33 Reasons to Choose a Play-Based Preschool, Not an Academic One

Updated on January 10, 2020
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During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.

The most important role of a preschool teacher is to facilitate play
The most important role of a preschool teacher is to facilitate play | Source

Play-Based Preschools Foster Happier and Healthier Children

  • Do you know play-based preschools promote the deepest kind of learning by encouraging kids to become self-directed learners who explore, develop curiosity, and solve their own problems?

  • Do you know what's taught at academic preschools involves the most superficial kind of learning that inhibits initiative and independence?

  • Do you know we have decades of research in developmental psychology that show play is the most effective way for young children to learn, develop social skills, and regulate their emotions?

  • Do you know that play has decreased dramatically during the past 50-60 years with a corresponding increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide among children and teens?

  • Do you know that researchers have linked a lack of play to increased narcissism and decreased empathy among young people?

If you're surprised by these facts, you're probably a mom or dad who's bought into the earlier is better obsession that reigns supreme in the United States today. Anxiety is at an all-time high as parents want their children academically prepared for kindergarten. As a result, preschools have become less about play, creativity, and socialization and more about pre-reading skills, long circle times, and teacher-directed lessons. The impact on kids is devastating.

The Erosion of Play

Like so many in the field of early childhood education, I worry about the erosion of play in our children's lives as technology takes up more space in their heads and fills up more hours in their days. During my final five years of teaching preschool, I witnessed a new and disturbing phenomenon that troubled me then and continues to haunt me now: 4 and 5-year-old youngsters who didn't know how to engage in dramatic play!

What kids once did so magnificently and naturally—using their imaginations and pretending to be firefighters, chefs, doctors, veterinarians, and superheroes—is now out of grasp for many of them. Without a doubt, this loss of creativity will have profound negative consequences for these youngsters and for society as a whole. Other countries esteem play-based preschools, seeing the long-range benefits of fostering independent and self-motivated learners. Sadly, we in the United States are extremely shortsighted, sending our youngsters to academic preschools so they'll be prepared for kindergarten.

33 Benefits of a Play-Based Preschool

Dramatic Play and Imagination

1. Lawrence K. Frank, an expert in human development, said this about the value of play: “Play...is the way the child learns what no one can teach him. It is the way he explores and orients himself to the actual world of space and time, of things, animals, structures, and people. Through play the child practices and rehearses endlessly the complicated and subtle patterns of human living and communication which he must master if he is to become a participating adult in our social life.”

2. Today, busy parents over-program their youngsters with structured activities (music lessons, sports teams, dance classes) and allow far too much screen time. Young children have little opportunity to play without adult interference. For many of them, preschool is the only place where they can use their imaginations while interacting with peers.

3. Sadly, kindergarten is no longer a place where play and imagination are encouraged. Many classrooms are void of toys and dramatic play areas. Children now spend time doing highly structured activities such as reading groups, math centers, and workbooks. This makes it even more crucial that preschools are creative environments where kids have a say in what activities they wish to do.

4. Many scholars in early childhood education believe a preschool teacher's most important function is to facilitate play. As children spend more time with technology, it's critical that they have opportunities at preschool to build their imaginations instead of getting spoon-fed information.

5. Recent studies show that preschool teachers can help children reach higher levels of make-believe play that bolster their imaginations, build their vocabularies, and enhance their social skills. They can set up dramatic play areas in their classrooms (a post office, hair salon, pet store, market, dentist's office, airport) to stimulate children's creative thinking and enrich their conversations.

6. It was once thought only children with special needs such as autism required help with learning how to play. Now, though, early childhood experts believe all kids benefit from it. Good teachers help kids plan their play and extend it for days to come.

7. A skilled teacher asks questions to promote dramatic play. For example, if the children are pretending to work at a hospital, she might ask: “What role do you want—nurse, doctor, patient, or visitor? What will you use for the operating room, the waiting room, and the therapy room? How will you continue play tomorrow?"

In this must-see video, a researcher links the increase in anxiety and depression among children to the decline of play

Play, Language, and Vocabulary

8. Play is the most effective way to promote language skills (using proper tone of voice, eye contact, facial cues, hand gestures, body language) and build vocabulary. In the hospital scenario, children discover new words to use from one another (as well as the teacher) such as emergency, operation, surgeon, fever, stitches, and concussion.

9. A youngster with a more advanced vocabulary and more real-world experiences teaches new words to other children in a natural and fun way through play. A child whose mother is a doctor becomes the expert in the hospital scenario. A youngster whose dad works in construction gets his turn to shine when the scenario involves a building site.

10. When children are toddlers, they engage in parallel play—playing near one another but not with one another. When they're 3 and 4-year-olds at preschool, they're just beginning to interact with friends and are eager to talk. Limiting their conversations by having them sit still for long periods at circle time is counterproductive.

11. When children are playing at preschool, they develop the fine art of conversation. They learn how to take turns, negotiate, state their argument, and defend their point of view. They discover words are powerful when working with others toward a shared goal.

12. Play gives children an opportunity to develop language in a fun and meaningful way. For youngsters who aren't native speakers, it's a time to speak in their new language without feeling pressured or scrutinized. It also gives them time to speak in their first language so they don't lose their bilingualism.

Play and Social Skills

13. Because they've only recently transitioned from parallel play to group play, preschoolers need lots of time to practice their social abilities such as sharing, taking turns, and listening. These are all the people skills that will come in handy during their entire lives.

14. Playing together is the best way for children to learn how to solve their own problems. An astute teacher knows how to stand back and watch, letting the kids maneuver these new social situations and intervening only when necessary.

15. According to experts in early childhood education, children need to develop empathy—the ability to see things from someone else's viewpoint—before they can truly share. This happens around age 6 says author and pediatrician, Dr. William Sears. Before that time, playing with one another—cooperating and working toward a shared goal—helps them appreciate the value of sharing and sets the foundation for empathy.

16. Some early childhood experts, such as Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, fear that youngsters are losing their imaginations (and their innocence) because they're bombarded with mass-media images. She writes: “Today, children commonly imitate in play what they have seen in movies, video games, and other electronic media as well as TV, and use media-linked toys that further encourage replication of what's been seen on the screen. And often what children imitate are the models of aggression and violence seen on the screen.”

17. Employers today seek workers with emotional intelligence (EI). People with strong EI know how to build positive relationships, resolve conflicts, and manage their emotions. They're self-aware and empathetic. Children learn these skills during the early years of life when they're given opportunities to play with one another.

18. It's inevitable that conflicts arise when children play at preschool. If they cannot resolve the problem on their own, it gives the teacher a wonderful opportunity to intervene. She can help the kids develop the necessary social and emotional skills to handle the dispute. This is a far more important role than leading the group at circle time, reading books, or teaching about colors.

19. A child's social skills in the early years are a significant indicator of future school success. Youngsters who show antisocial behavior drop out of high school at higher rates.

In this video, Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige discusses the negative impact of academic preschools

Play and Emotional Development

20. According to child psychologists, play is the way kids make sense of the world. When they become frightened, confused, or stressed, they use play as a way to soothe themselves and come to terms with the situation.

21. Children use dramatic play at preschool to comfort themselves after a traumatic experience. A youngster who went to the doctor and got a shot may re-create that scenario again and again as she pretends she's a doctor giving shots to friends.

22. In dramatic play at preschool, children can express a wide-range of emotions (anger, sorrow, joy) that are not always acceptable in everyday life. Since they control the scenario, they feel powerful about handling these intense feelings.

23. When playing house at school, children can work through their own family stresses. A youngster whose parents are divorcing can bring that into the play, explaining to his friends that some moms and dads don't get along and need to live apart. A kid who has a new sibling may want to create a scenario where there's a crying baby who needs a diaper change.

24. Sigmund Freud spoke about play and how it can empower youngsters. He said every child at play “behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him.”

25. Children reach a state of equilibrium when playing. This gives them the emotional and mental readiness to tackle new and challenging tasks at school.

26. Children will inevitably experience conflicts while playing and this is a good thing. It gives them the opportunity to deal with their feelings of anger and frustration. They learn how to regulate their emotions and settle their disputes so the fun can continue.

27. Today, we stress academic learning and structured activities at preschool over free play. Not coincidentally, we now see a huge increase in emotional disorders in children. This is a high price to pay for early academic achievement that's largely meaningless.

Play and Math

28. A recent study showed that young children who play with puzzles have better spatial skills. They're able to think about objects in three dimensions and draw conclusions about them with limited information. This is helpful when reading a map, interpreting diagrams and charts, and building structures with blocks and LEGOS. It's an important ability in math, science, and technology.

29. Playing with blocks on the rug at preschool is the ideal way for kids to learn about math in a fun and natural way. By building and talking, kids learn concepts such as shape and size, area, measurement, and geometry.

30. When children engage in dramatic play—running a grocery store, beauty salon, or restaurant—they learn about math. They discover how to use a cash register, recognize coins and bills, give change, and set prices.

31. Math at preschool is best learned through play, not teacher-directed lessons, calendar activities, or counting games. Math concepts get introduced through materials such as puzzles, blocks, Geo-boards, Unifix cubes, beads, and LEGOS.

32. Much of math education at preschool—calendar activities, counting to 100, writing numerals—is meaningless to young children and developmentally inappropriate. Youngsters learn math concepts best through dramatic play and hands-on activities.

33. Children discuss valuable math concepts in a meaningful way during play. When children pretend to cook in the kitchen area, they talk about fractions (I need half a stick of butter), measurement (Pour in 2 cups of milk), counting (Beat in four eggs), and sequencing (First, stir the batter).

In this video, we learn about the infinite learning that takes place with block play

A Simple Set of Blocks Teaches So Much About Math

KidKraft Wooden Block Set (60-Piece)
KidKraft Wooden Block Set (60-Piece)

Every family with a preschooler should have a set of quality blocks like these at home. Blocks not only promote math skills but they stimulate conversations that make kids think about engineering and architecture: How can we make this tower bigger and stronger? How can we build this bridge wider? How can we create a city that won't collapse during an earthquake? Blocks arouse curiosity, expand vocabulary, and bring together different ideas for a common goal.


Did you attend a play-based preschool as a child?

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Questions & Answers

  • My son's preschool has a learning through play approach. Is "learning through play" the same as a play-based preschool?

    No, it's not. Almost all preschool directors give lip service to the idea that children learn through play (if they don't, they're ridiculously uninformed about the research in early childhood education). Many of their programs, though, are highly structured and academic with long circle times, teacher-directed lessons, paper-pencil tasks, rote learning, and very little time set aside for play.

    Sadly, many programs that tout learning through play are actually very adult-centered. The teachers have a full agenda, act as the ringleaders, are seen as the source of all knowledge, and are the ones who establish the curriculum. Instead of capitalizing on the children's unique interests, they have preordained units about weather, authors, pets, manners, planets, and so on. The school's philosophy and curriculum don't recognize play as the foundation for all early learning but just one ingredient.

    Conversely, a play-based preschool is highly child-centered. The youngsters themselves determine what they want to do, what they want to explore, and how they will use their time, their imaginations, and their curiosities. Their learning is determined by them, not by adults. This makes it all the more personal and, thus, powerful.

    While a teacher's presence isn't overwhelming in a play-based preschool, she still has a definite plan and has set up the classroom and activities to enhance play, curiosity, and socialization. Kids have plenty of opportunities to use their imaginations, develop their language skills, build their vocabularies, and practice sharing, cooperating, and interacting. She's devised dramatic play centers where kids can pretend to be veterinarians, chefs, architects, and engineers. She has a puppet theater and stage where kids can perform. She has loads of art supplies and sensory bins where kids can create and explore. She has a lot going on outside so children can reap the health benefits of being in nature.

    In a play-based program, the teacher is extremely respectful of the children's play. She knows it promotes the skills necessary for reading, writing, and math. She's constantly circulating throughout the classroom and facilitating play. She sees it as her most important role as a teacher of young children. You may even join in to optimize the children's play experiences when she sees a need and then vanish so the kids can continue without adult intervention.

    You may want to read my article entitled, “5 Things Children Learn at Preschool That Are a Waste of Time and Not Developmentally Appropriate.”


  • Could you please give me your thoughts and input about the Montessori philosophy? I am strongly considering this for my son’s preschool and elementary because they seem to teach everything through play and independence.

    You're fortunate to live in a town that offers Montessori for both preschool and elementary. It's such a beautiful philosophy and a shame that it's only offered for very young children in most places. Today, when preschools and kindergartens are too academic, too structured, and too adult-centered, Montessori offers a refreshing alternative. Best of all, it's child-centered and supported by decades of research in early childhood education.

    Montessori will take you and your youngster on a less-traveled path, and that's a good thing with our current emphasis on Common Core, standardized testing, assessments, and early reading. Unlike many educators today, the Montessori teacher is not a taskmaster who's brow-beating or bribing students to pay attention, complete their assignments, and memorize information for tests.

    The Montessori philosophy embraces the big picture: encouraging creative, curious, motivated, and emotionally well-adjusted youngsters who love to learn, explore, and discover by themselves. Maria Montessori summed it up perfectly with these words: “The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, 'The children are now working as if I did not exist.'”

    One of the biggest benefits of a child attending Montessori is being surrounded by teachers, parents, and kids who share a common philosophy. That builds a strong sense of cooperation and community that's rare at schools today. It makes everyone feel involved and invested and studies show how vital that is to a positive learning environment.

    You may want to read my article titled, “Why Parents Should Choose a Preschool With a Strong Philosophy.”


  • How do we know if it’s play-based? We’re looking at a Montessori program. Would that be considered play? Waldorf? I love this article, but unsure what to do next.

    You're on the right track by looking at preschools with strong philosophies (Montessori, Waldorf, and play-based). As someone who's taught at several preschools and visited dozens more, I'd say this is the single most crucial element for finding a fun, creative, stimulating, and loving environment for your child. A strong philosophy is everything in today's climate as too many preschools have been reduced to just one thing: preparing kids academically for kindergarten.

    Because of Common Core and pressure from anxious (but uninformed) parents, some preschool directors are now offering highly structured programs that are adult-centered and academic. They may give lip service to the notion that children learn through play, but the school day doesn't reflect that with long circle times, paper-pencil tasks, and teacher-led activities. Preschool directors with a strong philosophy won't kowtow to what's trendy. They won't cave in to what old male politicians in Washington D. C. with no background in early childhood education demand.

    Sadly, some school districts now have so-called “transitional kindergarten” to prepare kids for kindergarten. Some of the teachers come from k-12 education and have no background in early childhood education and no knowledge about the value of play. We in the United States insist on doing more of the wrong thing. Then we wonder why it doesn't work and why more children and teens are suffering from anxiety, depression, and narcissism.

    While Montessori is not the same as a play-based preschool, they are similar in many fundamental ways. Most significantly, they're both child-centered. The youngsters choose their own activities and their learning comes from their experiences. The teacher is not front-and-center, imparting information to the group and being seen as the source of all knowledge. With Montessori and play-based preschools, there's no one-size-fits-all curriculum. Children's unique interests and curiosities guide what they learn.

    The biggest difference between the two is that Montessori children learn more through concrete materials while play-based children learn more through their imaginations at dramatic play centers. You may want to read my article entitled, “Why Parents Should Choose a Preschool With a Strong Philosophy. “


    I write about Montessori, Waldorf, and play-based co-ops and why they are all wonderful because of their strong philosophies. At this point, you need to figure out what program will work best for your child and your family as a whole. In the article, I explain how I picked an absolutely fantastic play-based co-op for my son, but it proved to be a poor fit for him and Montessori would have been better.

    This is an exciting time for you and your child. It's really a beautiful thing when you choose a preschool with a strong philosophy and enjoy the many benefits of being around moms and dads with similar beliefs and parenting styles. I've known many parents who've sent their children to Waldorf schools for preschool and beyond and would never consider doing anything else. Thanks for your question!

  • Do you allow reprints? I would like to reprint this article in my daughter's preschool newsletter.

    I would love for you to share this article because it's a topic for which I have a lot of passion. I think many parents are clueless about the detrimental effects from too little play. It would be great if you could use the link https://wehavekids.com/education/Preschoolers-Lear...

    I get paid from the clicks. Also, I love the videos there and think parents would benefit from seeing them, especially Dr. Peter Gray's TED Talk about the rise of mental illness and the decrease in play.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      12 days ago

      Thanks, Marc, for expressing your passion for play. For our children's physical and emotional well-being, we adults need to start advocating for it. As anxiety rates among children continue to increase, we need to appreciate that play is the key to combating it.

    • bluesradio profile image

      Marc Lee 

      12 days ago from Durham, NC

      Play is one of the ways we learn and develop our social skills so for schools to take away this vital element of development is just plain WRONG and EVIL!!!!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 months ago

      Celine, good luck on your dissertation. The DEY (Defending the Early Years) website is a fabulous resource. It has regular articles and blogs from long-time leaders in early childhood education such as Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Dr. Diane Levin as well as guest writers. It has lots of information on how Common Core hurts young children. DEY also has a YouTube channel.

    • profile image

      Celine tuzi 

      10 months ago

      Such an important topic I am actually doing my dissertation at the minute in parental perspectives on play in preschool. Any ideas where to get good literature or reports

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 months ago

      I so agree with you, Terri, and thanks for sharing the article about doubling recess. It just makes sense that kids would need a break after an hour of sitting. I sure do. We are all mentally sharper after moving our bodies and getting fresh air. We have the research and now we just need to put it in practice here in the United States

    • profile image

      Terri Harding 

      10 months ago

      So many people need to see this and actually pay attention. This and the removal of recess, and art from our schools is tragedy for our society. https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/doubli...

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 months ago

      Tania, it's a wonderful message to share and one so many adults need to hear.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 months ago

      Thanks for sharing the message about the value of play for preschoolers and all kids, Aine.

    • profile image

      Tania Akai 

      10 months ago

      So interesting to read about it again. I would love to deliver such messages to parents here in the cook islands

    • profile image


      10 months ago

      Have shared this on my preschool Page ... and I will be adding a link on our Newsletter. Excellent.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 months ago

      Geeta, I'm so pleased you wish to share my article with your preschool parents. Please include this link in your newsletter:


      I get paid for my articles based on the clicks I receive. This way they can view the 3 powerful videos in the piece as well. Thanks for spreading the message about the importance of play-based preschools!

    • profile image

      Geeta Ahuja 

      10 months ago

      I too would like to print in my preschool news letter... Pls guide if I can and how to get the text.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      22 months ago

      Yes, that sums it up, Kathryn. I don't know why politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats decided to focus on early childhood education and demand academic rigor there when we have so much research to prove it folly. I volunteered at my son's middle school for three years, and that's certainly a place where academic rigor is appropriate and sorely lacking. Students, such as my son, want more challenging classes with classmates who are motivated to learn but are told there are no options. Some parents have their children do classes online in math and science and then take them to middle school for orchestra, art, and P.E. High schools can definitely benefit from more vocational training classes but, oh no, we have to focus on preschool and kindergarten and take away play and creativity from 4 and 5-year-olds. Ugh!

    • Kathryn L Hill profile image

      Kathryn L Hill 

      22 months ago from LA

      I agree. Thank You for writing. Here is the crux of you message:


      "Not coincidentally, we now see a huge increase in emotional disorders in children. This is a high price to pay for early academic achievement that's largely meaningless."

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      23 months ago

      Thanks. While other countries value play at preschool, the U.S. is moving away from it. We're also seeing an increase in anxiety among our children and teens. It's definitely not a coincidence. Children need play for their mental, physical, and psychological well-being. What does this say about us as a nation that we so want to severely limit children's play in preschool and kindergarten? Nothing good.

    • profile image


      23 months ago

      Guiding, Thought provoking and Great Article .


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