“It is not play versus learning, but play and learning.”1
-Dr. Kyle Snow, Director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Center for Applied Research
As a parent without a formal background in education, I felt overwhelmed when choosing a preschool for my kid. So many options, so many buzzwords, not to mention the waiting lists. Frankly, it made me a little panicky that education for a 3-year-old was so complicated. Did I have to choose between my child becoming a Mandarin-speaking math prodigy or actually having fun? If I made the wrong choice at this point, would I be dooming my child to a cascade of lost opportunities and academic failure in the future? Melodrama aside, I had a valid concern that an overly academic program would turn her off school and thwart her natural desire to learn, but wondered if a play-based program would just be a glorified daycare with no real learning potential.
Just a year later, my almost four-year-old is absolutely loving her experience at Albany Preschool. Every day she plays, schemes and strategizes with friends. She imagines and creates and builds, and gets pretty darn messy and sweaty outdoors, all in a loving and supportive environment. I’ve seen her intelligence, self-control, empathy and creativity blossom. Frankly, it’s a humbling thing to witness as a parent; in trying to become a better one, I’ve started to spy on the APS teachers to figure out what the secret is. It turns out our teachers do a million things to scaffold the kids’ growth. They do subtle things you might not pay attention to, but those actions and preparations make the greatest difference to children as they start to figure out their world. Our teachers understand how small children learn. They understand the power of play. And that’s what makes Albany Preschool special: that we are truly play-based. I’m only beginning to see how much that foundational perspective affects everything my kid experiences daily at school, and how blessed I feel that we ended up at this school. It turns out that we didn’t have to choose between learning and play after all…
The importance of play: It’s how young children learn
“Strong preschool experiences will help a child think, ‘I am a good learner. I can find problems to solve. I can master a difficult task.’ These experiences show preschool children the power that learning holds.”2
Very young children learn quite differently than older children or adults. Quite simply, they are learning to learn. The good news is that they’re naturally good at it. They make sense of the world through all five senses, and they are constantly developing in multiple areas: cognitive, language, physical, social and emotional. When the environment around them is nurturing and interesting, children naturally build their understanding of the world around them, and this helps them gain confidence in their growing abilities.
Most of us realize that preschoolers won’t benefit from flash cards or rote memorization, but do we understand how they learn best?
“Perhaps direct instruction can help children learn specific facts and skills, but what about curiosity and creativity—abilities that are even more important for learning in the long run? Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play…But there is an intrinsic trade off between [didactic] learning and the more wide-ranging learning that is so natural for young children. Knowing this, it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.”3
-Dr. Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley
The beauty of free play
Free play—play without defined scripts or goals, fueled by imagination, often outdoors, often in groups, and often using loose parts or found materials– is the backbone of a play-based program. At APS, children choose and direct their activities. During opening circle, the day’s various options are presented by the teachers with an invitation to join in (here’s what’s happening in the yard today, in the games room, at the art table, at the snack table). It’s amazing how excited the kids are to head to their favorite activities. Mine generally rushes for a seat at the art table, devotes a substantial chunk of time to dress-up and games, enjoys a snack and spends the rest of the time outdoors digging in the sand, sliding/swinging/biking or playing with water. It’s not always in that order, but she generally makes a tour of the entire school every day. Other kids devote themselves deeply to a specific interest or project. Everything, from our process-not-product approach to art to the self-serve snack table, is designed to spark a child’s interest and grow their learning in a nurturing but non-directive manner.* Outdoor play, so critical to early development in myriad ways, is something APS excels at. Our children choose to spend a lot of time outdoors. There is no assigned recess time; they have open access to outdoor space at any time. That means APS kids can enjoy up to 2.5 hours outdoors per half-day, in any season and all elements.
What are they learning through play?4
(Adapted from Let Me Be Me by Dr. Zohraida Sibtain Karim)
|Example of activity||What a child is learning|
|Playing with blocks||Foundation for logical mathematical thinking
Improves visual memory
Learn to match, classify, sort by shape and size
|Drawing||How to use symbols to represent ideas (necessary for reading/writing)|
|Stringing bead necklace||Improving hand-eye coordination (necessary for learning to write)
Learn to match, classify, sort by shape and size
|Mixing colors of paint||Developing understanding of cause and effect|
|Pretend play||Improving language and social skills
Developing understanding of social expectations
Sharing and empathy
|Active play||Gross motor skills, fine motor skills
Agility, coordination and balance
|Building towers||Basic engineering and problem solving|
On social-emotional development and group dynamics
I think every parent who sends their child to preschool wants to know that their child is learning to express themselves, to play and communicate well with peers, and to self-regulate emotions and behaviors. Emotional competence, in addition to being a necessary life skill, is also linked to how well kids will transition to school and how well they perform academically in early grades. It depends on a child’s natural disposition as well as experience dealing with others. Preschool is an important time to build that experience, and a play-based environment gives children space to initiate their own ideas and learn social skills. APS is very group-oriented; almost all activities involve groups of kids coming together around common interests. When children create with their friends, they learn to present their ideas to each other and to negotiate strategies together. They gain skills in planning, problem-solving and cooperation. They learn to approach conflict with empathy and to become considerate of others. In cases of disaster (such as a Magna-tile tower crashing down) they learn to rebuild together or to invent new forms of play. They become resilient.
Asking the hard questions
- Tell me the truth, does “play-based” just mean a chaotic free-for-all?
APS is such a happy, peaceful, and fun place. Teachers provide a learning environment that is challenging and nurturing, supportive and non-judgmental. They do an amazing job of scaffolding (if, like me, you’re not an educator, that means that they set up opportunities for building learning). For a child, it’s comforting to know that the day begins with circle time, that the activities for the day will be explained, and that they can pick up on their favorite activity or start something new with friends. My daughter adores and trusts all of her APS teachers. Sometimes they engage and invite her into play; often they observe in the background, letting kids really get into things with their peers without interruption and only providing guidance or intervention when needed.
- But will my child be ready for school when the time comes?
Hopefully by now I’ve made the point that learning how to learn is more important in the preschool years than learning specific facts. Learning letters, numbers, handwriting, etc. is included in the curriculum, but not the focus. APS teachers do evaluate specific skills that children will need in kindergarten, and it turns out that APS graduates are very well prepared. The reason? Our children come out of APS with a strong disposition to learn, with confidence in creativity, exploration and adaptability, and with empathy and strong social skills.
They love to learn, and that is something that every parent wants for their child.
Sources and suggested reading
- Snow, Kyle. “Research news you can use: debunking the play vs. learning dichotomy.” National Association for the Education of Young Children, www.naeyc.org/content/research-news-you-can-use-play-vs-learning. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- “Grade-by-grade learning: Preschool.” PBS Parents, www.pbs.org/parents/education/going-to-school/grade-by-grade/preschool. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- Gopnik, Alison. “Why preschool shouldn’t be like school.” Slate, 16 Mar. 2011, www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/03/why_preschool_shouldnt_be_like_school. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- Karim, Zohraida Sibtain. Let Me Be Me. Rosedog Books, 2017.
Fitzgerald, Meghan. “Let ‘em spin! They’re learning.” Tinkergarten, 14 Jan. 2017, blog.tinkergarten.com/blog/2017/2/2/let-em-spin-theyre-learning. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
Wisler, Joelle. “Unstructured Play Is The Parenting Miracle We’ve All Been Hoping For (Really).” Scarymommy, www.scarymommy.com/unstructured-play-is-parenting-miracle. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick, et al. Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How our children really learn–and why they need to play more and memorize less. Rodale Books, 2004.
Doorley, Rachelle. Tinkerlab: A hands-on guide for little inventors. Roost Books, 2014.
Van’t Hul, Jean. The artful parent. Roost Books, 2013.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Position statement: Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8.” Adopted 2009. www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PSDAP.pdf. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
*Examples of taking play to the next level
One warm day this week, the children were enjoying splashing in the water outside and decided to make a water slide by directing the water down their slide. Then they decided to construct dams made out of sand to hold the water up, and enjoyed seeing how it changed the water flow. Teacher Nancy came by with some food coloring and dropped it in; now they could see how the color dispersed and moved with the changing current. It was all about them exploring interests and building on their knowledge to understand the world around them.
Another example of fluid play: not long ago, a large amount of Styrofoam was donated to the school from somebody’s computer boxes. The children first decided to color it with markers. Then some boys decided to make a school out of it. A group of girls took over then and converted the structure into a rocket ship. Over the several days it was left out, the project evolved several more times, each new iteration bearing the unique ideas of a group of friends working together.
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