Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Are Children Learning When They Play

Circle Time

Generally teachers/parents begin this group time with a specific topic for discussion. It may be a topic related to a project the class is working on, or it may focus on a specific skill. For example, in the beginning of the year, the teacher may play games to help the children learn the names of each of their classmates. Students may also use the time for "show and tell." Teachers often also include music appreciation, group sings, and creative movement during circle time.

Some teachers hold circle time first thing in the morning as a way of organizing the class and the morning activities.

What's Learned These "chats" are an opportunity for the youngsters to learn how to organize their thoughts. As they talk about their experiences, children learn how to tell a story with a beginning, middle,and end. When a child learns the words to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" or "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," this is an important part of a child's informal education. This is "shared knowledge"--that is information that society assumes you know. For example, other children assume you know the words to familiar folk songs.

Music Appreciation/Creative Movement

Children enjoy both listening to music and making their own. Whether it's a group sing-along, marching in a percussion band, playing a triangle, or making up new lyrics to old favorite tunes, music is the universal language. Creative movement, learning to move your body through space, in time to the music or while pretending to be a falling leaf, is a creative way to tap into a child's imagination and artistic side.

What's Learned Music helps children connect the outer world of movement and sound with the inner world of feelings and observations. Playing games or moving to music is a powerful first experience in theartistic process. Children learn music the same way they learn language--by listening and imitating.

Finger play promotes language development, fine-motor skills, and coordination, as well as self-esteem. Young children are proud when they sing a song and can do the accompanying finger movements.

Listening to music also teaches important prereading skills. As youngsters use small drums or other percussion instruments (homemade or store-bought), they can play the rhythmic pattern of words. They can learn to hear the differences between fast and slow, loud and soft, one at a time and together, etc. When they try new instruments, they notice how each variation changes the music.

Creative movement expands a child's imagination. It's also a fun method of physical fitness--an important goal of child development.

Art Projects

Some art projects are part of a theme that the class is studying. For example, as part of the seasons' curriculum, the children might gather pine cones, leaves, and acorns during a fall nature walk. They will later use them in art projects, such as to make leaf rubbings, to assemble in collages, or to use as decorations for picture frames.

A good art corner will be stocked with materials that can be used in a variety of ways for projects. There should also be easels for painting individually (although sometimes two children will work at the same easel to create a painting together).

What's Learned A good art project teaches a child that his creativity is limited only by his own imagination. By transforming everyday objects, such as empty paper towel rolls and egg cartons into sculptures, imaginary bugs, or spyglasses, a child discovers that he can create a world of play.

Using materials in an art project reinforces and expands on the information a child has already learned in other contexts. For example, let's assume that the art project of the day is to make rubbings of leaves collected during a nature walk the day before. If from a pile on the table, the child selects a dry leaf that crumbles easily, the youngster learns, in a concrete way, about life cycles in nature. Through trial and error, just like the scientist in a lab, the student might find that green leaves or shiny leaves hold up better for this art project.

Another art project might have the youngsters create a fall mural by pasting leaves, pine cones, and acorns on a large roll of paper. They might organize the project by sorting and classifying the leaves, by color, shape, and size. These are prereading and premath skills--as well as fun. In this same project, the group also learns social skills such as cooperative and group dynamics. Do the three-year-olds know this as they happily create a fall mural--probably not, but their teachers certainly do.

Art projects are also excellent for developing a child's fine-motor skills. It takes small-muscle control in order to manipulate clay, cut with scissors, paint with a brush, and color with markers or crayons. As these skills are practiced, they help a child gain mastery to cut with a knife, button his own shirt, and print his name.

Art projects build a child's self-esteem. The finished product, on display on the refrigerator, validates a child's sense of worth. It's another opportunity for a child to say "I can do it!"

The process, not the product, is the most important element of preschool art projects.

Outdoor Play

Running, swinging, climbing, jumping, hopping, biking, digging in the sand--outdoor fun is one of the favorite parts of any young child's day. A good preschool playground will have enough space and sturdy equipment that a child can use his imagination while exercising. For example, the jungle gym structure might have connecting slides, firefighter poles to shimmy down and then inch up, tunnels to crawl through, a swinging bridge that connects one side of the apparatus to the other. A child will use multiple skills and create dozens of scenarios as he plays on this one structure. There should be equipment for digging, hauling, building, and riding.

What's Learned Outdoor play refines a child's gross-motor (large-muscle) skills. The cross-lateral movement (right arm/left leg and vice versa) involved is critical to a child's later success in reading and writing. Playground time is also an opportunity to explore and manipulate a different environment.

Youngsters also love outdoor play because they can let loose their imaginations while getting physical. They can turn the jungle gym into a rocket ship, a castle, a firehouse--anything they choose.


Children enjoy cooking. Sometimes they like the product, but even if they don't, they always appreciate the process. It's fun to do something that is a grown-up activity--and discover that kids can do it too!

Preschools often tie cooking projects to other themes the class is working on. For example, in the fall, a class may take a pumpkin and use it in a variety of ways. For a large pumpkin, the class may first decorate it with markers and use the pumpkin as a centerpiece on the classroom table. Later, the teacher will cut open the pumpkin and the students can estimate how many seeds are in the pumpkin. Later the class can count the seeds and compare the total to the estimates. The class can also roast the pumpkin seeds for snack, and finally bake pumpkin bread.

What's Learned Since cooking is a basic life skill, it fosters a child's sense of competence and independence when he can do it. Math skills are also an important part of the process as the cook needs to count and measure the ingredients. Cooking also refines small-motor skills as a child stirs, dices, and adds ingredients. It also teaches about nutrition-foods that are good for you and help you grow.

A child also discovers how things change if you alter the environment: liquid batter becomes a cake when baked; juice cups become popsicles when frozen. Cooking also helps a child's reasoning ability. He learns cause and effect. "If I don't put the juice cups in the freezer, they won't become popsicles."

Snack Time

What do you remember as the highlight of your own school day--lunch time and recess? It's not all that different for preschoolers.

Snack time is an important part of the preschool experience. Whether the food is provided by the school, or on a rotating basis by the parents, or cooked by the students themselves, snack time--just like mealtime in your own home--is an opportunity to "break bread," share, and communicate. The snack is usually simple, crackers or a piece of fruit and juice.

Snack time can also be an opportunity for children to try new foods. One little boy brought in the usual graham crackers and apple juice for the class snack, but also brought in his personal favorite green olives. Surprisingly, several of the children were willing to taste the new delicacy!

What's Learned Snack time is an opportunity for a child to learn social skills as she chats with her friend in the seat next to her. Passing out the snack and distributing a napkin and cup to each child teaches one-to-one correspondence and counting skills. Pouring the juice from a small pitcher to an individual cup requires small-motor control. Cleanup time after snack is another educational opportunity. Again, a child's sense of competence and independence are reinforced. Snack time is also an opportunity for a child toassociate mealtime with pleasant feelings.

Free-Play Activities

Free play sounds vague, but is very much a planned activity. The child has the freedom to choose among many different activities, but the teacher has created the classroom environment and arranged the choices the child will find. Free play is not time off for the teacher. On the contrary, she should be paying close attention to the children, interacting with them, offering guidance and help where necessary, noting progress and difficulties.

Here are some of the activities that a child may choose during the free-play period.

Building with Blocks

There's so much going on in the block corner that it's easy to understand why it is often the most popular area in the preschool classroom. It can also become the focus of incredible territorial struggles. Sometimes groups of children begin to act as if they own the space. Often boys dominate the area, making it difficult for girls (or boys who aren't members of the block clique) to enter. One study suggests that if a teacher positions herselfin the block corner for part of the day, girls are more likely to enter and use the area.

Building with blocks is lots of fun--and it teaches many skills that children will use later. One study indicates that many of the concepts learned from block building are the foundation for more advanced science comprehension. For example, a child learns about gravity, stability, weight, balance, and systems from building with blocks. Through trial and error, she learns inductive thinking, discovery, the properties of matter, and the interaction of forces. One researcher suggested that one reason you see fewer girls inadvanced placement physics classes in high school is because they are excluded (intentionally or unintentionally) from many of the "play" activities that build scientific framework.

What's Learned Blocks help children learn scientific, mathematical, art, social studies, and language concepts; use small-motor skills; and foster competence and self-esteem. Building with blocks also teaches life skills. Just putting away your groceries in the cupboard is using the same concepts of spatial relations, stability, and balance that you learned in the block corner.

Besides the scientific concepts discussed in the previous paragraph, blocks also are important in developing math skills. A child learns about depth, width, height, length, measurement, volume, area, classification, shape, symmetry, mapping, equality (same as), and inequality (more than, less than)--all from building with blocks.

Building with blocks also teaches art concepts such as patterns, symmetry, and balance. A child learns about symbolic representation, interdependence of people, mapping, grids, patterns, people and their work. A child gains prereading skills such as shape recognition, differentiation of shapes, size relations. Language is enhanced as children talk about how to build, what they built, what is its function or ask questions about concepts or directions. And dramatic play is also a part of block building as children create stories to go along with their constructions.

Finally, building with blocks fosters a feeling of competence, teaches cooperation and respect for the work of others, encourages autonomy and initiative.

It's not just building with blocks that is educational--so is cleanup. Sorting and storing blocks teaches classification and one-to-one correspondence, which are important math skills.

Dramatic Play

The housekeeping/dress-up corner should be stocked with play items and props that encourage young children to play make-believe. Look for pots and pans, stuffed animals, dolls (soft, unbreakable, washable, and multiethnic), toy telephones, hats, purses and tote bags, unbreakable tea sets, doll beds and carriages.

What's Learned Playing make-believe lets a child bring the complicated grown-up world down to size. Research demonstrates that children who are active in pretend play are usually more joyful and cooperative, more willing to share and take turns, and have larger vocabularies than children who are less imaginative.

Imaginative play helps youngsters to concentrate, to be attentive, and to use self-control. Think about how a child develops a game of supermarket. He must first set up the counter, put out the pretend cans of food, invite friends to shop, use the "cash register," and bag the groceries. All of these actions help a child to learn about sequential acts. He also has a story or script in mind that helps him to perform each of these steps in a logical and orderly way.

When children pretend they also learn to be flexible, substituting objects for those they do not have. For example, a child will use an empty paper towel roll for a telescope.

Through imaginative play, children learn empathy for others. Children will often act out a whole range of emotions when playing pretend, offering sympathy for a stuffed "doggie" that is hurt or for a doll that fell off a chair. We watch them scold a puppet for being naughty or tell a doll how proud they are because she used the potty.

Dramatic play encourages children to think abstractly, which is an important prereading skill. Children come to understand that words represent ideas.

Manipulative Toys

Children enjoy playing with a variety of toys that helps develop their fine-motor control. These toys include Legos, Bristle Blocks, Play-Doh, Peg-Boards, large beads to thread, and stacking and nesting materials.

What's Learned Manipulative toys help develop a child's fine-motor skills, which is a precursor to being able to write. Often these toys are also used in fantasy play. The beads that are strung become the necklace forthe "queen" to wear. The Play-Doh creations include cookies for the impromptu "tea party."

Cooperative Play

During the preschool day, you should see children who are playing by themselves, but you should also see cooperative play, small groups or even the class as a whole working on a project. The amount of cooperative play increases as the children grow older. Some of this play may be child initiated, and some may be teacher directed.

What's Learned Working together, whether it's on a block building or planning a tea party, helps children to learn to respect the ideas of others. They develop their social skills, and social competence is an underlying goal of early childhood education. Children in cooperative play learn to contribute to joint efforts. They also learn how to problem solve by working together to find a solution.

Sand/Water Table

Sometimes the rubber basin is filled with sand (some schools use rice or grits, which are less likely to get into a preschooler's eyes), and it's almost an indoor mini-playground. Even children who don't ordinarily dig in the sand at the beach will find it fun to measure, sift, and pour the sand from one container to another. When it's filled with water, the basin becomes a doll bathtub or a sink for toy china.

What's Learned A child has a practical math lesson in fractions when she pours a cup full of sand into a two-cup container. It explains the concept faster and more clearly than a detailed discussion or drawing. Her fine-motor skills are also being developed as she washes a tea set or maneuvers a cup full of sand into a sifter. Her eye-hand coordination is helped.

As anyone who has sat on a beach knows, sand and water play is soothing. It encourages children to explore and learn about cause and effect. (For example, what happens if I put a sponge in the water? What happens if I then squeeze the sponge?).

There is no right or wrong way to play with sand and water (except to throw it out of the basin), so each child experiences success.


The classroom should have puzzles that vary in complexity, five-piece puzzles, as well as 12-piece puzzles, and puzzles made of different materials. You should also find puzzles that interlock and those that have individual slots for pieces (for example, a five-piece puzzle of five individual animals).

What's Learned Puzzles require abstract thinking: the ability to see a space and envision what belongs there. Puzzles also require fine-motor control in order to place the pieces into place. Having puzzles for varied skill levels permits children at all stages of development to experience success.


The book corner should have books reflecting a range of levels. There should be simple board books, as well as picture books with a story line. The area should be comfortable, carpeted, and perhaps lined with pillows. It should be a place where a young child can go and look through books by himself--as well as a meeting place for story time for the class.

What's Learned Children learn language skills from books. Whether they are looking at a book individually, or being read to as part of a group, when you make books a part of a young child's day you set the stage for a lifelong interest in reading.


Preschoolers don't yet know that grown-ups consider cleaning a nuisance. For them, it's another fun activity. It's not a question of efficiency. It's tempting sometimes for grown-ups to do the task themselves, rather than exercise the patience it requires to help a preschooler through a chore. But allowing the young child to put away the blocks, wipe down the tables, and put the toys back on the shelves is a valuable educational exercise.

What's Learned Preschoolers learn to sort, classify, match, and organize when they put the toys back on the shelf. A good preschool classroom will have low shelves and individual bins for small toys, so that the young child can easily see where objects belong. The bins will be labeled (which helps develop language skills).

Preschoolers learn that helping behaviors and orderliness are valued. They see that it's important to take care of their environment and that it's easier to find what you want when you put it back in its designated place. Cleaning up teaches self-discipline. Children learn how to follow simple directions. Working together as a class to clean up their room is another exercise in cooperation. As they work alongside their teacher and classmates, chatting and discussing the best way to approach the cleanup effort, language and social skills are being practiced. Preschoolers also enjoy feeling competent, independent, and responsible. With the instant feedback of a clean room and a job well done, a youngster's self-esteem is enhanced.


Marian Edelman Borden is a professional writer and Journalist. A frequent contributor to magazines featuring early childhood education, her articles have appeared in American Baby, Healthy Kids, Parenting, Barney Family, Sesame Street, and the New York Times. She is also the author of In Addition to Tuition (Facts On File, 1996). Ms. Borden lives in Larchmont, NewYork.

Copyright © 1997 Marian Edelman Borden

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