Time for mathematical play and exploration is critical to the development of problem-solving skills, creativity, and persistence. And yet, play is something that is increasingly getting set aside as outside pressures in the education world distract from real learning.  When I was having trouble finding time for mathematical play (or any play at all, really) as a third grade teacher I decided to set aside time for Explore Time several times per week. An idea I borrowed from Katie Keier over at Catching Readers Before They Fall, Explore Time allowed children to invent projects and follow their own interests in just about any direction. Many times I would introduce materials and questions that lent themselves to mathematical and problem-solving types of explorations and many students would eagerly take on the challenge.

When I first began Explore Time as a third grade teacher, I have to admit that I felt a twinge of guilt. I was newish to my school at the time, and I kept thinking, “What if someone comes in here and sees that I’m letting them ‘just play’?” and “No other third grade class is doing this. Is that ok?” After some time I realized that amazing, complex, and thought-changing moments happened during Explore Time. Some of our deepest conversations came from the reflection time we had after each Explore Time. And most importantly I learned that there is no such thing as “just play.”

In the picture at the beginning of this post three of my wonderful third graders are using some blocks to record how many different ways they could combine shapes to make triangles. They were exploring the big idea of composing and decomposing shape more deeply than they had previously done even when I, the teacher, gave assignments! And this was all by their own choosing. As they worked, Melanie grabbed a clipboard and some paper and began to record the all of their ideas. “We can keep this list going so we know which ways we’ve made and which ways we’ve haven’t.” This exploration extended over several Explore Time sessions. Over that time I’d check in with them to ask questions about what they were thinking, how they recorded, and what patterns they noticed in their work.

I know that the time we dedicated to Explore Time was worth it. The thinking and collaboration exhibited in Explore Time transferred into all parts of our day, especially mathematics. The beginning of the year is a great time to begin Explore Time, and puzzles and blocks are great materials with which to begin.

So, how do you find time for mathematical play? Explore Time is one of my favorite topics—I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it. What else would you like to read about when it comes to this topic?

4 thoughts on “Explore!

  1. In the first few weeks of school we use a lot of explore time in kindergarten with unifix cubes, pattern blocks, and other manipulatives. What kinds of questions can we ask during discussion to create meaningful reflection and what supporting materials should we provide in order to make the play time more focused?

    1. Great question, Lauren. So great, in fact, I think I’ll dedicate the next blog post to it. Stay tuned…

  2. I think the idea of Explore Time is fantastic. It gives students the opportunity to play with ideas in a deeper, much more meaningful way than they may not have had time for within a structured class lesson or activity. There is so much research to back up the importance of play, not only for primary students, but for older students as well. As a fifth grade teacher, I’ve often struggled with whether or not giving my students the time to explore and play was a valid use of time with high stakes testing breathing down my neck. However, after seeing small pieces of success within my classroom and reading blogs like this one, I’ve decided to start having Innovation Days/FedEx Days periodically throughout the school year. These will build upon the principles that you wrote about here. Thanks for further encouraging me to embrace these opportunities within my own classroom.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Julie. That’s awesome that you’ve found a way to work play in even in 5th grade. I’d love to hear more about Innovation Days (and what a great name!). And what are FedEx Days? I’m intrigued. When I taught third grade we have a couple of “tinkering days” where kids brought in old radios, flashlights, computer parts, anything and we had a bunch of tools they used to open them up and figure out what was going on inside and how it worked. Great thinking involved in that.

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