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The Many Things Preschoolers Learn Through Play

By Tania Cowling

Children are doing so much more than just playing when they pick up their dolls, trucks or blocks. Young children develop many skills and learn concepts by playing daily. Read on for more information on why play is so important during the formative years.

Why Is Play Important?

ChildGroup 023 Through play children grow in so many ways. They learn how to use their muscles, coordinate what they see with what they do, and gain mastery over their bodies. They observe their world and decide what they like. Children acquire new skills and learn when and how to use them. The act of play teaches creativity as play children do not completely differentiate reality from fantasy. Pretend play and real play tickles the senses of young children and allows them to explore and think.

Young children must "play" to learn cognitive skills and actual facts. Unlike adults, who learn by reading or being lectured to, children need to learn thinking skills and information by experimenting and just "doing it."

Children go through stages of play; solitary, parallel, and cooperative play. The solitary, independent player engages in activities on her own and not with other children. In parallel play, the child is playing independently but next to other peers, perhaps using the same materials. Finally, children move to cooperative play which is group play with everyone organizing and taking on different roles. Through play, children learn to become social and to cooperate with one another.

Play in Centers

When children visit and play in learning centers, they acquire social skills, especially cooperative and sharing skills. Here is a breakdown of different centers and what preschoolers learn through play in each.

Block Center - Playing with blocks helps children feel confident to try out new ideas, role play, and feel a sense of success when their construction goes well. When children are playing in the block center, they are learning to negotiate, develop patience and tolerance. Preschoolers are also learning coordination by the practice of reaching, picking up, stacking, lifting, carrying, and fitting things together. Blocks also teach pre-math skills; concepts of shape, size, proportion, counting and grouping.

Art Center - As children play and work in the art center, they are learning to value and respect others' creations, ideas, and property. Through art the child can express ideas, stretch her imagination, and develop a sense of pride. Art play teaches the ability to identify colors, textures, and patterns. These hands-on projects definitely develop the senses.

Dramatic Play Center - Dramatic play helps children to socialize, making friends and learning to understand others. They can pretend and dress-up, but always recognize that they are themselves. Mirrors play a role in visualizing changes in appearance, but realizing they are the same person. As they play together, preschoolers are developing good self-esteem that will last a lifetime. The dramatic or home life center does a good job at teaching life skills of buttoning, zipping, and tying through dress-up play.

Language Arts Center - Children learn and practice language skills as they play. You can listen to them share newly learned vocabulary in this center as well as others. Spending time in "circle time", book corners, and writing centers helps preschoolers associate the spoken word with the written word and to improve listening and communication skills. This is also a place for sharing thoughts, waiting a turn, and developing a positive attitude toward others.

Science Center - When children explore in the science center, they learn about classifying, weighing, measuring, temperature and volume concepts. Just playing with science toys (for example, magnets and magnifying glasses) will capture their attention. How about some simple practice using water tables, scales, and observing plant growth? With a little guidance these complex concepts can be discovered through play.

Music Center - Have you watched children play in the music center with musical instruments? It's a noisy, energetic play, but a creative outlet for creativity. Children learn about rhythms, movements and discoveries though play in the music center. Singing is another way to use the voice and children learn new vocabulary through songs. Think about dance to create free movement by twirling, spinning, and jumping - a great way to develop gross motor skills.

The Bottom Line

It's a given fact that children must play to learn. Make sure to have well-defined centers available for children where they play with good, basic materials. Change materials often and add things that interest children. Always let preschoolers have long free-choice times so they can become focused and very involved in their play.

Are your students progressing as much as you would like? Observe where they spend their time and what they are getting from play time. Record what you see and use it to help plan for more, wonderful play experiences for each of your children.