top of page

The benefits of block building: New course explores the theory and importance of playing

Ryan O'Connell / THE GATEPOST

By Ryan O’Connell

Associate Editor

Fifteen students file into Dwight Hall 106.

The room is divided into an outer ring and an inner circle by a semi-circle of desks, so they enter as a queue, one after another.

They split to the left and pass a tall shelf holding dozens of plastic bags categorized by label maker, and along the wall.

Next to them is a cork board, visible only barely through colorful construction paper labeled with age groups, board games, and more. “Childhood Toys” is a light blue, and dotted with the names of doll brands - “Bratz,” “Barbie,” and “Strawberry Shortcake” stick out.

They split to the right and cross a playmat, headed toward two huge windows against the far wall. The early afternoon sun floods the room. Sitting on the windowsills are half-built Legos.

On the desks just before them, there’s an abandoned game of Hungry Hungry Hippos and a stack of colorful plastic rings, ordered largest-to-smallest. All over, there are toys that make Dwight Hall 106 feel slightly reminiscent of a pediatrician’s office.

It’s messy. And even for 15, the room is small.

Luckily for these students - the first ever group to be taking Theory and Practice of Play (CFST 321) at Framingham State University - the room is reserved for only their class this semester. So they don’t need to sing the clean-up song.

Theory and Practice of Play, a concentration course for the child and family studies major, was introduced this fall and is taught this semester by Laura Hudock, a professor of education, who also played a large role in the course’s development.

The class, which Hudock said is adjacent to education, explores classic and contemporary “theories of play,” and their benefits to children.

She added they analyze studies from different fields, such as psychology and education, and discuss the “cognitive and social, physical and emotional” growth influenced by specific types of play, as well as the impact of the environment.

“One way I designed the class, especially the first third of the semester, we were in the weeds of theory, in the weeds of defining play, which students hopefully came to realize … is very ambiguous,” she said.

Hudock, who has been with the University for six years, said planning for the course began sometime during the COVID-19 pandemic, and had taken some time to finalize.

“This particular play course has become part of the core courses for child and family studies majors, as well as those that are taking a CFST minor, they’re able to take this course,” she said.

“So it was the right time, the right semester, the right critical mass of students that it was finally offered,” she added.

Hudock said she took her first play class at Penn State as a doctoral student, which has

influenced the structure of Theory and Practices of Play.

“That was really eye opening for me. I think in my own experiences taking play classes, you have to play. Just, no qualms about that - you have to play in a play class. So that was one of my non-negotiables for this class,” she said.

She added theory can only take students so far, relating the study of play to the study of literacy. She said she thinks students applying and practicing their learning benefits them, especially in how they think critically about the course content.

And the students really do get the chance to apply their learning, she said, as their semester has been split into two distinct phases.

For the first two months, Hudock facilitated play exercises, and modeled how to lead them, she said. From late October to December, she added, the students began to facilitate the in-class play sessions themselves.

Hudock said the student play exercises usually take five, 10, or 15 minutes, but can sometimes absorb most of the class block.

A rock-paper-scissors exercise, for example, took a little over an hour and involved the students playing 25 games with a partner. The pairs recorded the tallies of rocks, papers, scissors, and ties, and analyzed the statistics behind the class's combined results.

Ryan O'Connell / THE GATEPOST

They played another 25 throws of an adaptive version of the game next, which replaced rock, paper, and scissors with superhero names and motions - such as rock being changed to “hulk smash” and paper to “superman flight” - to mimic the behavior of changing elements of a game without adjusting the rules, which is frequently seen in first-graders.

Hudock said it all depends on the play experience chosen by the students. She added these experiences also bring other changes to the regularity of a class schedule - such as requiring a gymnasium to play in.

“Some students wanted everyone to wear rubber soles to class. … In September, we even pulled out the parachute,” she said.

Hudock said that some exercises, however, were designed to be challenging.

She said in the front half of the course, students contemplated how “play = learning” - exploring how young children learn to play, and how play helps them learn.

She said engineering exercises, interestingly enough, such as building a bridge out of index cards, helped students think more critically about this course component, and was a frustrating activity.

Although Hudock said that frustration might have only come from the strong sense of community formed in September.

“That first month of the class was also all about setting community and the tone of the class - for it to be a really supportive environment - and to understand the rather open-ended nature of the class,” she said.

“And I think by developing that particular community in the way that we did, students were more open to those challenges and frustrations,” she added.

During the rock-paper-scissors exercise, that community was hard to miss.

The room was loud with laughter and conversation, even when Professor Hudock was moving the exercise along, but to the benefit of the classroom.

There was a strong sense of community, like she said - shown clearly enough by referencing the “play group chat,” which all of the students used to communicate outside of class.

Hudock said the play course was in part a step toward helping students in the child and family studies major have the opportunity to become child life specialists, a common aspiration for students in the major.

She added the department already offered almost every course required for the job.

“One of the required courses, of the many, is for a particular play class,” said Hudock.

“We have a sociology course, … we have some of those courses already in place. One of the glaring courses we did not have was a play course,” she added.

Hudock said that because of this influence, she made sure to embed content into the course which would benefit students who wanted to become child life specialists.

She said another driving factor for starting the play course was the experiences she had with students while teaching CFST 311, a class focused on the language development and early literacy of preschoolers.

“I was discovering that our students needed a deeper background in play theory to really understand why socio-dramatic play happens in preschool,” she said.

“We knew there was a need for it, we knew there was an interest in it, and it’s always been kind of a thrill of mine to explore play,” she added.

Hudock said some of the challenges of teaching Theory and Practice of Play have been identifying topics of research that students will enjoy exploring.

She said these topics were usually introduced by guest specialists - the most recent one by the director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Framingham.

She added, in future sections, she wants to invite more specialists from an even greater range of work.

Hudock said her students are currently creating “play inquiries,” a sort of final project where they each study a form of play, and she’s learning a lot about who to invite to the classroom next year based on their research topics.

She said, “Some students, as we’re going through this, they’re starting to think about - ‘Do I want to become a PE teacher one day?’ And so what if I could bring in someone to talk to that possibility?”

The other final project for Theory and Practice of Play students is their big event - Play Fest.

On Friday, Dec. 8, the Dwight Hall gym hosted the play class, where various game stations were set up for students and faculty to engage with.

These stations included a Lego building contest judged by children at the on-campus early childhood centers, bracelet making, and a rainbow parachute, among others.

Hudock said Play Fest is pretty open-ended, as far as her assignments go.

“It was probably the most vague assignment description I’ve written in all of my syllabi,” she said.

She added Play Fest was designed and organized entirely by the students, who extended what they learned to the campus community, while she helped with facilitation and gathering necessary materials.

Hudock said one of her favorite play experiences her students participated in this semester was modeling socio-dramatic play.

She said students had read a theory-heavy article and a practitioner’s article on the subject in preparation for the question, “How do we scaffold make-believe play in a preschool classroom?”

Hudock added the students used a “PRoPEL” model - which stands for plan, roles, props, extended time frame, language, and scenario, breaking make-believe play situations into specific groups.

She said this included scripting the play, understanding the rules - a pretend chef shouldn’t sit down to order food at the pretend restaurant - and discovering how and what they would use as symbolic props.

Hudock said the students performed their scenarios, which included the dining room of a Friendly’s and a visit to a doctor’s office.

“It was so funny because they used whatever props and materials we had on hand in the classroom - so they took a squeeze stress ball and pretended that was like the blood pressure ball,” she said.

“It was so funny because really what they were doing was they were looking at the idea of a symbolic prop, and thinking about the cognitive stage of development of a child,” she added.

Hunter Dansereau, a senior child and family studies major, said the play class has been fun and engaging.

Dansereau said the class plays at least one game every session, which helps them understand what play looks like from infancy to the adult level.

He said he was surprised by the structure of the class, and initially thought it would be more lecture and notes-heavy. “I did not think it would be hands-on learning,” he said.

Dansereau said he thinks the course is very helpful, as it helps him understand what children need to develop - which he said is important in the work he hopes to do as a social worker or child life specialist.

He said his takeaway from the course is to never stop playing.

“Let yourself play,” he added. “Never be ashamed of letting yourself have fun.”

Shelby Roode, a junior child and family studies major, said the class is important for anyone interested in early childhood, preschool, or elementary school.

“That’s important to see how kids use their imagination and use other resources - that’s play to them,” she said.

Roode said there's some uncertainty whenever she comes to class.

“You don’t really know what you’re doing, but you know that you’re going to play a game of some sort,” she added.

She said they mostly play children’s games, and study the games, how they relate to play, what type of play they fall under, and how they affect children, especially from young ages.

Roode said she thinks the play course is important because play isn’t prioritized in young children.

“We’re built in a society that’s - from a young age, you’re just doing school and getting homework assignments immediately. So learning how important play is and how it should be such a vital thing for young kids to do is really important,” she said.

However, she added you don’t have to be young to play. “Everyone has a different definition on it.”

Roode said she participated in the friendship bracelet table at Play Fest, which served as a way for people to still play without getting involved in any of the more competitive games.

People assume play means you need to be running and jumping, she said, but choosing to work quietly can still be called play, as long as it’s fun.

“Play is supposed to be fun,” she said.

Roode added the friendship bracelet table helped show people that play comes in different forms.

She said the play journal has been a fun homework assignment.

“One thing I did was do a 1,000-piece puzzle for my first one, and that took me so long,” she said. “Like, I had to recruit some of my roommates to come help me and stuff.”

She added the journal means students get to do some fun stuff alongside typical coursework, like papers, and acts as a nice break before diving into other assignments.

Leticia Rita Santos, a junior child and family studies major, is one of the 15 students taking the play class this semester.

Santos said the class is entertaining, but is more educational than people might assume.

“I think that a lot of people, when they hear that I’m taking a play class, they’re like, ‘OK, so you’re just sitting down and playing with blocks for two hours.’ And it’s like, yes, but no. There’s more to it - we’re learning about how to play with blocks,” she said.

Santos said the play class allows her to both learn and experience play.

“It's a very dual-formed experience in the sense that we’re having fun but we’re also getting a lot of information out of it,” she said.

She added a lot of her classmates are studying to become educators, and emphasized there’s no learning without play - the two are intertwined.

Santos said her favorite exercise in the class was one done in the first few weeks, where everyone sat in a circle, including Hudock, who passed a roll of duct tape to someone sitting next to her.

“This is not a roll of duct tape,” she said. “This is a doughnut.”

Santos said students then had to take turns accepting the tape, declaring it to be something nobody had said yet, and passing it on.

“It’s not a roll of duct tape, it’s a cupcake. It’s not a cupcake, it’s a wheel to a very tiny bus,” she said. “And it just kept getting more and more obscure, but it really worked our imagination.”

This exercise, she said, also helped contribute to the friendly atmosphere of their classroom.

Santos said she sees the class as somewhat helpful for her desired career, a social worker involving the Deaf community, or in a Deaf school.

She said if she does work in a Deaf school, using play will be an important method of relieving stress and communicating with students, which she understands better now due to the class.

Santos said she worked in the Lego section at Play Fest, and facilitated people building with them.

She added the section was set up to have people in a competition to build the most realistic-looking food from the blocks, which were then judged by children from the early childhood center.

She said she thinks the exercise helped relax students and allowed the children to have fun, as they interacted with the college community.

Santos said the Lego section reminds her of their study of block play in class.

“Kids will start just putting them in a pile and trying to make the pile bigger and bigger, and then it’ll turn into making them into lines, before a child can finally realize it needs symmetry, and it needs equal weight on both sides and stuff like that,” she said.

“And then it becomes actual enclosures and other things like that,” she added. “And I think that will definitely also appear in Lego play in kids.”

Santos said homework in the play course has been interesting. One of her most recent assignments, she said, followed a visit from someone who designs playgrounds for the city of Framingham.

She said the guest talked about taking safety and child experiences into account, and how they actually formulate the playground.

“Then we had to go to a playground, any playground, … and describe it and rate it. Because different things - like wood chips - used to be very common in playgrounds, but now it’s seen as a worse option because of the choking hazard and also the inaccessibility to wheelchair access,” she said.

Santos said her big takeaway from the class has been that play never stops.

She added she has also been keeping a play journal for the class, which has made her more aware of the different ways she likes to play, and to track if she’s playing enough.

“We never really lose that ability [to play] in growing up, we just name it different things,” she said.


Commenting has been turned off.
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
bottom of page