The natural way for preschoolers to learn

In your house, “play” might be loud, messy and chaotic. In a play-based preschool, however, the emphasis is always on learning — just in a very fun way.

Preschool classroom

Defining the play-based teaching method

Play-based preschools tend to be the most loosely-defined type of preschool or, at the very least, difficult to define in a meaningful way. “Play is a complex activity with many aspects, but we can list some of the characteristics of play that support learning — free-to-fail, spontaneous, enjoyable, challenging, intrinsically motivated, engaging, imaginative and social,” explains Dr. Craig Bach, vice president of education of The Goddard School.

These core characteristics are what you are likely to find in play-based preschools, sometimes referred to as child-centered preschools. Structure exists, but the focus is on play and socialization rather than academics. Lessons are carried out through play-based activities that are rooted in basic social skills like sharing, taking turns, self-control, making friends, following instructions and getting along with others. “Playful learning can involve purposeful, facilitated, guided or free play. And, even in the latter, educators observe children’s activities for educable moments that can be tied back to more structured activities as appropriate,” explains Bach.

Understanding the play-based learning style

Comparisons are often made between play-based preschools and academic, structured preschools. The falsehood that play-based preschools often find themselves fighting against is the idea that the environment is all play and no work.

"Play is an especially important aspect of learning at early ages due to the plasticity of the child’s brain."

“Playful learning supports academic outcomes, and also supports positive associations with learning that help children become successful, happy, lifelong learners,” explains Bach.

“Play is an especially important aspect of learning at early ages due to the plasticity of the child’s brain — however, all of the characteristics of play are key components of learning at later ages as well,” says Bach.

Child development expert David Elkind, in his book The Power of Play, reinforces the idea that imaginative, creative, spontaneous play goes a long way toward fostering healthy development and setting the stage for both social and academic success later. For now, in preschool, there should be a low-pressure environment that lets kids just be kids.

Is a play-based preschool right for your child?

Preschoolers have plenty of interests — and their attention span for a particular activity can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks. In a play-based program, children choose the activities they wish to pursue based on their current interests and are offered various settings in which to carry out their play.

When it comes to evaluating a play-based preschool — any preschool, for that matter — parents need to think about what is best for their child’s disposition, personality and propensity for learning in order to choose the most appropriate environment. Many kids will thrive in an open, play-based school, while some children might be better suited for a slightly more structured setting.

What is a play-based preschool classroom like?

A play-based preschool is typically separated into several sections — a science area, reading nook, block section, kitchen, art, music and more. Children can easily move from one activity to the next, or stay as long as they like in one section — this may mean they’re playing alone or in small groups.

Chaos doesn’t necessarily reign in a play-based preschool, but there will be play — and there will not be silence. Discussion between teachers and students is ongoing. Teachers encourage kids to play and facilitate opportunities for learning along the way while imparting concepts through songs and games.

You can likely expect a few structured learning times, but teacher-supervised free play is the name of the game. Because play-based preschools have such a broad definition, different schools will practice different methodologies — visit and observe the play-based preschools and classrooms in your area to see what environment will work well for your child.

More articles about preschool

Keeping learning fun for preschoolers
6 Educational toys for preschoolers
How to encourage imaginary play

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