\u201cPlay\u202fis often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children\u202fplay\u202fis serious learning.\u202fPlay\u202fis really the work of childhood.\u201d - Mr. Rogers\u00a0 As your child emerges from toddlerhood and gets ready for preschool, you\u2019re likely to have all the feels. Sadness over your baby growing up. Pride in your intelligent little human. Anxiety over getting their education started out on the right foot.\u00a0 This\u00a0last\u00a0one is the clincher. Although pre-K enrollment isn\u2019t mandatory for Indiana children, research shows it improves school readiness. The state has even expanded its pre-K voucher program, On My Way Pre-K, to help more families enroll their children into\u00a0preschool programs. But the number and types of preschool programs available can be overwhelming: half-day, whole-day, full-week, partial-week, STEM curriculums, literacy-focused instruction. With all these things to think about may be easy to overlook one\u00a0very important aspect of your child\u2019s academic development that should be part of their preschool experience: play.\u00a0\u00a0 The Work of Children\u00a0 Believe it or not, play is critical to a preschooler\u2019s learning. As they say, \u201cPlay is the work of children,\u201d and it\u2019s true. Through play, children develop a number of critical skills that set them up for academic success in kindergarten and beyond, including:\u00a0 \tCreativity\u00a0 \tCommunication\u00a0 \tComplex language abilities\u00a0 \tProblem-solving and reasoning\u00a0 \tRelationship-building\u00a0 \tSpatial awareness\u00a0 \tImpulse control\u00a0 \tIncreased attention\u00a0 Yes, your child can really get all of that from playing with blocks and performing puppet shows\u00a0\u2014\u00a0and research shows information may actually stick better in their brains that way. Play like this helps them follow their interests and build\u00a0on their curiosities, helping them to better understand the world around them, says\u00a0Erin\u00a0Kissling,\u00a0vice president of research & policy initiatives for Early Learning Indiana. It\u00a0can take a couple different forms in the classroom: child-selected play (aka free play)\u00a0\u2014\u00a0think your child playing house or making mud pies\u00a0\u2014\u00a0or adult-directed play, where maybe the teacher sets up stations to explore apples through\u00a0counting games or apple stamps. \u201cThrough play, children develop a sense of self and learn how to interact with peers,\u201d\u00a0Kissling\u00a0says. \u201cEarly essentials like curiosity, flexible thinking, persistence and resilience are strengthened through play, preparing\u00a0children for the rigorous academic learning of elementary school.\u201d\u00a0 Decisions, Decisions\u00a0 So back to making that difficult choice: Where to send your child to preschool?\u00a0 As with all decisions, it\u2019s important to figure out what you want out of the preschool experience. Every child has unique needs, and it may benefit you to list out some qualities you expect out of a program before you begin your search. If an emphasis on play is important to you\u00a0\u2014\u00a0and if you believe the research, it should\u00a0\u2014\u00a0be ready to ask questions of the various preschool programs you visit: \tWhat is the curriculum? A school that focuses heavily on academics and worksheets may not be the best environment for a child to engage in play. \tWhat is the program\u2019s philosophy on play? Do they consider play to be essential to learning in the early years? Is at least a third of the day (hopefully more) devoted to play? \tWhat is the daily routine like? \u201cAsk to view the daily classroom schedule to understand how much of the day their child will be engaged in meaningful, self-directed activities,\u201d\u00a0Kissling says. \u201cA schedule filled with large-group time may indicate a lack of play in the classroom environment.\u201d \tDo the teachers articulate a difference between child-led and directed play? Observe if the teachers are engaged and asking open-ended questions of children during play\u00a0\u2014\u00a0this can be helpful in developing critical thinking. However, be skeptical of those that are too hands-off or overly involved in directing play.\u00a0 Homework Time\u00a0 Regardless of where you send your child to preschool, your home is one of the richest leaning (and play!) environments for your child, so don\u2019t let the fun stop when the school bell rings. Allow time on evenings and weekends to play as a family. First things first: Turn devices off. When your kids aren\u2019t caught up in the drama of a television show or a video game, their imaginations have room to soar. Play doesn\u2019t have to be overly complicated. There\u2019s no need to \u201centertain\u201d your kids, and you can include fun in some of the normal parts of your routine.\u00a0 \u201cThere are numerous ways parents can encourage and participate in play with their children, from singing songs to cooking together,\u201d\u00a0Kissling\u00a0says. \u201cEven making silly faces together in a mirror and taking turns guessing each other\u2019s pretend feelings is purposeful play.\u201d You can get more ideas for how to incorporate play into your family life by visiting Brighter Futures Indiana. But above all, enjoy being a family together. Before you know it, they will be off in the real world, and you\u2019ll miss this cherished time.