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What to Look for in a Preschool: 33 Reasons Why Play Matters

Updated on June 13, 2017
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As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I see early childhood education moving in a harmful direction with less play and creativity.

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

Why Play Matters

When I taught preschool, the owner would give tours to perspective parents and sell her program by characterizing it as developmentally appropriate, child-centered, and play-based. While those buzzwords sounded impressive, they were just hollow catch-phrases she picked up at early childhood conferences and didn't accurately describe it at all. In reality, the program was highly structured and academically-focused with children spending a lot of time sitting at Circle Time, writing in workbooks, and doing adult-directed craft projects. Learning through play was certainly not the focus as it was at the parent cooperative preschool my sons had attended.

Like many in early childhood education, my boss knew enough to give lip service to the idea of learning through play. But, in truth, she knew very little about why it's so valuable to young children. Sadly, this is all-too-common among early childhood educators. Moms and dads, wanting to give their kids a jump-start in life and get them academically ready for elementary school, often see play as a waste of time. They need preschool owners and teachers to champion play and articulate its purpose. So, as our country foolishly moves toward “rigorous learning” in early education with checklists of skills for children to master, here are 33 reasons why play is so crucial.

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 in creative ways. 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 an environment where play and imagination get 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 encourage play and stimulate imaginations.

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

5. Recent studies show that 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 with the materials needed to stimulate different real-world environments such as the post office, the hair salon, the pet store, the market, the dentist's office, and the airport.

6. It was once thought only children with special needs such as autism required help with learning how to play, but now 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 play 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?

Now, More Than Ever, Young Children Need Help to Handle Conflicts and Develop Social Skills.

An exemplary preschool teacher knows when and how to intervene when problems arise. She knows this is her most important role -- far more valuable than leading Circle Time activities, reading books, and teaching about colors.
An exemplary preschool teacher knows when and how to intervene when problems arise. She knows this is her most important role -- far more valuable than leading Circle Time activities, reading books, and teaching about colors. | Source

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) 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. Another child whose dad works in construction gets his turn to shine when the scenario involves a building site.

10. When children are toddlers, they do parallel play. They play 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 of time at Circle Time while listening to a teacher is counterproductive.

11. When children are playing at preschool, they develop the fine art of conservation. They learn how to take turns, negotiate, state their argument, and defend their point of view. They discover how powerful words are for getting along and working 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.

An Early Childhood Expert Discuss the Harmful Effects When We Remove Play and Creativity From the Classroom

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. Many experts fear that youngsters are losing their imaginations and ability to play spontaneously with one another because they're bombarded with mass-media images. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, founder of “Defending the Early Years,” 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). A person with strong EI knows how to build positive relationships, resolve conflicts, and manage her emotions. She's 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 she plays 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.

Infinite Learning Takes Place With Block Play

Play and Math

20. 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.

21. 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.

22.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.

23.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.

24. 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.

25. 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”).

A Simple Set of Blocks Teaches So Much About Math

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.

Play and Emotional Development

26. 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 to way to soothe themselves and come to terms with the situation.

27. 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.

28. 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.

29. 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.

30. Sigmund Freud spoke to how play empowers youngsters, saying 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.”

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

32. 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.

33. 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.

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