Playtime in Preschool

Edye Katz, Temple Ohabei Shalom Brookline

A learning specialist (and mom) talks about play

As a Jewish eagirl with bubblesrly educator and learning specialist at Trust Center for Early Education at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, at the beginning of each school year, I offer parents, examples and information about the essential life skills that are developed during various kinds of play throughout the day in the classroom. Children learn through exploration and hands-on experiences. Social play promotes children’s negotiation skills and supports emotional development.

 The research suggests, too, that children not only build skills in preschool; they also learn by interacting with adults other than their parents. As the National Association for the Education of Young Children explains: “Young children benefit from opportunities to develop ongoing, trusting relationships with adults outside the family and with other children.  Notably, positive teacher-child relationships promote children’s learning and achievement, as well as social competence and emotional development.”

In other words, in the preschool classroom, we take play very seriously, and so we are careful about how it is structured. At the Trust Center, dramatic play comes to life for each holiday.  Some play can be child-directed, where children get to choose what materials or props they would use in play, as in Free Play.  Other parts of the day, such as Choice Time, are a blend of child-directed and teacher-directed activities where materials and activities are placed strategically to support and promote social interactions. 

In fact, the very same strategies that we use at school can also translate to the home. Moreover, what I do with my students to encourage social and emotional growth, I also use as a parent of an almost-three-year old. Some of these include:

  • Join in on the child’s play rather than dictate what or how they should play.  Joint attention means spending time with children focusing on the same idea.  Children benefit from seeing what adults pay attention to (and what they ignore).  Language is key in emphasizing joint attention. A couple examples: “Look up there! What is that bird carrying?” “You see the trees moving?  I wonder why they are doing that.”
  • Encourage and engage in conversation with child(ren).  This helps with turn taking, listening and responding, and moving onto the next topic.  Conversation also helps you learn more about your child.  “Tell me what you are working on right now.”  “You look very busy playing with those blocks.  Tell me more.”
  • Extend and expand the child’s play ideas.  Having a structured environment helps children generate ideas.  Setting up activities in advance hints at to what to play with.  For instance, setting up a barn and animals will entice your child to come play.  Provide a suggestion if a child doesn’t know what to do in play.  “I will help you play.  Hmm, what can you do with the truck?  Where’s the car wash or the parking garage for your truck?”
  • Use conflict as a teachable moment.  Everyone needs to learn how to resolve and deal with conflict in their life.  Using suggestions such as, “What happened here?” “Sometimes kids need help. I will help you make a new plan."
  • Address negative and unexpected social behaviors.  Sometimes a child needs to learn and then be shown an example of the expected behavior to actually understand what is appropriate.  “Throwing yourself on the ground doesn’t tell me what you need.”  “When you stop screaming, I can help you.” 

The bottom line is that neither parents nor educators should underestimate the power of play to teach or the pivotal role that adults can take in helping to make that play foster healthy development.

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