In the upper grades (4th and 5th) I never stressed about how much play time my students had. Now I'm starting to wonder if I should have been more concerned. As a primary teacher now, and a parent of young daughters, I think that play time is critical. I'm amazed at how tight our days are in first grade, but I've managed to find some free time two or three days a week. It's our free choice time and it lasts about 20 to 30 minutes.
One of my goals for this time in our day was to have it as open ended as possible. My exposure to Gever Tulley and his Tinkering School has been a big factor in this thinking. Puzzles are one of the first stations I offered the students. It's not as free thinking as I'd like it to be, but I think students gain a lot from working puzzles.
I also pulled out a small magnet kit I had bought for the upper grades and never used. I dumped the few pieces into a basket and offered it to the kids. They loved it. While I was in San Francisco in October I picked up a couple of other sets to add to this station. I've been amazed at what the kids have discovered with this. They held magnets below their chairs and used them to move magnets sitting on the chair. They've used magnets to move balls inside small strategy games to get the balls into the right location. They love this station.
Somewhere along the line in my years of teaching I had picked up this set of letters. Again, it had never really been used in my upper grade classroom. It's also not nearly the challenge to their thinking that I would like it to be, but it was an option I had handy.
I also had these fun cards from some consignment sale or something. I am fascinated by the different ways the students build with them. Some of them work collaboratively and others work independently. I've taken numerous pictures of their creations because of the variety.
Recently I picked up a couple of new options. I can remember as a child visiting my great-grandmother and playing with marble runs. So when I found some cheap I grabbed them. The kids have identified this as another favorite choice and they have built some elaborate creations.
On that same trip to SF my girls and I played with foam blocks at two different museums. I loved them. On a rare trip to Toys R Us a few weeks later (a treat after surviving flu shots) I found a large container of these blocks. The kids seem to love them as much as I do.
I've also offered them stations using puppets and one using dominoes. I'm still trying to think of other challenging choices. I need ideas that are reasonably priced and not too large. I'm open to any thoughts!