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Innovative Educator: Boise teacher has students play with a purpose

Theresa McSweeney's students are building vocabulary, math and social skills through the concept of "purposeful play."

BOISE, Idaho — Editor's note: This content is sponsored by Idaho CapEd Credit Union.

Mr. Rogers said "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."

This week's Innovative Educator is putting that philosophy to work in her classrooms.

Theresa McSweeney is a math interventionist at Taft and Morley Nelson elementary schools in the Boise School District.

"I love watching those light bulb moments happen for kids," McSweeney said.

McSweeney found a way to flip the light switch for her kindergarten through sixth grade students by using toys, including toy bugs.

"So using these bugs as a way to talk about the name of the bug, symmetrical concepts, counting concepts, ideas that these are insects not just bugs, using different language once we get to spiders and using arachnids and all of those type of words," McSweeney said.

She also has a diverse cast of toy people. McSweeney says in the Taft Elementary After School Tutoring Club, Boise High School students work with the younger kids.

"They have an opportunity to kind of decompress from their day, play with the toys and be able to have that continued conversation with another adult or another older peer who knows some more academic language and then build their knowledge," McSweeney said.

The concept is called "purposeful play."

"This is their job. This is what the children do," McSweeney said. "They come to school to learn, and so in that way they're getting that experience of being able to use the toys to learn the language."

Besides building their vocabulary and math skills, McSweeney says play supports social skills and creates connections.

"During a pandemic when we've asked kids to remain distanced, it's really nice to have a way to naturally bring them back together and start giving them some tools that are child-centered and meaningful to them," McSweeney said.

So you can see why she believes play works.

"It gives them a real life, almost, experience while also teaching them the academics," McSweeney said.

McSweeney received a $670 grant last year from the Idaho CapEd Foundation to buy all the toys she uses in class. She was teaching kindergarten at the time, and says she wanted to carry over the concept of "purposeful play" to her new role this year as a K-6 math interventionist.

Educators, for information on submitting an application for a classroom grant through the Idaho CapEd Foundation, visit www.capedfoundation.org.

 If you would like to nominate an Innovative Educator who is going above and beyond, send us an email to innovativeeducator@ktvb.com.

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