By Lini S Kadaba
As Julia Miller ’13 taught her young charges the three “Rs,” she frequently had to deal with antsy, distracted students — and worse, behavior problems and outright fights.
“I wanted to figure out a way to combat these issues within my classroom,” she says. The 28-year-old political science and music business major, originally from Newtown, Pa., spent 2015 to 2017 in Teach for America’s program, working at People for People (PFP) Charter School in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. She stayed a third year at the charter to teach first grade.
Miller realized the youngsters, many struggling with emotional and developmental challenges, needed to play and socialize more and incorporated kinesthetic movement and tactile projects into lessons — no easy task at the K-12, entrepreneurship school that has maximized classroom instruction to improve academic success.
Miller’s students counted to jumping jacks, took walks around the block and role-played storybook characters’ feelings. Her ideas proved successful enough that PFP created a new position for her: director of play.
“They just need to play, developmentally,” says Miller, who will start her new role this fall. “They need to self-regulate emotions and have autonomy to explore. I have to reteach them to be kids.”
Meanwhile, she completed her K-4 teaching certification through the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Teaching Residency Program in 2017. And through a 2018 Fulbright Award, Miller has spent the last year at the University of Helsinki, researching a popular play-based learning program in Finland and adapting it to PFP’s needs.
Finnish students spend three hours of the school day outdoors, freezing temperatures no deterrent. “I was initially shocked,” she says. “They focus so much on that social aspect.”
The country’s play-based learning system is considered the gold standard and hinges on social interaction to “create citizens, create leaders,” as Finnish educators told her. Students are expected to achieve certain core competencies, including taking care of themselves, helping others and regulating emotions.
A growing body of research suggests that undirected group play for extended periods during the academic day helps build cognitive, physical, social and emotional development, particularly in early grades, according to the university’s Playful Learning Center.
At PFP, Miller’s initial efforts resulted in improvement in student behavior and attention to lessons.
“Julia’s research establishes a strong connection between play and academic and social-emotional outcomes,” PFP Principal Corey Dwyer says. “All children — especially those who have experienced trauma, like many of our students — need opportunities to develop social skills and social-emotional awareness.”
More recently, the school added 15-minute recess after lunch and weekly gym.
In her new role, Miller plans to expand opportunities for K-2 students, integrating social play into the curriculum, providing professional teacher development and exposing students to play-based learning during onehour, scheduled blocks.
Just Play, the curriculum she developed, “focuses on pure play, but does so in a carefully designed space that promotes ‘productive’ play,” Miller writes in a proposal for classroom resources. “Through play, students spur their imaginations and explore new solutions to problems.”
Miller’s interest in early education was cemented at Albright, where study abroad included teaching children English in Italy and Spanish in Honduras. As senior class president, she sought unifying experiences, creating new traditions. (One involved writing a favorite memory on a biodegradable red balloon.)
At PFP, Miller hopes to make an even bigger impact. “The opportunity gap is ginormous,” she says. “I almost felt I couldn’t leave because I wanted to make sure I could get my students to as much success as I could.”
PFP, in many ways, faces hurdles not seen at the schools Miller observed in Helsinki, where resources are plentiful and families more affluent.
“I cannot replicate everything that is wonderful here,” she allows. “I have to take off those rose-colored glasses and implement what’s best for my students.”
One idea is Market Day, where children will play customers and cashiers while learning addition. She also plans to advocate for 40-minute recess. If Just Play improves outcomes for PFP students, Miller wants to make it available to schools in the region.
In too many schools, “we don’t cater to the social-emotional side,” she says. “But we need to. Play matters.”