Students Shine Bright at Farmworkers

Sunflower Play Initiative had the pleasure of hosting 34 Build & Play sessions at Farmworker’s After School Program from July 2018 – March 2020. Sessions lasted 60 – 120 minutes.

Build & Play sessions took place under the carport with an abundance of “loose parts”: open-ended materials such as cardboard, tape, fabric, recyclables, science and art supplies. Our play counselors strategically set up ‘play stations’ throughout the space that invited students to create, invent and build using their imagination. Without given instructions on what to do, students eagerly explored the loose parts. They imagined, and built with wonder, curiosity and intrinsic motivation. We saw creations that our adult minds could never think of like playful swords, maces, doll house with furniture, windows, fishing rods.

Build & Play encourages students to be in control of their play, create something new, work with others and trust that their ideas will be taken seriously by our play counselors. Students engage in child-initiated, creative play that helps them develop the 4Cs – creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills. The program serves as a creative and physical outlet for students to freely express themselves while reaping the many benefits of play like strength, resilience, social and emotional skills, 21st century skills, fun and JOY.

Build and play brings kids together

What happens when you give kids the freedom to lead in their own play? At Farmworker, students used this freedom in the carport with loose parts in many different ways.  Some children chose to use their time to run out their energy, to create something new, or to form new friendships.

Building and playing has a way of bringing kids together. For example, when Leila, our play counselor’s daughter really wanted to play with the girls at Farmworker, she wrapped canvas around her body and asked if anyone would help decorate her ‘dress’. At first, one girl started coloring, then minutes later 4 more girls gathered around Leila to help decorate. This moment shows that through play children get comfortable, communicate and engage in teamwork. As a result, the girls created a cohesive ‘dress’ full of vibrant colors.

Children decorate Leila’s “dress”

At one session, Susan Caruso, Director of Sunflower Play Initiative, brought dozens of plants into the carport and placed them throughout the play space. Bringing nature in the play space softened the environment and had a positive effect on the children and how well they played together. Children smiled, laughed and hid behind the plants. Some children ran throughout the space weaving in and out of the plants. At a later session, the children painted pots for the plants and took them home.

Children surrounded by plants during a play session.

It was not uncommon to see Farm Worker students work jointly on an activity to create something, like an elaborate house. This is an example of collaboration as everyone added their own touches to the house at different times. Instead of conforming to one person’s idea, the students were willing to sacrifice parts of their own ideas for the greater good to create that house, the essence of collaboration.

explore & create

“House” collectively built by several children.

Our “Let the children lead” approach gives students the opportunity to play and learn with science materials without adult agendas and interruptions. Students get the chance to discover and learn about the physical and natural world through their own observations and experiments.

At Farmworker, students jumped right in and explored the science materials. At a play station of cornstarch, water, and ice, children immersed themselves in the materials while becoming messy and playful. From hearing their conversations and observing their actions, the children explored and learned the properties of liquids and solids on their own. They discovered that the cornstarch solution was unusual and did not act like other liquids; the solution was a solid and liquid at the same time. It is a delight to watch students use science materials in unconventional ways like making a game of holding ice the longest, using salt and ice cubes to build towers, and making art out of oats.

Children immerse their hands in the cornstarch and water mixture.
Kids figuring out that salt helps ice cubes stack better and longer.

Play empowers

At Farmworker, creations were one of a kind. Since July 2018, students built countless handheld creations made of loose parts. Our play counselors got to know the children and learned their preferred materials and strengths. For example, we learned of a first grader who is an artist. He does not speak much, however he expresses himself through his creations. He concentrates intensely on his work and adds elaborate but deliberate details to his pieces.

Students paint together.

On the other hand, some students have used Build & Play as a social and physical outlet. Some older students use the time to decompress from the school day. We usually see them chatting with others or being physical like tossing a ball or making weapons to play ‘fight’ (below). Children bonded over making their creations for themselves and others and seemed to have a sense of accomplishment and pride when they finished their creations.

The kids proudly show their creations.

Play is beneficial

Play helps reduce stress and anxiety and while playing children tend to forget their circumstances like having a bad day or being the new kid at a new school (“Building Generation Play”, 2007, Pellegrino and Smith,1998).

In an earlier Build & Play session, a new student observed the other students playing, but didn’t join in. He had just moved to Florida and chose to spend his time tinkering with only a few loose parts independently in solitary play instead of playing with the other children. Some students prefer to play alone until they feel comfortable joining other children in play. As the weeks passed, the new student gradually opened up and he started to smile more, play with more materials, and built things to take home. Eventually, he broke out of his shell when he played and interacted more with the other students. At a later session, the new student met a middle schooler who was a new student 6 months before him. For over an hour, the boys chatted and laughed when building their costumes and maces out of fabric, foam and tape. That moment showed us the students’ strength in communication, collaboration, creativity and building skills. After this breakthrough, he looked more at ease when engaging with other children in Build & Play.

Build & Play hopes to return when social distance regulations are lifted. We look forward to more play sessions with the children at Farm Worker Coordinating Council.

Build & Play was a recipient of Children’s Services Council’s Great Ideas Initiative grant. Funds from CSC and Sunflower Creative Arts allow Sunflower Play Initiative to host free weekly Build & Play sessions at several after school programs in Palm Beach County.

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