Play is the process by which children are learning

Do you ever find yourself wondering or having to explain the question, what are kids learning through play? If you have had this happen, you are definitely not alone!

“Play gives children the chance to practice what they are learning.”  This quote by Fred Rogers is one that I have always enjoyed and strive to keep in mind as I plan for each day in my classroom.

The value of play

There are so many things to say about the value of play in the preschool classroom and yet it is often one of the most difficult concepts to explain to parents and other adults when asked, “How can the children be learning when all they do is play all day?”

Observe play

To answer this question, one actually has to know what kinds of learning is actually happening through children’s play. Observing children at play is the first step we take towards recognizing what kinds of learning is taking place through play.

Talk about play

We also talk about play a lot! Observing play helps my staff and I to pay attention to what is happening but talking about play helps us to verbalize what is happening. We often find that we can observe the same activity in the classroom and yet come away with entirely different observations. By talking about our observations, we are enlightened by each other and are practicing the skill of verbalizing the value of play.

Reflect on play

My assistant teachers and I spend a great deal of time reflecting on how the role of play is being used to achieve our objectives in the classroom. We spend time talking about what the children did, how they responded, what they seemed to understand, what skills they are mastering, and what they seem to be learning through their play. By reflecting on play, my staff and I are better able to appreciate play, understand play, recognize the role of play in learning, and plan for future play experiences.

Plan for play

Planning for play also helps give us the ability to speak more easily about the role of play in our classroom. For example, if we want the children to explore and talk about the different bones of a human body we start by asking the question, “How can my students explore the bones of a human body through play?”  I call this “planning for play.”  Planning for play helps my staff and I to more easily answer the question, “what are the children are learning?” We can speak so much more fluidly to the objectives of play when we have included play in our planning right from the very start.

Prepare for Play

The classroom environment is a critical component for learning through play. Everything in the classroom should be contributing in some way to the child’s experience. Everything in the classroom should be designed for building independence. Everything in the classroom should be hands-on. Everything in the classroom should be intentional. If the classroom environment is designed for play, then one can speak easily as to how play is contributing to the child’s growth and development as well as the kinds of learning taking place. If I want my students to work cooperatively, solve a puzzle, and discuss the parts of the human body then I need to make sure I have provided the materials, space, time and opportunities for them to explore the process fully and independently.

Believe in Play

Before anyone can speak confidently about the value of play or the types of learning a child can achieve through play, one has to actually believe that young children really can and really do learn through play. I often hear folks say, “I allow my students to play in centers twice a day.” or “My students get 45 minutes of free play every morning.” I am beginning to realize that if one truly believes that play is the foundation for real and meaningful learning to take place then those same statements could be translated as, “I allow my students to learn twice a day” or “My students get to learn for 45 minutes every morning.” Would this be what is intended?

You see, we might be confusing parents. If play is the foundation by which young children achieve true, meaningful, and lasting learning, then play (or free play) can’t be spoken about as if it is a “break from learning.” Instead, play must be spoken about as the path towards learning…

Communicate play as learning

This morning, I read a book to the children about human skeleton bones. it was a pretty simple book but I was hoping it would inspire some interest in the material I had out in the classroom.

After we read a book about human skeletons, the children spent the rest of the morning learning all about skeleton bones by exploring the concept of bones all around the classroom.

The children talked about bones, dug for bones, weighed and measured bones, and even tried making some of their own bones out of clay.  

Some of the children worked cooperatively to recreate the human skeleton using each other as their human template.

Some of the children found the clay super engaging and boy did they work those fine motor skills forming all different sizes of bones out of that clay!

I was completely blown away by how much the children already knew about human skeletons as I listened to their conversations throughout the day.

When the children are so engaged in learning, it is always hard to break the news that it’s time to stop, clean-up, and get ready for snack but since the children had so much fun and time to explore, they were ready for a good snack and everyone pitched in to get the job done.

To play is to learn

The examples I have shared today focus on a more planned form of play in that I have prepared the environment and set the stage for play to revolve around a specific topic in my prekindergarten classroom. But it is important to note that all forms of play (natural and planned) have value but the word “play” or “play-based” can easily be misconstrued or convoluted if it is not fully understood. I love this article titled “Why I don’t like play based learning” by Happiness is Here Blog. If you haven’t read it yet, I think it shares some good things to consider as we continue our journey towards giving young children healthy and true play-based experiences.

Young children need time to investigate their environment, build new skills, develop new understanding, master new concepts, recognize how to get along with others, strengthen daily life skills, realize their creative potential, establish healthy attitudes about themselves, life, and learning – and they can do this all through play.

Available on Amazon

Links to Grow On

Learning about the Skeleton Inside You by Teach Preschool

14 Fun Flower Activities for Preschoolers by Teach Preschool

The Power of Play by Teach Preschool

Deborah J Stewart

Deborah J Stewart

Every time I think I know everything I need to know about teaching young children, God says, "Hold on a minute!" and gives me a new challenge.

Let me tell ya...

With each new challenge that you overcome, you will find yourself better equipped and more passionate about teaching young children.

God didn't call wimps to lead, teach, or care for His children. Nope, he has high expectations, so get ready. You will have to give your very best but after teaching for over 30 years, I can tell you that it is a wonderful and rewarding journey.

Whenever your calling feels hard, just remember, 'He who began a good work in you (and in the children you serve) will be faithful to complete it.'

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