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How important is play in preschool?

As preschools strengthen their academic focus, play maintains a vital role.

By Pam Gelman, M.A.

Preschool — it's not just about the sandbox anymore. As elementary school becomes more rigorous, so does preschool. Children are expected to learn certain skills in preschool so that they are prepared for elementary school. Considering the limited time in a preschool setting and the pressure for success later on, where does play fit in?

Play is work for preschoolers

Children are playful by nature. Their earliest experiences exploring with their senses lead them to play, first by themselves and eventually with others. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has included play as a criterion in its accreditation process for programs for young children. "They call it their work," says Peter Pizzolongo, associate director for professional development at NAEYC. "When they're learning and playing with joy, then it's a positive experience. They develop a positive approach to learning."

The teacher's role as children grow

As children develop, their play becomes more sophisticated. Up until the age of 2, a child plays by himself and has little interaction with others. Soon after, he starts watching other children play but may not join in. This is particularly relevant to kids in multi-age settings where younger children can watch and learn from older preschoolers playing nearby.

Around 2½ to 3 years, a preschooler starts to play sitting next to another child, often someone with similar interests. This naturally shifts, through the use of language, to the beginnings of cooperative play. An adult can facilitate this process by setting up a space for two or more small bodies and helping children find the words to express their questions or needs.

Between 4 and 5 years, preschoolers discover they share similar interests and seek out kids like them. They discuss, negotiate and strategize to create elaborate play scenes; take turns; and work together toward mutual goals.

The preschool teacher's role in the development of play is critical. "Parents should look to see that the teacher has organized the environment," says Pizzolongo, "and is using her curriculum in a way that guides her to plan for how the children are going to be engaged in play. It really is a structured way of learning. It just looks like a different structure than what you would see in fourth grade."

Types of play

Children's play can be divided into categories, but the types of play often overlap.

  • Dramatic — Fantasy-directed play with dressing up in costumes, assuming roles as characters, using toys to represent characters in stories, creating imaginary settings, and pretending to take on the roles of adults.
  • Manipulative — Holding and handling small toys often used to build objects but also found in puzzles, characters, beads, etc.
  • Physical — Using the whole body in activities with bikes, balls, jump ropes, hoops, play structures, etc.
  • Creative — Using art materials such as paint, clay, markers, pencils, glue, etc. The play takes place in the process of using the materials, not in the end product.
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