When I got the job at Mighty Oaks I was thrilled, but also nervous to embark on a new type of teaching- a relationship-based, emotionally focused kind of teaching. I was meant to play with the children but also work on their individualized goals. I was meant to follow their lead but also maintain order and discipline in the classroom. By training and through experience teaching in various other environments I was quite traditional. The teacher ran the class and the children followed- very straightforward. Before Mighty Oaks I saw play time as a time when I would get a break. Of course I was aware of the importance of play, but I was not aware just how much progress could be made in areas of peer interaction, language, emotional development, and even academics. For example, if a child tends to act impulsive and aggressive during play with peers, the teacher could mirror real play situations in the classroom through puppets or action figures during playtime. Having a puppet or doll do something a bit naughty is a sure way to get their attention. It could also be fun to ask the child to pretend to be the teacher. That way the child identifies with the puppet but also gains the perspective of the teacher. Similarly, if a child is working on extending reciprocal interaction, the teacher could use pretend play with toys (dolls, stuffed animals, action figures) to demonstrate an appropriate turn-taking conversation. The most important piece of the play is the relationship between teacher and child and the bond that forms in the midst of the play.
When a trained teacher or therapist carefully and intentionally engages herself in play the results will amaze you. Stanley Greenspan said, “Research shows that when we provide children with emotionally relevant learning experiences- in which they are involved and interested and care about what they are learning- they want to learn.” Children care about play. The trick of the trade is to take advantage of this and create a play environment that excites and challenges them by appealing to their unique sense of fun while incorporating individual goals. As the play goes on, the bond between teacher and child grows stronger. This emotional bond forms trust, trust leads to listening to one another and valuing one another. When a tough moment comes and a child needs to be disciplined, it will be much easier on the child when he or she trusts the teacher (or parent). For me, I had to see it in action and experience it for myself to truly understand.