33 Reasons to Choose a Play-Based Preschool, Not an Academic One
Play-Based Preschool Means Happier, Healthier Kids
- Did 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?
Did you know that what's taught at academic preschools often involves the most superficial kind of learning that inhibits initiative and independence?
That we have decades of research in developmental psychology that shows play is the most effective way for young children to learn, develop social skills, and regulate their emotions?
Among children and teens, play has decreased dramatically during the past 50 to 60 years with a corresponding increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide?
Researchers have linked a lack of play to increased narcissism and decreased empathy in young people?
If you're surprised by these facts, you probably bought into the "earlier is better" obsession that reigns supreme in US preschool and elementary schools today. Parental anxiety is at an all-time high as parents push to get 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-focused lessons. The impact on kids is devastating.
Benefits of Play-Based Learning
Below, you'll find the overarching benefits of sending a child to a play-based (rather than academic) preschool. Play-based schools encourage the development of the following skills:
- Imagination (to inspire increased engagement, independent learning, creativity, hands-on learning, vocabulary enrichment, and expanded perspectives)
- Language Development and Vocabulary Skills (learned through increased self-awareness, communication skills, shared expertise, social engagement, and bilingual opportunities)
- Social Skills (etiquette, independent problem-solving, empathy development, less exposure to negative aspects of technology, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution skills, and the foundational skills for academics)
- Emotional Development (self-soothing mechanisms, the benefits of roleplaying, emotional skills, expression, and outlet, personal empowerment, emotional preparedness and flexibility, and balance)
- Math and Spatial Understanding (spatial awareness, foundational vocabulary for math, real-world applications, the perception that math is fun, developmentally appropriate education, and foundational concepts)
The individual and specific skills a child learns through play are explored in detail below.
33 Benefits of a Play-Based Curriculum
- Increased Engagement. 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.
- Independent Learning. Today, busy parents over-program their youngsters with structured activities (music lessons, sports teams, dance classes, etc.) 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.
- Creativity and Imagination. 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.
- Hands-On Learning. 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.
- Rich Vocabularies. 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, or airport) to stimulate children's creative thinking and enrich their conversations.
- Expanded Perspectives. 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?"
- Self-Awareness. 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.”
- Language Skills. 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. For example when they play hospital, children share and discover new words to use (from one another as well as the teacher) such as emergency, operation, surgeon, fever, stitches, and concussion.
- Shared Expertise. A youngster with more real-world experience and a more advanced vocabulary of terms teaches those 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.
- Social Engagement. 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.
- Communication and Conversation Skills. 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 that words can be powerful tools when working with others toward a shared goal.
- Bilingual Opportunities. 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.
In this must-see video, a researcher links the increase in anxiety and depression among children to the decline of play.
13. People Skills and Etiquette. 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. Independent Problem-Solving. 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. Empathy. 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. Less Exposure to Models of Aggression and Violence. 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. Emotional Intelligence. 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. Conflict Resolution Skills. 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. The Foundational Skills for Academics. 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.
20. Self-Soothing Mechanisms. 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. The Psychological Benefits of Roleplaying. Children use dramatic play in 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. Emotional Skills. In dramatic play, 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. Emotional Expression and Outlet. 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. Personal Empowerment. 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. Emotional Preparedness and Flexibility. 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. Practice With Conflict. 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. Balance. In many US preschools today, we stress academic learning and structured activities 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.
28. Spatial Awareness. 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, even with limited information. This is helpful when reading a map, interpreting diagrams and charts, and building sound structures (as learned with with blocks and LEGOS). Spatial awareness an important ability in math, science, and technology.
29. The Foundational Concepts of Math. 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. Real-World Applications. 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. The Perception That Math Is Fun. 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. Developmentally Appropriate Education. Much of math education at preschool—calendar activities, counting to 100, writing numerals—is not only meaningless to young children, it is developmentally inappropriate. Youngsters learn math concepts best through dramatic play and hands-on activities.
33. Foundational Vocabularies for Math. Children discuss valuable math concepts in a meaningful way during play. When children pretend to cook in the kitchen area, they talk about sequencing (first, get a bowl and spoon), fractions (I need half a stick of butter), measurements (pour in 2 cups of milk), and counting (beat in four eggs).
In this video, we learn about the infinite learning that takes place with block play.
What Happens If Kids Don't 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, valuing their long-range benefits of fostering independent and self-motivated learners. Sadly, we in the US are extremely shortsighted, sending our youngsters to academic preschools so they'll be prepared for kindergarten.
Did you attend a play-based preschool as a child?
If so, what was your favorite activity?
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What preschool programs have play-based learning philosophies?
Popular preschool programs with play-based learning philosophies are Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, forest schools, and co-ops. While each one is unique in its approach, they share a common belief that children learn best by interacting with their surroundings in a joyful, developmentally-appropriate way.
Montessori allows for long blocks of time for children to explore materials without interruption. Waldorf emphasizes real life experiences such as cooking, baking, gardening, and knitting. Reggio Emilia emphasizes learning that stems from children's innate curiosity. Forest schools embrace the outdoors as the ideal place for youngsters to investigate. Co-ops celebrate the innumerable ways to inspire creativity and imagination in kids when parents help facilitate it.
For more information on preschool programs with play-based philosophies, read: “Montessori, Waldorf, & Co-op: Why Philosophy Matters at Preschool.” https://wehavekids.com/education/Montessori-Waldorf-Co-op-What-Preschool-Is-Right-for-Your-Child
What preschool programs aren't play-based?
Today, we're seeing the rise of so-called transitional kindergartens at school districts across the nation. Sadly, they're not play-based. Many of them are conducted in classrooms that are too small, aren't properly equipped with materials, provide few opportunities for pretend play, and have no designated outdoor space. They have no philosophy at all but just a goal to prepare students academically for kindergarten. Some school districts hire teachers from within their own ranks to teach these classes—educators with K-5 teaching credentials but no background or degree in early childhood education.
Where can I find a play-based preschool near me?
Before beginning your local search, I strongly suggest you do some reading on the sites of two highly respected organizations that advocate for play-based learning. One is the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) https://www.naeyc.org/ and the other is Defending the Early Years (DEY) https://dey.org/#
After gaining a firm understanding of what constitutes play-based learning and why play matters so much in early childhood, search online for preschools near your home. Focus on Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, co-ops, and forest schools. Set up appointments to visit a few during their normal school day. This will give you a true sense of what their programs are like and whether or not they're a good fit for you and your child.
Ask friends, neighbors, and other parents in your community for their recommendations. Be wary of moms and dads, though, who believe that preparing a child academically for kindergarten should be the primary aim. Any parent who supports play-based learning understands that its benefits (promoting curiosity, independence, initiative, and a love of acquiring knowledge) are lifetime goals, not just goals for the next school year.
Questions & Answers
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.Helpful 49
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.”Helpful 40
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!Helpful 18
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.”Helpful 15
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© 2017 McKenna Meyers