Children are naturally curious and their daily interactions allow them the opportunity to observe, explore, and interact with the world around them. As parents, we have all observed this determined curiosity in our kids during early childhood. The word “No!” echoes around our homes while we do our best to steer our toddlers clear of the dangers in their immediate environment. While we see the potential hazard of an electrical outlet, the danger of a gas stove, or the risk posed by climbing on the bookcase, our kids see a world full of questions waiting to be answered.
Even before birth, our children’s brains are developing as a result of their experiences. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators have all found that when children find their learning environment to be stimulating, they learn more effectively and more quickly. Learning through play is a natural way for our children to explore their world and in doing so, become more knowledgeable. As such, I’m a big advocate of play-based preschools as a means of developing your child’s full potential. In this article, I will tell you why and how to choose the best preschool for your toddler.
Why is early childhood education important?
The majority of neuron development in children occurs between birth and 3 years, but early childhood education does not only include these early years. The early childhood education stage is defined as the period from birth to 8 years old and is the time during which the foundation for all future learning is laid. The importance of a foundation that acts as a strong base to lifelong learning, identifies potential future learning vulnerabilities, maximizes cognitive development, and gives adequate attention to social and emotional development cannot be overstated.
UNESCO (The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) describes the importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE) when it said:
Early childhood care and education is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing. ECCE has the possibility to nurture caring, capable, and responsible future citizens.
Preschools have become progressively more academic, as the competitive society we live in pushes the narrative that our kids require a competitive edge when entering formal schooling. Broad objectives such as developing curiosity, relationship building, social development, and a love of learning have been replaced by narrowly focused outcomes based skills such as counting, knowing the alphabet, knowing shapes and colors. Very little emphasis is placed on developing creative, independent-minded, curious, and well-adjusted individuals.
What do you learn in preschool?
Is there value in sending your child to preschool? What can you expect them to learn while there?
These questions do not have a simple answer, as what preschoolers learn is largely determined by the school they attend. Rather than asking, “What should preschoolers learn?” consider asking, “What is required for a good foundation for future learning?” A good preschool will focus on the overall development of your child and will pay attention to areas such as:
- Physical development: This area includes development of both fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills include work with fingers and hands, and gross motor skills relate to larger muscle movements, like that of the arms, legs, and body. Gross motor skills are usually learned during various physical activities like running, jumping, catching, throwing, and climbing. Fine motor skills are refined using activities like painting, play-doh, and puzzles.
- Social development: Learning social skills is an important part of early childhood development. At school, teaching children about cooperation, respect, conflict resolution, and self-control contributes to healthy social development.
- Emotional development: Learning how to identify and regulate emotions, and recognize what others are feeling are primary elements of emotional development. Activities that improve self-esteem and encourage empathy are important in a play school environment.
- Language (literacy) development: Good communication skills are vital for future learning success. Being able to understand and communicate by talking and listening, and at a later stage reading and writing is one of the primary foundations for learning. These skills allow children to learn new concepts and understand new knowledge.
- Cognitive development: As the brain develops, children need opportunities to learn how to think, make decisions, and solve problems. Children use their natural curiosity to explore, question, and create. As a child develops these skills they are able to reflect on things they have done, find ways to improve their skills, and understand the world better. When provided with plenty of opportunities to develop these skills, children also learn ways of focusing and managing frustration or boredom more effectively.
Why is play important?
Play is so important that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. In many parts of the world, poverty, violence, and practices such as child labor restrict children’s ability to play. Even in areas of relative wealth and stability, the pace and pressure of modern day living means that many children do not fully benefit from child-driven play.
Play allows children to be imaginative, creative, and dexterous, all while developing the skills listed above. Play is the way children engage with and make sense of the world around them and allows them safe spaces to practice and master new competencies. Play provides opportunities to build confidence and resilience, and undirected (child-led) play lets children learn how to work together, share, negotiate, self-advocate, and resolve conflict.
When left to play, children can practice decision making skills, discover their own areas of interest, and engage with the things that they enjoy. In a play environment teachers, parents, and other caregivers are given the chance to view the world from their child’s perspective. Children who struggle to verbalize themselves may be able to express themselves through play.
Play, unlike passive forms of entertainment such as watching TV, builds healthy and active bodies which can contribute to making good lifestyle choices throughout life. Even in a formal school environment, opportunities for play have been shown to help children adjust, and even enhance learning readiness and problem solving abilities.
What is play based learning?
In comparison to a structured and routine oriented approach, play based learning gives our kids the freedom to participate in activities that engage their interest. The approach is child-led, with teachers or parents acting more as facilitators than instructors. With a play-based approach, the focus is more on the learning process than on the outcome.
In a play based learning environment, a child is able to use activities that engage their interest to learn. Practices such as play, exploration, hands-on learning, social interaction, sensory activities, and real-world experiences have all been proven to be beneficial in preschools.
At a play based preschool, teachers will create an environment that encourages exploration, discovery, and appropriate risk taking. Dedicated play areas give children the chance to practice and apply skills they have learned at home, in their communities, and in the classroom. By introducing themes, academic content may be introduced, including math and language, but progress is measured by observation and participation rather than formal assessment.
When a child learns through play, they see literacy (reading and writing) and numeracy (math) as a normal part of their everyday life. Learning becomes part of living. By using a play-based learning design, preschools develop social and emotional skills as well as the related learning skills that will eventually be required for a formal learning environment. Play provides an ideal learning opportunity and there is research that suggests that the emotional regulation (ability to control impulses) learned in a play-rich environment contributes to future life success.
While the concept of play based learning in a school context may sound strange, familiar approaches such as Waldorf, Regio-Emilia, and Montessori are all strongly play based. Even in a formal and structured learning environment, play opportunities are integral to the learning process. Play helps children adjust to the school environment, enhances cognitive development, allows for expression, and physical and creative energy release. It also improves social and emotional development through interaction with peers.
Academic preschools are more structured than play based schools and more closely resemble typical (formal) schools. Learning is teacher directed and children are usually led through a prescribed learning curriculum with specific required outcomes. Children at an academic preschool do have some play time, but the learning process is not child led and the learning process is more structured. The aim of academic preschools is usually to ensure that children are academically prepared for kindergarten and lessons are therefore developed around learning concepts such as numbers, letters, colors, shapes etc.
The academic vs. play based preschool debate
Even before our children are born, we are being bombarded by the message that we need to begin building skills and aptitude in them from the earliest age possible. Enrichment tools and activities are touted as a necessity for ensuring our child’s future success. We are left believing that if we take a slower and more low-key approach to child-rearing, our children will be left behind. Competition exists even for private preschool programs and by the time our children start school, we are already thinking of what our children will need to be accepted into a good college. The pressure is immense to raise a well prepared, high achieving, and well balanced child.
There is no correct answer as to which is the ideal preschooling method. Each child is unique, and so there is no “one size fits all” solution. Some children thrive with a structured and highly driven schedule. Some children desperately need enrichment activities and programs, either because they do not have access to good resources in their home environment or community, or because they have special needs (including a learning disability or giftedness). However, all children need free unscheduled time to allow them to reflect, decompress, and grow creatively.
Both academic and play based preschools have both positive and negative aspects. In a play-based learning preschool, learning is child driven, and stations are set up by teachers to engage children in different activities. Examples of play stations include a book area, a kitchen station, a water station, a building block station, etc. While children do not follow a set curriculum, they learn as they play and develop fundamental knowledge while participating in these activities.
In contrast, at an academic preschool, time is structured into lessons, activities, or themes. Children usually move through the program as a group. Each lesson will have a specific outcome in mind, and children will be assessed on their ability to attain the required competency. For example, children will be required to learn the names of various shapes and be able to identify the shapes when presented with pictures of them.
As mentioned, Montessori and Waldorf schools are 2 examples of schools that have a strong play based program. In the Montessori program, children are encouraged to solve problems on their own and learn through play. Learning takes place at each child’s own pace and classrooms are not organized by age. Waldorf schools also encourage play-based learning and have mixed-age classrooms. The Waldorf programs are based on creating routine and do not use media or technology in the classroom. Waldorf schools aim to develop critical thinkers with a strong sense of self and academic achievement is not a focus.
Why is play important in preschool?
Play in preschool is possibly the most important learning tool, not only in the moment, but also as a way of building a lifelong love of learning. Play promotes the development of strong language and vocabulary skills. These skills go on to ensure that a child has a strong foundation for future learning. Just by listening and speaking, children learn how language facilitates communication, expresses feelings, and improves cooperation within a group.
In the classroom, play provides children with the chance to practice their social interactions and practice their newly acquired skills. Preschoolers who learn through play are shown to strengthen their imagination and creativity, gross and fine motor skills, language skills, problem solving abilities, and mathematical concepts. By supplying the tools and materials needed, making suggestions, and stepping back, teachers improve children’s self-confidence and help children to develop a sense of independence.
Being able to play gives children the chance to explore their surroundings. As they explore, examine, and engage with the world around them, children are learning in a way that is positive and enjoyable.
Experts in the area of early childhood education have raised concerns about the high price children are paying for early academics. Dr Peter Gray links increasing rates of depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide among children and teenagers to a decline in free play and exploration. He points out that free play and exploration are the means by which children learn how to solve problems, control their lives, develop their interests, and become competent in pursuit of their interests.
In depriving children of opportunities to play on their own we deprive them “of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives,” and in doing so, we diminish their joy, sense of self-control, chance to discover, and explore those things they love.
How to choose a preschool
At a good preschool, teachers will focus on all areas of learning. They will pay attention to the interests of the children and will plan in a way that helps children expand their skills and knowledge in many different areas. Choosing a preschool that is a good fit for your child is important and there are a number of factors to consider.
Before you begin, make a list of the things that are important to you–your personal priorities. This will include questions such as:
- Must the school be near my home (or work)?
- Does the school need to have after school hours childcare?
- Do I need a subsidized program?
- Does my child have any special needs?
- What kind of preschool experience do I want my child to have?
Once you have answered these questions, you can compile a list of schools that you think will fit with your expectation and make appointments to view them. You can consider the following factors as you visit schools on your list and compare them:
- Your child’s personality: Consider what your child’s personality is. A shy child may not do well in a big preschool, while a very energetic child may need a school that has plenty of outdoor space.
- Word of mouth recommendations: Pay attention to what other parents say about any school you are considering, but do not just rely on these opinions. Remember that you know your child and their specific needs best. Do not just enroll your child in a school because everyone else does. When visiting, take a close look at the children already at the school. Happy kids are a sign of a well-run school.
- Consider proximity: A school close to home is ideal, as your child will be included in after school play dates and other social activities. Not only is this convenient, but means less time commuting for your little one.
- Condition of the equipment: Make sure that the equipment is clean, safe, and well maintained. Equipment does not need to be fancy–it does need to be practical and useful.
- Curriculum: Find out how much emphasis is placed on academics and how much on play. Make sure that the program is broadly directed at the developmental milestones for the age group, leaves plenty of time for free play and discovery, and allows for cognitive (learning), emotional, and social development. If the structure is too narrow or rigid, question why.
- Class size and teacher/child ratio: At preschool level, small classes with no more than 8 children to one teacher are recommended. Check how children are supervised inside and outside.
- Holiday care: Does the preschool offer holiday care? If you work full time, where will your child be looked after during the holidays?
- Discipline procedures: Find out how the school manages conflict and other social and emotional issues. When visiting the school, listen for teachers using positive discipline, for example, “Remember to walk inside” rather than, “No running!”
- Safety: Do the teachers have first aid or CPR training? What emergency plans does the school have in place? How is your child protected and kept safe while at school?
Given the opportunity, children learn in a playful and joyful manner. In doing so, they develop intrinsic values, self-control, and emotional well-being. High quality play based preschools provide a wonderful foundation upon which to build a lifelong love of learning.