I was asked this question by a mom several years ago. Her child was two and a half years old and enrolled in our development play based Cooperative Preschool. I was a bit taken aback but explained that her child was learning every day.
How Young Children Learn
Young children’s primary pathway to learning is play. Play supports development in all areas: physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially. We take play seriously at our preschool because we take children seriously. We understand how children learn.
Young children learn by engaging and doing. I have watched kids pick up a rock and pretend it is a zooming car or hop a Lego across the table as if it were a person or a kitty. Young children use objects to represent something else while giving it action and motion.
In Someone Else’s Shoes
When kids engage in pretend (or dramatic) play, they are experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. They learn to take turns, share, and creatively problem solve. When kids pretend to be different characters, they have the experience of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” which helps them understand empathy. It is normal for a young child to see the world from their own point of view, but through maturation and cooperative play, a child will begin to understand the feelings of others. We talk about feelings at school on a daily bases. Role playing is also a great tool to use when teaching kids empathy.
We often hear our own words reflected in the play of kids. Kids can do a perfect imitation of mom, dad and the teacher. I heard a boy in my class say to the other kids, “How was your morning? I’m glad to see you today.” That is one of the ways I greet the kids in the morning before school. Hearing the little boy imitating me brought a smile to my face. Imitation helps kids make the connection between spoken and written language-a skill that will later help kids learn to read.
Other Developmental Skills
Before a child can hold a pencil firmly and use it for long periods of time, he needs lots of opportunities to strengthen those pencil-holding muscles. Play dough, Legos, beads, and even the buttons and snaps on dress-up clothes can all do the trick.
Before a child can understand that a combination of letters stands for a familiar object, he needs lots of experience in making one thing stand for another. In play, a block can be a cup, or a slide can represent an icy mountain. Using objects as symbols in play is good preparation for later use of symbols in reading and math.
Hands on exploration and discovery makes children want to learn more. Problem solving through play builds habits that children will use throughout life.
Pretend play provides your child with a variety of problems to solve. Whether it’s two kids wanting to play the same role or searching for just the right material to make a roof for the playhouse, your child calls upon important thinking skills that he will use in every aspect of his life.
How You Can Help
You can create a prop box at home filled with objects to spark your preschooler’s fantasy world. Think about including:
- Large plastic crates, cardboard blocks, or a large appliance box
- Old clothes, shoes, backpacks, hats
- Old telephones, books, magazines
- Items from your recycle bin
- Blankets or sheets for making a fort
- Writing material, postcards, notepads, old ticket stubs
Play is a young child’s most critical pathway to learning. If your child is provided with plenty of time, materials, and support for play, you can relax because *that* is how young children learn.
This was a guest post from Gina Goldstein, Director of Inglemoor Cooperative Preschool. Gina has a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work from the University of Washington and over 20 years of experience in early childhood education focused on children 2-5 years old. She enjoys listening to parents and working to guide them through various stages and challenges while raising their kids. Often, Gina references her husband and two children as examples in parenting moments during class parenting conversations. She is passionate about play based education, the cooperative school philosophy and working in a supportive environment where families learn and grow together.