By: McKenna Meyers. I’m a writer, a life coach, and a former pre-school and kindergarten teacher. I have a master’s degree in special education and a son with autism.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).