The value of play....

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What are they really learning….?

Being in the field of Early Childhood Education for more than 22 years, I have had the pleasure of helping a multitude of parents understand the value of play and how it helps preschool age children prepare for the rigors of elementary school. I hope that through this article, I can impart some of that knowledge onto my readers and show you how you can use this valuable information at home as well to enhance your child’s early learning.  Included you will find links to enhance the information here. 

One of the most common questions that I hear in my profession is, “Will my child be ready for kindergarten?” This is completely understandable. My goal here is to impart on you, what we as adults don’t often “see” when their children are playing. Here’s a scenario I would like you to consider for a moment: You are on a play date with your child, enjoying a nice cup of coffee, having a nice chat, enjoying the warm sunshine of a back yard that you don’t have to care for, and thankful that your little one is being entertained by her new friend and you get a moment of peace and some grown up conversation. These two beautiful children, we’ll call them Sally and Henry, are playing so nicely! They have taken out plenty of toys for use in the sandbox. You and your new grown up friend are marveling at how cute they are serving coffee and “broccoli ice cream” to one another. They have determined that the area at the far end of the sandbox is the “kitchen” where all that delicious broccoli ice cream is crafted, and that yummy, muddy, coffee is brewed. They have set up the “serving area” on a small blanket in the grass, just outside of the sandbox (because we love it when they drag sand all over our beautifully manicured lawn.) Up until this moment things have been moving right along, splendidly. Suddenly, you hear loud wails, cups and saucers are flying everywhere, faces are red with fury and streaked with tears. Henry has put “ice cream” into a coffee cup, where ice cream clearly does not belong, and, Sally is bent on setting him straight. Immediately you and your new parent friend jump to your feet to help these two friends work though this heated crisis. STOP! Sit down, take a breath, listen, and wait…

I know what you are thinking right now; I am not crazy, I promise. Here is what you missed…. You missed all the learning that was happening here and the incredibly valuable learning that can continue to transpire if you wait to jump in to help. Sally and Henry have just spent a good portion of time learning cooperation, spatial awareness, and critical thinking. They have also been involved in perfecting their ability to determine reality from fantasy by pulling from their own experiences and using them in imaginative play. Wow!! All that from muddy coffee and “broccoli ice cream”! But wait… there’s so much more. If you stand by and wait for them to work out this conflict of ideas on their own, they could also learn self-regulation and problem-solving skills necessary to get through all those sticky situations that will arise later in life. You are an incredible parent! Look at all what you just taught you precious little learner! Congratulations!

Okay, great! But what about the three R’s, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Well, here’s another scenario, this time, in a preschool classroom. We’ll just use Sally and Henry again, since they play so nicely together.

We find Sally and Henry together in the block area. They have chosen to play with the blocks and the farm animals. They have built an intricate “farm” for all the animals, complete with many animal stalls. They begin placing the animals in and around their “farm”. The teacher is sitting close by, observing, she notices that the animals are in no particular order, so she decides to help the children with some guided play. She says to them, “hmmmm… I wonder if pigs and cows live together on a farm?” Sally and Henry are intrigued by this question and begin to discuss where the various animals live. The teacher continues to interject with leading questions until all the animals are in their appropriate “stalls”. She then inquires as to how many cows the farmer has on his farm. The children count the cows and announce, excitedly, “Six!” The teacher continues to lead the play in this manner until all the animals have been sorted and counted. As the children are playing she sparks up conversations with them about what the animals eat, what the farmers job is, etc.

Through this kind of guided play, the teacher has been able to help Sally and Henry learn important math skills, such as, sorting and counting. Together they have all learned about farm animal diets, jobs on the farm and more, depending on the extent of the play. This kind of guided play usually results in extended curriculum follow up with books, art, letter recognition, phonics, as well as other areas of the curriculum. The possibilities are, nearly, endless! The best part is the Sally and Henry don’t even realize all the hard work they have been doing! Here’s something that you probably didn’t know, research indicates that children who play with blocks in their preschool years perform better in math in college [parentingscience.com]. Yay! Now it’s time to give that super smart, tricky, teacher a pat on the back for all the learning she slipped in there. Great work, Teacher!

Here’s some things that you can do at home to support learning through play. Children must develop strong fine motor skills before they can adequately maneuver a pencil. Some ways to help encourage these prewriting skills are to provide lots of opportunities for cutting (please stick to child size scissors and lots of close supervision, lest you be the victim of an unexpected haircut.) Kids love playdough and it a great work out for their little hands. Picking up small objects is a great way to build these skills as well. Provide snacks such as cheerios, raisins, and goldfish on a plate or other flat surface.

See the world… at least the world around you! When you are out and about talk with your child. See what they know. Help them to figure out new things based on the information that they already have and what they see around them. Impart your knowledge onto them. You are a super hero! They will soak up all the knowledge you have to share with them. Visit the zoo, a farm, or a local bakery. Follow up with some books. Before you read them, ask your child what they already know about the subject and what they would like to know. After you are all done reading talk about all the cool things you learned! Be sure to show them how impressed you are with everything they already knew. They are awesome learners and you are awesome teachers! Most importantly have fun and enjoy watching your child learn and grow!

To learn more, please follow the links included. I hope you enjoyed this post. Please be sure to check in frequently for more. See you soon!