All play has a purpose, author Kristi Mraz told 600 educators at the UFT’s 11th annual Early Childhood Conference on March 17 at UFT headquarters in Manhattan. It’s no wonder there was a lot of joy and high energy as the day began with lively music and a beach ball tossed from the stage and passed around the audience.
There was a celebratory air in Shanker Hall as the event — coincidentally held on St. Patrick’s Day and the day after the 58th anniversary of the UFT’s founding — got underway.
The theme of the conference — “Ready, Set, Grow!” — set the tone for educators, who came to hone their skills and learn new ideas to share with their young students.
“We are ready to create lifelong learners, set to help mold minds through play and grow positive-minded citizens who want to leave the world a better place than they found it,” said Karen Alford, the UFT’s vice president for elementary schools.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew reminded the attendees that they have the benefit of a union — a group of people fighting on their behalf. “Every one of you has made the decision that your life’s work is to help children and a lot of people who haven’t made that choice have a lot to say about it,” he said. The lawyers for the plaintiff in the anti-union Janus v. AFSCME case, now being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, argue that “we teachers should not have the right to advocate for the policies that affect our profession,” Mulgrew said.
Keynote speaker Mraz, the co-author of the book “Purposeful Play,” shared her philosophy that all play has a purpose, with research showing that early learners who have more play time outperform their peers academically and have more social-emotional skills by 4th grade. “When we choose play, we believe in children’s capability — that’s a radical act,” she said.
She encouraged educators to fight for and protect students’ recess time and right to play. “Changing the world is happening every single second in your classroom,” she told them.
First-time conference attendee Samantha Gaudio, a K–1 special education teacher at PS 226 in the Bronx, said the theme of play drew her to the event. “I haven’t been in a conference setting since I was an undergrad and to be a true early childhood advocate, I felt I needed to be here,” she said.Gaudio and her new friend, Ashley Fotieo, a kindergarten teacher at PS 343 in Sunnyside, Queens, both plan to advocate for additional playtime with their school administrations. “They always want to squeeze in more literacy and math, and play is literacy and math,” Fotieo said. She learned new ideas to try with students that are “more open-ended to encourage their imagination,” she said.
Both attended the workshop led by Mraz. “It was a great session,” Fotieo said, “and if you’re here on a Saturday, you want it to be a great session!”
Educators had 15 workshops to chose from, including arts-related themes, growth mindsets, math and science for young learners, how to engage English language learners and how intimate-partner violence in the home affects children.
Diana Alvarado, a 3rd–4th-grade teacher at PS 1 in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, said the intimate-partner violence workshop was important and timely. “I’ve had students who were defiant and verbal, having a hard time in school and I didn’t know how to reach them, aside from listening. It’s important for teachers to know how to approach such a sensitive topic. This gives me resources I can share with our parent coordinator and even give a workshop for parents.”
Other highlights of the day were the Abe Levine Award presented to PS 156 in Brooklyn and PS 127 in Queens for their commitment to the professional learning of early childhood educators, and the performance by the chorus from PS 149 in East New York, Brooklyn.