until age 8, and allows parents and caregivers to submit an affidavit stating such.

The late Fred Rogers of the popular children’s television show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” said:

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

Last month’s column focused on the concept of creativity and its place in the Islamic school classroom. For early elementary there is no better way to harness and exercise the creativity muscle, than by incorporating essential opportunities for play. Embracing this philosophy requires some practical considerations:

Invite opportunities for play.

Have a section of the classroom or home that has enough space for large and small play adventures. Feel free to leave out materials like large cardboard boxes that may invite more opportunities for play. Also include open-ended toys.

Get out of the way.

Once you’ve set things up, get out of the way. For some, stepping back and away from our children, to let their imaginations run amok, is tantamount to complete chaos. But children need that freedom to really hone not just their creative skills, but also their skills in problem solving, critical thinking and social behavior, as well as their ability to focus and concentrate. Yes, unstructured play does all that.

Focus on process, not product.

More than what their end product will be, children learn a lot from the process of play. If we focus too much on the completion of the play-task, we and the children miss out on what actually matters: all the learning that takes place between beginning and end.

Don’t look for logical conclusions.

Don’t look for things that make sense to adults. Allow the play to evolve naturally, to move from one element to the next, from one story to the next. You’ll be amazed at what children come up with when you let go a little.

Let things get a little out of control.

Without conjuring up images of Elsa and her sister in “Frozen,” let it go. What may look like complete chaos, has a sequence for children. This loosening of the reins so to speak allows children to focus better when they need to in a classroom.

Take it outside.

Nothing says play like the outdoors. The benefits of nature-based play are too many to list. Bring elements of the outside in, if you can’t go outside.

As educators and parents, everything we do is in the best interest of the child. It helps if we look at the importance of unstructured, free play opportunities through the eyes of a child, and watch them widen in wonder and amazement.

Omaira Alam is the Program Director of the Islamic Teacher Education Program ( She spent the last year serving as the Education Director on the Noor Academy of Arizona School Board.  She holds a master’s degree in special education with a focus on students with emotional and learning disabilities. With almost 20 years of experience in teaching and teacher training, she has presented on topics related to Islamic education in the United States and Canada. Her blog, Black Board, White Chalk (, explores traditional and contemporary issues in education. She lives in the greater Phoenix area with her husband, Josh, and their two children who are homeschooled.

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