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Kindergarten Purposeful Play Grant Part of Foundation’s Record-Breaking Year

photo of student and play kitchen

This article originated from our partnership with School News Network. It was written by School News Network reporter Riley Kelley.

A dollhouse, a mini kitchen, baby dolls — they might seem like toys to most, but to Norah Knoerl’s kindergartners at Breton Downs Elementary, they’re so much more.

On a mid-December day, the dollhouse served as a much-needed housing upgrade for students Wilson Koontz, Willa Mileskiewicz and Olivia Oates. 

“We’re playing that we’re in New York and this is our house,” Wilson said as he and his classmates fluttered around the dollhouse play area. “We had to move from Michigan because our house in Michigan was too small.” 

A relocation of that magnitude would take a lot of work, but the students are making sure they sneak in some fun, too.

“We’re going to see a Taylor Swift concert,” Wilson belted excitedly. 

Then he added even more detail: The show starts at 4 a.m., he said, and popcorn is involved. Oh, and they’ll all have 3D glasses, “so Taylor Swift will walk right up to us. Not for real, just because of the glasses.”

This multi-layered play scenario took shape in Wilson’s imagination thanks to an $18,000 grant from the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation. The grant funded new play equipment for kindergarten classrooms at each of the three East Grand Rapids elementary schools.

The funding was part of the foundation’s record-breaking fall grant round.

While Wilson and his crew were cavorting in the Big Apple, elsewhere in Knoerl’s class, Knox Watson, Josh Eizinger and Nora Sulisz transformed a newly refurbished kitchen play area into a holiday bakery.

“The kids have real bowls and spoons and whisks so they can pretend that they’re making cookies in there,” Knoerl said.

Students do everything from “cooking” to filling pretend orders.

“I’m paying the money we’re collecting from the people who want cookies and hot chocolate,” said Josh from behind a brightly colored register.

The prices were steep, though.

“I just paid $589 million for gingerbread cookies,” Knoerl joked after a brief haggle with Josh.

In another corner of her classroom, Lillyana Nuñez and Mia Lahnsteiner enjoyed hosting a picnic with brand-new baby dolls.

Dramatic Play

It’s all about dramatic play, Knoerl said, which involves pretending, imagining and exploring. While dramatic play can be a subset of purposeful play, which has a specific goal to educate, it doesn’t necessarily need to be, Knoerl said. It’s more about letting kids be kids. 

“It’s being thoughtful about what the kids are working on as they’re playing, which is a huge part of kindergarten,” she said. “It’s valuable because they work on their language skills, they work on looking at other perspectives and other points of view, they work on working together.”

Knoerl said students have been immensely appreciative of the new equipment. 

“They love it,” she said, adding that the kitchen area is a favorite that’s used every single day.

Play Supported by Foundation, District

The EGR Schools Foundation grant originated with Knoerl, but it grew into a collaborative effort to get supplies for each of the district’s elementary schools. When she saw how “loved” the play equipment was in her classroom, she worked with other EGR teachers to secure funding for upgrades.

Knoerl said she’s grateful that the foundation saw the value of dramatic and purposeful play. 

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of kindergartens in the state that don’t allow for play time, and it’s such a huge, important part of the child’s development,” she said.

She’s also thankful that the district’s administrators still value play, and that the EGR community rallied behind the effort to support it through the grant.