I read an article the other day detailing the competitive nature of kindergarten admission among private schools in NYC. The article detailed the lengths that parents would go to to get their preschooler in the “perfect kindergarten”. Among the tactics were hiring private tutors and donating to the school.
As I read this article, I wondered if these children were able to immerse themselves in play before they were sent off to the world of modern-day kindergarten with computer-adaptive tests and walking in single-file lines.
I get it! Parents want to give their best to their children and most children will go to a kindergarten classroom (mine all have!) But we should all take advantage of the preschool years and give our children the freedom of play. Allowing for play doesn’t mean that we aren’t teaching our children, it just means that we allow play to dominate the way that they learn. And since we know that the minutes before they enter a traditional classroom are ticking closer and closer, we can find ways to let them immerse themselves in play.
The Benefits of Play
We don’t have to think of play and learning in an “either/or” way. Research shows us that play, especially child-led play, supports SO MUCH learning.
I tried to paraphrase this but the American Academy of Pediatrics says this so much better than I ever could.
“Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182
Harvard University has completed research that co-signs this same idea: play supports intellectual development, social development, emotional development, and physical development. Yep, playing supports all domains of learning. When you preschooler plays he/she is:
- Telling stories
- Problem solving
- Noticing social cues
- Seeing things from other people’s perspective
- Following norms
- Practicing being a leader and a follower
- Strenthening muscles
- Developing muscle control and coordination
Five Ways to Encourage your Preschooler to Learn Through Play
1. Play with Your Child
There is no better way to encourage your child to make choices and follow his/her interests than playing with him/her. Join in games, pretend play, or draw pictures. Play second fiddle to your child. Let him/her guide you. Follow his/her rules and play a role. Allow the play (plus your interaction) to be the teacher.
2. Figure Out What Your Preschooler Likes
If you want to become a pro at helping your preschooler learn through play, figure out what interests your child the most. Lucas LOVES dinosaurs! If I sit down and play with Lucas with dinosaurs I can teach him counting, colors, patterns, whatever. All because I have tapped into his interests.
3. Use Manipulation to Your Advantage
Sitting down to write on lined paper or being drilled with flashcards does not conjure images of fun for anyone. Most kids aren’t going to consider those activities their favorites. Children often engage more when they are able to manipulate materials and interact with another person (that’s you, mom and dad). When you allow preschoolers to make and build and create they are able to learn and engage at the same time. You can even use common objects that you have at home instead of buying new toys; boxes, kitchen utensils, paper clips, post-it notes, or coins.
4. Plan for Play
Set aside time for your child to play. It often works best when you make play a regular part of your daily routine. Even if it’s just 20 or 30 minutes per day, encourage your preschooler to participate in child-led play with some of his/her favorite materials. Stay nearby and be ready to join in if your child asks or take on any pretend role your child suggests.
5. Allow Your Child to Take Risks
Play supports physical development. Children strengthen their muscles and develop coordination and body awareness when they run, jump, and climb. Parents can sometimes short-circuit these benefits by being concerned about cuts, scraps, and bruises. No parent wants their preschooler to get injured while playing, but if we stay close and monitor, our children can gain all the benefits of play and still stay safe.
Two Ideas for Playing with Your Preschooler RIGHT NOW!
1. Go on a scavenger hunt! Grab baskets or bags and look for items that are the same color or shape or incorporate a letter. Collect the items, line them up, and count them with your child.
2. Role Play with Your Preschooler! Lucas’ favorite super-hero is the Black Panther. He often asks me to play Black Panther with him (he always gets to be King T’Challa). I follow directions and play the role he suggests. We also do the same thing when he wants to play dinosaurs (and I never get to be the T-Rex). You might be surprised at the complexity of language your child exhibits during pretend play.
If you liked those activities and you want more quick and easy ways to play with your child, download The Ultimate Kindergarten Readiness Starter Kit. You’ll get 25 activities you can do in 20 minutes or less. You’ll teach your child important skills and your child will have fun learning.