English Teaching Resources: Incidentally, that Play-Doh Could Prevent a Homicide

Our “Incidentally” column shares English Teaching Resources & opinions about the state of education, from a teacher who has worked the systems for almost 25 years.

L.L. Barkat is K-12 permanently certified, holds a Masters in English & American Literature from New York University and a Master of Science for Teachers from Pace University, and has taught at every level of education preceding graduate school.

From college teaching of business and group dynamics to elementary teaching at a troubled urban district, from high school teaching at a private Hebrew day school to high school teaching at a leading U.S. public school, then on to K-8 of home educating two daughters (who are now enrolled in accredited distance learning schools for 9-12), Barkat has managed to form a few strong opinions about education along the way—and a whole lot of love for learning that she now pours into the business of Tweetspeak Poetry.


Ivan was on the floor. Again. And this time there was blood. Mikey’s blood. The fight had happened in a split second, in an urban classroom where I taught thirty-two second graders (three with obvious learning disabilities and one with what seemed to be psychosis)—without a classroom aide.

I was eight months pregnant, experiencing premature contractions that were threatening bed rest, and I could not (I thought) afford to quit the job.

I also couldn’t afford to contract a serious disease from blood on the floor, or suffer another blow to my abdomen (mad boys and mad boys’ mothers who tip entire conference tables onto you during a crisis meeting are potentially bad for your unborn baby’s health).

I was desperate. Yes, the district needed huge changes. The teachers needed materials and training and support. But in that moment, with Ivan (and blood) on the floor, I needed only to get this simple slice of time in order.

I tickled Ivan. It was an instinct thing that could have earned me a punch from another boy. But Ivan had a playful side, and he could not resist a tickle, a smile, and a sing-song.

So I tickled him. I smiled. And I sing-songed his name with silly rhymes. His anger dissolved into giggles, and he picked himself up off the floor and agreed to go sit at his desk. I went home, later, to study the power of laughter.

That was Spring. I did end up quitting the job in the Fall, because my newborn began hunger striking in my absence during working hours. Desperation is a good teacher (and a good financial planner). Or it can be.

I never returned to the public school classroom, but I went on to eventually home educate two children right up through high school.

I never forgot Ivan. And laughter became something I organized my own kids’ lives by. I became a different kind of teacher altogether: one who taught mostly through the power of play, one who never issued a single assignment, nor conducted a single test. (My kids did take a once a year standardized test for the fun of it. That’s how they saw it. I never “taught to the test” and just reported the scores to my local school district. I never graded the kids on their regular “school” either. You don’t grade play.) As far as my kids are concerned, the results are now in, and they are garnering mail from ivy league schools.

But let’s go back to Ivan. In too many classrooms today, “Ivan” is still on the floor. And sometimes there is blood to pay.

The problem is surely complex, but it is time for education to lasso the power of play. It is not an option, to my mind, if we know this (and we do now), from play researchers like Dr. Stuart Brown:

I studied murderers in Texas prisons and found that the absence of play in their childhood was as important as any other single factor in predicting their crimes. On the other end, I also documented abused kids at risk for antisocial behavior whose predilection for violence was diminished through play. (p.26, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul)

I can only hope my little Ivan found a way to play as he moved on in life. I can only hope that you’ll take seriously my final statement on the matter: Incidentally, that Play-Doh could prevent a homicide.

play how it shapes the brain english teaching  resources

Related at The Telegraph: Want Your Child to Be a Success? Quit Scheduling and Let Them Play Freely


Teaching Tool: Playing with Play-Doh to Play With Words


1. Play-Doh

2. Class-generated vocabulary (can be kept in a special Word Curious Bucket. Kids can add words to the bucket when they encounter unknown words during silent reading or read alouds.) Or SAT words list.

How to Play

1. Choose a word at random from the Word Curious Bucket or your SAT words list. Define the word, but don’t make anyone write it down (you don’t write the word either; you’re working on getting kids to play with words in their heads and hands).

2. Say the word.

3. Ask kids to say the word with you, straight up. Now ask them to say it with you a few different ways: slowly, whispery, loudly, sadly, quickly, whatever.

4. Take a vote. Based on the word’s meaning, what was the best way to say it, that seemed to really express the word? (Or should another way still be tried?)

5. Ask kids to “say” the word with Play-Doh. This can range from a depiction of the word to how the word sounds to them or how it makes them feel. Let the kids decide the nature of their response.

6. Art show time. Invite kids to share their creations and explain why they sculpted what they did.

7. Now write the word on the board. And write it on a slip of paper that you put into your Word Play Bucket (this is a bucket of words that have been introduced and will be the source of future play activities throughout the year. You never need to test kids on these words. Promise yourself you will not! Testing kills the play and, more often than not, the love.)

Photo by Robert S. Donovan, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing

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  1. Donna says

    Simple slice of time. Beautiful…. and so you modeled mindfulness in addition to so much more. W

    Learning with hands together with mind changes the way people store their memories I think…. It’s not just a word file in the brain. It’s a word/fun/touch/smell/hear/see file so rich in connection.

    Play dough really is one of the least expensive value adding materials you can have in your classroom for all ages. Believe it or not I bought some play dough minis and threw them in the ‘junk’ drawer when my kids were in high school. Found. Used. So relaxing. Maybe that’s why it can add such value- because it can be so relaxing (even comforting) to use.

    • says

      We spend so much time telling kids to sit still or stop fidgeting. One would think that it would occur to us… hmmm… maybe that fidgeting is a kind of asking.

      Love this: “Learning with hands together with mind changes the way people store their memories.” Yes! Imagine the way we could get words deep down inside, without ever having to go through torture and testing! :)

      • says

        Fidgeting is a kind of asking…. Ahhhh yes love that.

        And this deep down inside absorption of word-stuff. It’s probably related to the exact same reason behind therapeutic guided imagery and why it can help us ‘untangle’ on the inside…. Because there are places that we just can’t get to with exclusive “blah blah blah” :) . Ironic that I would say that bc we are talking about words, but I’m trying to say there are aspects of learning words that go deeper than words.

        • says

          We are perhaps too narrow about our definition of “words” and what their possible contexts are. I would like to see words move outside of books. I mean, they come from within us first, yes?

          An interesting picture is forming in my head, of the path that words take as they travel from within out to the world and back again and around and around, accruing meaning and experience.

          (Hmmmm. You are making me think more about how I’ll teach the Poetry Workshop this spring in NYC! :) )

          • Donna says

            :) Can’t wait to hear about it! Yes, I think you definitely will need play dough:) For some reason this is all reminding me of Seymore Papert’s work with LOGO around ‘the powerful idea’. I need to look him up again and see why lol!!

            And my favorite Guided Imagery work comes from Belleruth Naparstak. HealthJourneys.com. The intro she uses speaks to this deeper level. Can’t remember which one.

  2. says

    As a former public school teacher and a current home educator, I have both comments and questions. So many.

    I need to sort ’em and come back.

    One thing: with my degrees in secondary health education and physical education, I did have some wiggle room to step outside the regular confines of scholastic classroom set-ups. And when I did, I saw such changes in demeanor by incorporating proper breathing, stretching, and visualization exercises… even as a student teacher.

    Okay, another: Saturday, as we sorted through my son’s bedroom in preparation for his new organizational system, we discovered that all of his Play-Doh canisters contained rock hard dough. We tossed the whole lot of it.

    (But, we have new oil pastels and watercolors.)

    • says

      I look forward to the stepping back and the sorting and the return with comments and questions.

      Love the idea of incorporating those things into an English classroom too. It could be done in various ways and would definitely contribute to better read aloud/performance of texts (which I think is just such a great way to physically experience literature).

      I would love to hear your ideas about combining physical education with English in seamless ways that aren’t forced. I bet you’d have some cool ideas for us. :)

  3. says

    Power of Play Questions.

    I’ve come up with some questions that I think those in public school setting may ask if someone where to introduce Play as an integrated component to the school day. Such a discussion should splay open the heart of the matter and come ’round to a place where statistical evidence (as you’ve shared above) actually points to the Power of Play.

    1. What is the definition of Play? (Here are my first thoughts: movement-driven, creativity, imagination, fun, art, and hands-on.)

    –> Negative associations with Play might include electronic-driven gadgetry (video games, etc.); even so, since that is part of today’s lifestyle, how would you incorporate such devices? Or would they be off-limits?

    • says

      I would love to see this as an integrated part of a public school setting. I’m not sure where that would need to issue from, as it goes. A lot of times, teachers do things grass roots, and sometimes the administration drives it, and (probably more rarely) sometimes pubic policy finally dictates.

      I’d say that Brown’s book should be required reading for anyone determining the nature of classroom activity (so should Spark and Brain Rules). All three of these books look at research about play and/or brain functioning. The stats are there, for those who care to look at them.

      I’d also say that home educators have a HUGE opportunity. That’s the opportunity I decided to take, and I am not looking back. The success is so deep it’s shocking. And I am not raising geniuses, of that I am quite sure :)

  4. says

    2. How is Play measured? (I see this as the main sticking point.)

    –> I think, as I reckon you do too, that Play is more of a cumulative attribute that cannot be tested; but, the overall performance, including scholastic achievement, social interaction, and even self-esteem, would be positively influenced over time.

    And that time-frame may be instantaneous (days, weeks) for some, but much longer (months, years) for others.

    • says

      Do you mean, how are the results of Play measured?

      I can offer PSAT scores and IOWA scores as pretty good evidence that play didn’t hurt 😉 And, as I’ve mentioned before, we *never* engaged in any teaching-to-the-test or learning-for-the-test activity.

      Right now, I’m conducting a math experiment with my eldest, based on Play. It’s the only PSAT score that isn’t in the top 1-3 percentile, so it’s the only place we can do a little test and see what happens. The Play tools:

      dice games, Sudoku, card games, Khan’s Academy math doodles, Khan’s Academy videos (I only consider these play, because my eldest is intrigued and energized by them and loses a sense of time when she watches them and is led to watch more willingly and goes off and plays with the concepts *on her own* afterwards), Mensa puzzle cards.

      To your question of what characterizes Play, Brown has solid answers that include some of what I just mentioned. There has to be volition on the child’s side. Resistance is a clue that Play is not happening :)

  5. says

    3. How is Play different than elementary school recess?

    -> I think once people see that Play varies wild in its definitions, settings, and participants, a common factor that sets it aside from “recess” is that it is facilitated by an instructor and that it has parameters.

    Even though there is a lack of movement-driven creativity freedom [my definition of Play 😉 ] in most scholastic settings, children do need stability and structure. They crave it. And most thrive in it. But, when it’s done to the neglect of Play, it becomes negative.

    So, here we have a conundrum of conflicting ideals – Play & Structure.

    Perhaps the use of a different name (i.e. Guided Play) would help. Or maybe each subject area has its own verbiage such as Play on Words for English. Either way, it needs to have an obvious scholastic component to it so that the Play-Challenged among us can find something that speaks to their mindset.

    • says

      All Play has structure (think of the 5 year olds who start the chant dance!). In fact, I think that is a central component of Play. A person creates patterns, meaning, structure. That is one reason Play is so powerful for the English teaching classroom.

      But all Play is not structured from the outside. The framework I want to propose (and I’ll be writing more about that in the future) is a combination of both internally and externally structured Play.

  6. says

    I think that effective Play in the classroom doesn’t need to be a ginormous undertaking for public school teachers or home educators.

    It can start out with a subtle shift in the teacher’s mindset to remember the joy of learning. Look a baby’s face when he/she learns how to walk, how to talk, how to use one’s fingers to eat, etc. Excitement and fun have always been an innate component to learning.

    It can start out with 15 minutes of Guided Play for one topic a day.

    It can start out with recognizing that Play is as simple as hands in a bucket of sand.

    • says

      I’ll take the sand bucket and trust the child 😉

      And of course I’ll read aloud to that same child, and play music for that child, and altogether give that child a big pile of potential resources.

      I still remember the day I overhead my kids “building the Taj Mahal” in the sand box. Well, more power to them! 😉

      • says

        In the public school setting, Guided may have more of a name on paper effect. If it’s Guided, it has more of a feeling of doing something within set confines. It’s closer to the teach-read-memorize-test format than an all out Play freedom.

        That being said, fears may include: not doing as others have done; doing something immeasurable; losing control of the classroom; wild children; too much noise; etc.

        And even in the home school setting, some states require records and testing, which in turn creates a lot of stress and guilt for parents who incorporate Play.

        For example, I record a bit of Lego Play as Hand Manipulation, Fine Motor Skills, Construction, and Building.

        What if I’m not really teaching?! What if I’m letting them goof off too much?! What if I don’t teach the way I was taught?! <– Those are comments I hear from others, both local home educators and family/friends who think I've flipped my noodle.)

        Interestingly, a friend who's been struggling with teaching language arts for the two years that I've known her, asked me for some tips. To start with I suggested she stop "grading" their stories. I suggested using photo prompts and letting them write whatever they desire. She did these two easy things and has seen incredible results in both attitude and skill.

        It's interesting for me right now as 2 of my students are former public schoolers, and 1 is my own child, and he's always been home educated. What they need to feel secure in their choices varies. What they need to achieve their own measure of success in their actions varies too. But, what I've found is that they all thrive with some facilitation. And it varies too…

        You can see the example below for a more structured Play.

        But also, you can look on our mountainside and see them doing "Each of you build a fort out of natural materials" Play.

        That's all I said.

        They started these forts last fall, and when the snow is gone, they'll go back to them. What I've seen happen with this small guidance is amazing… natural leadership, creativity with structures (two of them collaborated on the building of a jail, one made a ladder to a look-out, one put in a garden fence, etc), and teamwork.

        One day I heard my son hollering and soon after one of the girls came inside, flushed, panting, but happy. Apparently my son took it upon himself to teach the older girls how to move across the mountainside like wild animals, undetected and stealthy.

        "Do it again! You are too loud. You are too tall. Crawl! On your belly! Get down. Quiet. There you go. Creep. Creep."

        The girls loved it. I thought is was weird.

        Anyway, back to the fear (of not doing right, of failing, of measuring up, of letting others down, etc.)… I think it exists for both adults and children.

        • says

          Absolute love!!! Weird? Maybe, but so creative and so cool. And they created a narrative and lived within it. And there was a director and there were actors.

          So if it was me, I would have said, “Look at what amazing storytellers you are. You created a narrative, and you lived within it.” And they might say, “What’s a narrative?” And I would tell them. But, more importantly, they would already know, because they had created one.

          I live in New York State, where standards are high and there is recording and testing required (testing every other year, but I elected for every year).

          Maybe sometime I’ll share what I gave the State. :) Maybe nobody will care, because they will see the amazing achievements (not tests!) of my girls and say, “That’s the bottom line proof.”

          These are good things you’re sharing. Thanks. I remember being afraid. But I trusted the kids and either their laughter or their tears.

          • says

            Yes, do tell.

            And L.L., thanks so much for this conversation.

            The other night during prayers with my son I thanked God for the kiddo’s capacity and ability to think and build and do everything with such creativity and play. Later, he asked why I had talked to God like that. I was able to share with him some of what we’ve been discussing here.

            That’s a good thing.


          • says

            Thank *you* for the conversation. As a result, I just started a three-part post series within the series, to address some of the issues raised here.

            I look forward to the continued conversation (and the happiness of you and your boy, knowing that your natural inclinations to creativity and play are right where you need to be :) )

          • says

            I’m so very interested in a day in the life of home education at your place:

            early elementary,
            latter elementary,
            middle school,
            and high school.

            Language Arts

            What’s the dough of your Play?

          • says

            oh my, that’s a book in itself. :)

            ‘Rumors of Water’ tells a good deal of the story. I’m quite the unschooler, truth be told.

            But for History I read them Story of the World about three times through. They loved it.

            And every year for their birthdays, they did a big themed birthday party (Roman, Egyptian, Greek, Medieval, and so on). This was (and still is) a big research effort on their part, to find foods, music, art to display or create. I still have the medieval “tapestry” on the dining room wall. It’s beautiful. And everyone remembers the rock-hard Egyptian honey breads that apparently were mummified for the party 😉

            For years, they ran their own science clubs.

            High school is distance learning with an accredited institution called Laurel Springs. And now they understand just what freedom and joy home education offered 😉 (Though, really, I think it’s good for them to see what it’s like to be in a system, and as systems go I think this is one of the better options for us.)

          • says

            My definition of unschooling, btw:

            1. watch what energizes the children and do more of it

            2. take resistance seriously and instead of viewing it as rebellion, tweak our activities away from those things and towards points of non-resistance

            3. supply resources and experiences in all directions (math, language arts, history, etc.) and whichever ones they are drawn to, supply more of that

            4. take seriously the tasks of childhood, young adulthood, etc. As long as they aren’t seriously harming themselves, let them follow their bliss in working these things through and understand that many times these achieve a host of “academic” aims

            What unschooling does not mean to me:

            1. giving the children nothing to work with except the environment

            2. leaving kids entirely alone and not lending the expertise of my conversation and skills (this is why I don’t particularly like the DI program, though for its collaboration purposes I had them do it for 3 years with a neighbor :) http://www.destinationimagination.org/

          • says

            Thanks for tickling my fancy here in the comment box. You’ve given me some ideas.

            This conversation could go on and on, aye?

            Oh, by the way, I AM reading “Rumors” right now! As soon as I finished “Poetry at Work” I started in on it (for the 4th time I think.) 😉

            Last night I went to bed thinking about your daughter’s imploring eyes in the lighthouse.

  7. says

    Here’s an example of a language arts Play that I created one morning because I was oh so weary of teaching to the test. Gah!

    In my state, the kids are tested yearly. And, we have two middle school girls, fresh out of public school who lost their momma last summer, who are in my scholastic setting. It’s been quite a transition for them, and even more so for their grandparents, because they want what is familiar (worksheets, grades, text books, etc.).

    Okay, the Play’s purpose on this day was to emphasize: word choice, clarity, and expand vocabulary. And since two (of three) of my students are kinesthetic learners, data stick to their cranial bits way better with movement learning.

    1. Teacher writes a noun on one side of 3 scraps of paper/note cards.

    2. Students write what they deem to be the most common 4 adjectives (or adverbs, depending which parts of speech you are playing with) associated to the noun.

    3. Students take turns, with their cards, and give verbal, 1-word clues about the noun, excluding their 4 adjectives. The others guess the noun.

    4. Repeat #1-2. Students take turns, with their cards, and act out (with great bodily movement) adjectives, excluding their 4 adjectives. The others guess the noun.

    ** Other: Repeat the second variation above, but use cards that the teacher filled out.

    5. Now that the students have incorporated movement, got their blood pumping, used their bodies to portray emotions, and used creativity, they are ready to channel that to paper — teacher gives another card to the group and each student writes two adjectives on their own paper (note: their word choices will be way more unique). The teacher gives them a sentence prompt and together they write a short story using all of the words they just wrote.

    Benefits: enhanced creativity, clarity of thought process, stimulated movement/body language, fun, teamwork, opportunity to think & move outside the box.

    • says

      I voluntarily got my kids tested yearly. IOWA testing.

      We never ever ever taught to the test. Ever.

      Here’s a fun set of questions: of what value is a noun to anybody? An adjective? An adverb? (Curious if you wrote a short story too, using all the words? How did you find the experience?)

      I like the idea of giving words to words. Let’s try it?

      The word is “suitcase.”

      Give the word “suitcase” a gift of four other words. Any kind of words. (Okay, so this is kind of like Give a Mouse a Cookie, but we are giving the word “suitcase” something 😉 )

  8. says

    I know, I know. I detest teaching to the test! If I don’t and they get poor results, they feel bad because of the less than stellar scores. Grandparents and other friends who tested ask about the results. They all want to do their best and if I didn’t teach them partly to the test, I would feel as if I let them down. It’s hard to explain to littles how when their grandparents say “Ooooh, poor thing, it’s too bad your mom isn’t a better teacher” is a lie. (YIKES)

    I try to do what the state requires in a way that still incorporates their natural bent for Play and creativity.

    And to answer your other question, they lovelovelovelove these types of writing exercises!

    Yes, sometimes I do them alongside the kids, but usually I’m making lunch or getting the next idea ready. I only have the girls 3 times a week for a few hours and I feel like I have so much to cram into them. .. see how I’m driven by fear too? And external pressure to produce something measurable.

    It’s quite a process, but incorporating Play is something I do — and like I said before, some of it is exacted with mere attitude.

    Wheweee. There’s so much to this Play, isn’t there?

    Makes me wanna go finger paint! 😉


    train depot


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