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Learning Through Play in Early Childhood

Keep toddlers and preschoolers engaged, learning, and playing in everyday situations, to help them get ready for kindergarten and beyond.

Fred Rogers, host of the preschool television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, that aired for more than 30 years, said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” That’s great for the days you carve out time to go to the park, have a lightsaber battle in the yard, or stage a stuffed animal parade in the basement—you’re actually building your preschooler’s brain and preparing them for school.

“Children learn through play because by playing they develop imagination, which is crucial for development of abstract thought,” says Dr. Tamar Jacobson, an early childhood development and education consultant, author, and speaker. “Reading, writing, and math all require the ability for abstract thinking.”

All too often though, parents feel too busy and tired to play, while their toddlers and preschoolers are toted from one errand to the next. However, life doesn’t have to stop for learning-through-play to happen. “Children are learning all the time,” says Jacobson. “The question is what are they learning and how are we providing those experiences, relationships, attitudes, reactions to what and how they acquire their knowledge of the world around them?”

Teaching in All Situations

According to the book, Ready for School!: A Parent’s Guide to Playful Learning for Children Ages 2 to 5 by Rosemarie T. Truglio, parents are essential to young kids’ school readiness: “You know your child best, and that makes you uniquely equipped to nurture in your child a lifelong love of learning and curiosity about the world.” To help do so, remember the following:

• Talk to them.

Even when her children were very young, Arvada homeschool teacher Michelle Hill conversed with them. “I just talked to the babies like they were my friends, but more articulated,” she says. Hill would say, “I’m buying a rug! Do you like this rug? See? It’s soft [touch baby’s hand] and it’s red. See the red here?”

Jacobson agrees that parents should “talk with children constantly, with respect, without trivializing their thoughts, ideas, feelings, and by using open-ended questions.” For example, ask: “I wonder what would happen if…Where are you going? Look at the picture and tell me what you see; How did that happen?” She also recommends telling children stories about your own life.

Amy Cavanaugh Chally, director at Mountain View Preschool in Boulder, suggests giving young children relatable explanations. “Saying ‘because I said so’ is hard for a preschooler to understand,” she says. Instead, consider: “We clean up the toys so they do not get broken and so we know where to find them…We have to wipe our kitchen counters and clean our dishes so that we don’t get sick from the germs. It wouldn’t be fun to get sick.”

• Let them touch and feel.

“The younger the child, the more concrete their experiences should be,” says Jacobson. “Facilitate multiple opportunities to explore, prod, and pry, through hands-on, relevant, open-ended activities.”

Starting at six months old, Hill would let her son Jack hold, touch, see, and smell every vegetable she used while cooking dinner, as well as spices and curries. “I just tried to fill his senses,” she says.

With her younger son Niko, Hill discovered that due to a sensory disorder, he didn’t respond positively to experimenting with the five senses, but other physical experiences engaged him. “Niko taught us that swinging, spinning, climbing, deep pressure, and so, so many skin-to-skin hugs…could absolutely build a beautiful brain.”

• Practice making mistakes.

In Ready for School!, author Truglio writes, “A big lesson I learned from [my son’s] kindergarten teacher was to spill more milk at home.” When Truglio asked the teacher why she said this, the teacher responded, “Lucas needs to see how you react when you make a mistake.” Truglio explains why this is important: “School readiness goes well beyond teaching literacy and mathematics. It means providing a toolbox of skills for your child so that he or she will approach learning positively. This includes taking safe risks and not avoiding failure; persevering after making a mistake; calming down when frustrated, angry, or disappointed.”

Chally adds that it’s helpful to talk through your mistakes and frustrations with your toddlers and preschoolers. For example: “I was so upset when I spilled that entire carton of milk! I had to take a few deep breaths before I cleaned it up. I feel better now!”

Continue Learning-Play When School Starts

Jacobson notes that early childhood is defined as through age eight—not when kindergarten starts—so children should continue to have play-based, hands-on, concrete experiences long after starting school full-time.

She also urges parents to remember that life isn’t easy for children in an adult-centered world. “Children need to be allowed to be children.…[They] are not yet quiet, repressed, stoic adults! They are still spontaneous, curious, playful, wondrous. That is where they are developmentally, and that’s where they are supposed to be.”

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Everyday Play

Mary Fanyo and Katie Meeks, teachers at Kids’ Discovery Days preschool in Arvada, and Amy Cavanaugh Chally, director at Mountain View Preschool in Boulder, suggest the following learning activities for busy errand-filled days when you can’t stop to play.

In the Car

At the Store

Around The House

While Cooking Dinner

In Waiting Rooms

Build Language and Creativity Anywhere

Keep a set of Rory’s Story Cubes in your purse as an easy way to encourage communication and imagination with young children, wherever you are. Simply divide the cubes, roll them, and incorporate the pictures you see into a story that you tell. Take turns and let your child build on the story in any way they wish. (It’s a good challenge for Mom and Dad’s imagination, too!)

More Ideas For School Readiness

Check out Ready for School!: A Parent’s Guide to Playful Learning for Children Ages 2 to 5 (Running Press 2019) for a wealth of ideas for learning through play, along with expected milestones and other resources for young children.

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