No one right way to play: A chat with the 'Modern Learning Mom' Jessica Frost

We've been fans of Jessica's play-based learning Instagram for years (worth a follow, trust us!) and we were tickled when she agreed to sit down for a chat with us. Beyond her brilliant eye for fun activities and design, she's also an Instructional Coach with the Peel District School Board, an elementary school teacher, and mom to a, frankly, way-too-adorable preschooler. Read on to hear her thoughts on inexpensive ways to bring play into learning, positive screen time and how her son has taken to the creative activities she shares on her blog.

Tell us a bit about yourself, and your transition from classroom teacher to your current role (or should we say roles!)

I'm a mom of a curious and spunky preschooler, an Ontario Certified Teacher teacher with a Masters of Teaching and certifications in primary, junior and intermediate divisons, and an educational leader for Curriculum and Instruction Support Services at the Peel District School Board. I taught elementary school before moving into leadership roles that re-focused my work from teaching students to coaching teachers. In my current role, I work alongside administrators and teachers to implement initiatives that improve teaching practices and student learning, support numeracy and literacy across the curriculum and am personally passionate about supporting modern learners in the Early Years.

I started my blog and Instagram platform, Modern Learning Mom, to expand my learning community to include parents, guardians and caregivers. I curate play-based learning that’s inspired by research, theory and effective practices for young children. Building and fostering this online learning community empowers educators (including parents!) to learn from each other and develop a deeper understanding of how young children learn best - through exploration, play, and inquiry.

If you could give one piece of advice to another parent who’s looking to incorporate more play-based learning into their lives, what would it be?

Include open-ended materials in your play spaces – and these materials and toys don't need to be expensive! Think toilet paper rolls, rocks, beads, shells, popsicle sticks, etc. Kids can create and build over and over again because there isn’t one right way to play with the materials. I like to organize our loose parts in a tinker tray, which is just a wooden cutlery tray. For larger recyclable items, I like to use clear bins so that the items are visible when playing and creating, but are still organized in inviting ways.

Jessica's spunky son Nicky with an example of a "tinker tray"!

The adorable activities on your blog show that learning through play doesn’t have to be dull, repetitive or rote. Tell us a bit more about your creative process!

My creative process always begins with my son Nicky and is grounded in being responsive to his interests, passions and wonders. I start by observing his play, getting right down on the ground next to him and documenting what he’s saying and doing. Observing children’s play provides you with valuable information into what they’re exploring and thinking. I then consider two pathways when planning. First, I reflect on the different ways I can intentionally respond to Nicky’s play in developmental ways. Second, I use provocations that are often STEAM inspired to spark his interests, provoke deep thinking, and hopefully lead to more questions and further exploratory learning.

For example, my son Nicholas was playing with his toy animals and had created a zoo for them using open-ended materials. He was pretending to feed his animals popcorn and apples. After about ten minutes of watching him and gathering some materials, I said, “Here are 5 different plates with different amounts of popcorn on them (we just used some glass beads we had). Can you find the plate with 3 pieces of popcorn and feed it to zebra?” We continued this playful game until he had counted numbers 1 through 5 and fed his different animals. I could have easily asked my son to count to five, have given him different objects and asked him to count them, or had him connect numbers to quantities on a worksheet, but I doubt he would have even engaged in that type of learning. By meeting him where he’s at and engaging him through his type of play, I was able to create a learning invitation that allowed him to explore counting and quantity relationships in an engaging way.

How has your son responded to play-based learning?

He loves it! There isn’t a struggle to engage him in learning when he’s playing, as this is how learning happens naturally in the early years. All kids are naturally curious and want to explore, play, and inquire. When Nicky is playing, his brain is primed for learning and, when I use his play as the starting point to provide responsive instruction, I’m most likely to move him forward in his learning.

Nicky, having way too much fun with play-based learning

Does screen time factor into your play-based learning lesson plans? If so, any tips on keeping a healthy balance?

Absolutely! Our kids are growing up in a digital era and we can leverage technology to teach and foster 21st century competencies such as creativity and innovation, collaboration, communication, and problem solving. Using technology can also increase engagement: there are so many amazing ways kids can learn, create and innovate using different digital tools. I think the key to keeping a healthy balance is making sure kids are actively creating or doing something with digital tools, rather than being passive. There’s a difference between passively watching YouTube videos versus watching a YouTube video to learn how to make or do something. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes my son likes to passively watch Youtube videos, like you would watch television, but we’ve made a compromise that he can watch them for 20 minutes and only on weekends. So far that’s working.

Want more inspiration for designing your own play-based learning activities? Read on!

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