Simply put, young children learn through play. Playtime is not a break from learning; it is how children begin to understand and process their world. Through play, children explore their imaginations, curiosity, and creativity, develop language and problem-solving skills, and practice social-emotional learning. Often, a debate arises over whether academics or play matters more in a young child’s development. There really is no contest. It’s play all the way. And everything can be playful with the right mindset—even cleaning!
Imagination, Curiosity, Creativity
In effective pre-K and kindergarten classrooms, teachers should be using open-ended questions and prompts that engage children and that focus on the process of learning. The same can also be applied to play at home:
- What do you think might happen if we . . .?
- How did you figure that out?
- Can you tell me what you are doing?
Teachers or parents can set up play environments that encourage children to try new ideas and to think about new concepts. For example, create an art station with a variety of supplies and ask children to use the materials to create a pet they would like to have. As children create, teachers may ask them to explain what they are doing and offer new ideas or suggestions for experimentation.
Play is the beginning stages of storytelling. What better way to develop children’s oral vocabulary than through play! Play naturally encourages children to practice speaking and listening skills. Even if children play independently, they often narrate their play.
Dramatic play, for example, allows children to communicate with peers, siblings, or parents in pretend situations and to check their understanding of new experiences. Their exposure to new situations helps to build vocabulary, a necessary part of an early literacy foundation.
A classic example of play that builds problem-solving skills, as well as math skills, is children’s use of building blocks or Lego® bricks. Giving children a bucket of blocks and then asking them to build the tallest structure they can presents a problem they can solve through trial and error. Children can also learn that even if the structure falls, it can be rebuilt using new or different ideas.
Play encourages building relationships, listening, noticing social cues, and understanding others’ perspectives. These are the key components to developing empathy.
During play, children can also encounter instances of frustration or anxiety that lead them to learn self-regulation. They can work through these feelings with the support of teachers or peers.
Independent play supports children in developing self-sufficiency, self-identity, and self-confidence. They are the leaders of their play when it’s independent. In contrast, dramatic play with a group provides opportunities for children to explore their thoughts and feelings in situations that mimic real life.
Play Is Learning
A successful and effective pre-K curriculum focuses on play and engaging activities that support children’s learning of important skills but not in an obvious, academically focused way. What children view as a fun racing game of filling a bucket with water and observing a variety of objects in the water is actually a lesson on understanding sinking and floating!
How do your children play? Do they prefer social play, independent play, guided play, or all of the above as long as it’s fun? How will you encourage your child to play?