During this round of inquiry, my colleagues and I were interested in expanding students’ sociopolitical consciousness in an early elementary setting. We were eager to find an approach that felt both developmentally appropriate and rigorous. Through interviews with experts, looking to the literature, and reflecting on student strengths, we decided to take an approach that felt authentically fitting for a kindergarten classroom- play. Play is the way that children make meaning. It is their natural form of understanding (Schneider, 2020.) We dug deeply into what play and exploration can look like in a classroom, as well as the different roles that teachers and students can hold in play-centered learning. We explored the benefits of play in early childhood education, and thought critically about what culturally responsive pedagogy could look like through the lens of play. Culturally responsive practices and discussions about inequality can, and should, begin in early childhood. Children are constantly receiving and interpreting messages from the world around them. I see this everyday in my classroom, where 24 kindergarteners are constantly coming up with their own explanations for the way things work and why. When teachers do not help students interpret these messages and take an active stance in disrupting cycles of oppression, students form their own opinions and possible misconceptions (Boutte, 2008.) When a teacher shows discomfort discussing power, privilege and culture and dismisses such conversations, s/he sends a message to students that privilege and power are not important issues that need to be discussed. Ignoring and avoiding such conversations can lead students to believe that many of these issues had already been fixed- a message that diminishes the lived experiences of many (Schwartz, 2019.) Even the youngest of students are hungry to grapple with big questions and explore the patterns they notice in the world around them. But, how can these questions be grappled with skillfully? What really goes into a culturally relevant classroom, and how can we make sure that all students are both celebrated and challenged? Research suggests that teachers can be honest, embrace curiosity, broaden student choices, foster pride in our students, and lead by example (Boutte, 2008.) It is also imperative that students experience academic success, develop or maintain cultural competence, and develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo or current social order (Ladson-Billings, 1995.) This learning was an important reminder that we need to be thoughtful in our approach to discussing inequality in kindergarten, but that the only way we could really mess up is to not have critical conversations at all. As we looked at culturally relevant practices, we began noticing that many of the structures described in our research challenged the conventional notions about the roles of student and teacher. Knowing that we wanted to focus our lesson study on play, which is naturally student-directed, this was a very exciting connection to make. It is also the underlying theme that lead us to our study of the Reggio-Emilia approach. The Reggio-Emilia approach has eight central concepts: environment as third teacher, hundred languages of children, projects, teacher-researcher, image of the child, negotiated learning, documentation, and family-school relationships (Fernández Santín, 2017.) Each of these central concepts is worthy of its own description, but for the purpose of this lesson study we looked at the Reggio-Emilia perspective on teacher and student roles. The Reggio-Emilia approach to learning paints teachers as observers, facilitators, and researchers. A teacher’s role is to create an environment in which students can explore and create. Once they have set the scene, teachers take a step back and become observers and documenters of learning (Fernández Santín, 2017.) A skillful teacher will ask thought-provoking questions and create scenarios that inspire learning, but they will let students lead and shape their own learning experience. We saw this trend reflected throughout our research, and demonstrated across academic content. In some structures, we saw examples of teachers facilitating literacy-rich play. Teachers asked students questions about a text with varying levels of abstract language, from concrete questions about the color of different animals to more inferential questions about how different characters might feel and react. By asking students intentional questions and provoking literacy-based conversation and then stepping back, teachers can facilitate open-ended play that is deepens student engagement with a text (Cavanaugh, 2017.) As a facilitator of literacy-rich play, teachers can create cognitively challenging dynamics that help children understand the language in which they’ll eventually be reading and creating a foundation for future text comprehension (Massey, 2012.) With the teacher fulfilling the role of facilitator, students are challenged to find answers to their own questions and think critically about the content they engage with (Fernández Santín, 2017.) The concept of teacher as facilitator felt fitting for our lesson study, as we wanted our students to grapple with issues of fairness and inequality in a student-directed way. Knowing my students and their learning style, we decided early on that it would be ineffective for me to stand at the front of the room and simply talk to students about inequality. We needed to set up a hands-on experience for them, and let the students themselves grapple with the content. Children are constantly interpreting the world around them, and making meaning out of experiences and content they engage with. As a Reggio-Emilia teacher might put it, children are all “little researchers.” They discover the world around them by making decisions and solving difficulties. With the child fulfilling the role of researcher, they build autonomy, independence, and confidence. They are finding answers to their own questions, and unearthing new questions along the way (Fernández Santín, 2017.) When children are given the opportunity to discover and explore a concept on their own terms through play, they create innovative and meaningful ways to grapple with new information. This might look like students creating their own phonemic sorting strategies for assorted objects in the classroom, or doing a dramatic retelling of a story from fabric scraps (Massey, 2012.) It may look like fourth graders creating their own whole-group discussion structure and dubbing it “their favorite game to play in school” (Schneider, 2020.) After reading about the many literacy-rich opportunities for play in the classroom, we decided to kick off our lesson with a read aloud. Students will read a book together, stopping at key points for comprehension, and then go off to play with building materials related to the book. Once they begin working with the materials, they will quickly start grappling with a major equity issue- unequal distribution of resources. Drawing upon our expanded understanding of teacher and student roles in the classroom, we began to see just how big of a concept “play” is in the classroom. Teachers, school administrators, policy makers and families have varying perspectives on the importance (or insignificance) of play. In a nationwide poll of public school teachers, a common theme emerged that play and rigor are viewed as entirely disconnected. Teachers reported being reprimanded by school administrators for including play in their daily schedule. The survey showed that intrapersonal factors, organizational factors, and policy factors all contribute to the squeezing out of play in the classroom (Lynch, 2015.) Teachers who believe in the importance of play express frustration about its perceived insignificance. Research shows that play is beneficial to students, and contributes to growth in both academic and soft skills. Studies have shown that play can improve student skills such as cooperation, communication, flexibility, fine motor skills, and problem solving (Lynch, 2015.) Playtime can also highlight the strengths of students who struggle to access content during other portions of the day. Ladson-Billings tells us that all students must experience academic success in the classroom, and play can provide structure through which more students can succeed (Lizza, 2020.) Despite the varying perspectives on play’s importance, my colleagues and I decided to stand by our decision and rely on the resources that underscore and prove the benefits of play. There is also disagreement in the literature about what “play” really is and what it should look like in a school setting. Some believe that true play is open-ended and entirely student-directed. This type of play is often implemented for play’s sake, is free from adult intervention, and does not have an underlying academic content goal. According to Schneider, giving children a chance to play and explore without adult instructions helps foster creativity in students. She said that, because play has constant rule changing and negotiation, it helps students think flexibly and communicate with one another (2020.) Others favor more structured play with an academic content goal. Structured play can offer predictability and greater access for students who struggle to initiate play (Lizza, 2020.) With our group of kindergarteners in mind, we ultimately decided to create a lesson based on facilitated play. Students will interact with materials and grapple with concepts independently, but I will be there to ask thought-provoking questions and frame our class discussion. Our research took on a unique path to ultimately reach our lesson study plan. We began with culturally relevant practices and ways to introduce issues of inequality to young students. From there, we found ourselves questioning the role that the host teacher should play in the classroom. We wanted to do something that would authentically allow students to grapple with issues of unfairness in a supported setting, and the Reggio-Emilia concept of child as little researcher felt like a great fit for this experience. Our hope was for the lesson to feel authentic to our kindergarten students, which led us to the common language of play. We learned that there is great disagreement about what play can and should look like at school, but as Lizza put it, “It all comes back to play” (2020.) The lesson we have designed will draw upon concepts from articles we read, interviews we conducted, and the strengths of our students. The host teacher will facilitate a literacy-rich play period in which students will authentically experience unequal distribution of resources. They will be challenged with the task of exploring the problem at hand, and coming up with a solution together. I will be there to facilitate the discussion, but it will be up to the students to determine a solution. We have designed the lesson so that it will turn into a real world math problem to solve, where students must find a way to compare and redistribute unequal groups. This lesson will cover a mathematical content goal, as well as an equity goal for students to recognize, grapple with, and generate solutions for unfairness. All of our learning has led us to this point, and we are excited to see where the student-directed play period will lead us next.