Early Education and the Importance of Play

I love the opportunities I get to spend time in our Pre-Kindergarten classrooms. The classrooms are full of laughter, movement, and energy. Our students are curious, energetic, and excited about learning. A significant component of their day centers around learning through play. 

Play is the foundation of learning for all children. We believe that play is an essential component of our children’s experience at our school. In our Pre-Kindergarten program our staff promote play and social interactions each day. According to National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), research indicates:

  1. Young children learn through play. 
  2. Play helps children learn problem solving skills.
  3. Play helps reduce stress and helps children work through complex experiences.
  4. Play helps children focus and learn executive functioning skills. 

I recently asked Ms. Caryn Zambrano, our new Pre-Kindergarten teacher, to share how our classrooms use play to facilitate learning and gain important skills.  She was generous to share the following:

How and why do children learn through play?  

When children play, they are learning and making sense of the world around them.  Before young children have words, they use their senses to learn. They taste, touch, smell, look at, and listen to everything in their world. This exploration helps young children understand how things work. If you have ever seen a little baby pick up a phone and say hello, they are mimicking what they may see a parent do. This is an early stage of play, where children act out familiar scenarios. As play progresses, children will start to create their own little play scenes.  They will switch from solitary or parallel play to cooperative play with their peers. You will start to see real scenes put into place, and more intentional play.

For example, instead of building a small tower (where a child may build it to knock it down over and over), you may see two children working cooperatively (social/emotional skills) to build a castle. During this play, you will see them planning (executive functioning skills) and negotiating what parts to include in the castle (social problem solving). You may also see some exploration about cause and effect, and learning about spatial awareness. Kids will often talk and plan about how high to build the structure, and often enjoy counting to see whose tower is taller (measurement and counting).

There are so many concepts that children are exploring and learning about for every type of play! 

How do children learn problem solving skills through play?  

Problems arise naturally when children are interacting! We see two main types of problem solving in our preschool programs: general and social. Problem solving typically happens when a child tries or can’t figure out how to do something. This type of critical thinking helps children learn to think outside the box, and helps them to anticipate new ways to do things. In preschool, one of the hardest concepts to learn is how to share. It’s something that we spend the entire year on. When a child wants to play with a toy that is unavailable, there can be a big problem! Preschool children feel everything very strongly, and have a difficult time waiting or negotiating when there is a problem. Our role as teachers is to pre-teach these skills, as well as help children take part in these challenging conversations.  

Play reduces stress and helps children cope with complex experiences: 

When you see children play, it is pretty evident that they are enjoying themselves. They will be laughing, pretending to be something, or may be concentrating and thinking about what they are doing. Play is a natural way for children to act out what they see and know. When children have an adverse experience, they figure it out during play. That is why you may see a child at the dollhouse who announces that the parents are getting divorced. They are trying to figure out what it means, and how it all works. Acting these types of events out in play is perfectly natural, and can be used as a healing experience.  

How does play help children focus and use executive functioning skills?

When a young child starts preschool, they often have a very short attention span. This is developmentally appropriate! As children gain a sense of the world around them, they start learning to attend to play for longer periods of time. Think of that example with the baby answering the phone. The baby might stay engaged for a few minutes, until they have exhausted what they know about talking on the phone.

As children get older, their play starts changing into intentional play scenes. So their play and their ability to focus changes to accommodate their new skills. Instead of play lasting a few minutes, children will play for longer periods of time. At our preschool, we change our classroom periodically to accommodate new play scenes. This year, we have had a pizza kitchen, a store, a bakery, and a gingerbread house in our dramatic play area. The kids were able to create rich scenes that lasted all of playtime. It is such an amazing transition to see!  

Play is such a natural way for children to gain knowledge about the world around them. If you would like to learn more, please check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) website. You can find tons of free resources and articles about play. Please take a moment to check out this cartoon that is in the back of the Vermont Early Learning Standards created by the Vermont Department of Education. It does a great job illustrating what children are learning in a preschool classroom.  

Click the photo to see the image enlarged.

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