“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Mr. Rogers
As your child emerges from toddlerhood and gets ready for preschool, you’re 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.
This last one is the clincher. Although pre-K enrollment isn’t 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 preschool 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 very important aspect of your child’s academic development that should be part of their preschool experience: play.
The Work of Children
Believe it or not, play is critical to a preschooler’s learning. As they say, “Play is the work of children,” and it’s true. Through play, children develop a number of critical skills that set them up for academic success in kindergarten and beyond, including:
- Complex language abilities
- Problem-solving and reasoning
- Spatial awareness
- Impulse control
- Increased attention
Yes, your child can really get all of that from playing with blocks and performing puppet shows — and research shows information may actually stick better in their brains that way. Play like this helps them follow their interests and build on their curiosities, helping them to better understand the world around them, says Erin Kissling, vice president of research & policy initiatives for Early Learning Indiana. It can take a couple different forms in the classroom: child-selected play (aka free play) — think your child playing house or making mud pies — or adult-directed play, where maybe the teacher sets up stations to explore apples through counting games or apple stamps.
“Through play, children develop a sense of self and learn how to interact with peers,” Kissling says. “Early essentials like curiosity, flexible thinking, persistence and resilience are strengthened through play, preparing children for the rigorous academic learning of elementary school.”
So back to making that difficult choice: Where to send your child to preschool?
As with all decisions, it’s 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 — and if you believe the research, it should — be ready to ask questions of the various preschool programs you visit:
- What 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.
- What is the program’s 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?
- What is the daily routine like? “Ask to view the daily classroom schedule to understand how much of the day their child will be engaged in meaningful, self-directed activities,” Kissling says. “A schedule filled with large-group time may indicate a lack of play in the classroom environment.”
- Do 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 — this can be helpful in developing critical thinking. However, be skeptical of those that are too hands-off or overly involved in directing play.
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’t 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’t caught up in the drama of a television show or a video game, their imaginations have room to soar. Play doesn’t have to be overly complicated. There’s no need to “entertain” your kids, and you can include fun in some of the normal parts of your routine.
“There are numerous ways parents can encourage and participate in play with their children, from singing songs to cooking together,” Kissling says. “Even making silly faces together in a mirror and taking turns guessing each other’s pretend feelings is purposeful play.”
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’ll miss this cherished time.