Purposeful Play Promotes Learning for Preschoolers

Purposeful Play Promotes Learning for Preschoolers

Norah, 4, has a tea party. Photo by Jessie Barbarich

Jessie Barbarich loves to watch her 4-year-old daughter play. Norah loves to play, whether it’s imaginative play with Barbies or toy ponies, physical play inspired by splashing in puddles or even creative play that brings markers to life so that they do more than add color to paper. Most times, Barbarich notes, Norah’s play mimics things happening in her life or stories or shows she has viewed. 

Barbarich is the visual and performing arts department chair at Andrews Osborne Academy in Willoughby. As an educator, she naturally looks for ways to use Norah’s play to reinforce or build skills she believes her daughter will need to be successful in school. However, like many parents, she finds herself thinking about the impact of the pandemic on Norah’s skill development and the fact that Norah’s play is mostly at home with her family. 

Cris Vanek, director of the Teaching Learning Center at Lakeland Community College, has heard from plenty of concerned parents during this time. Currently, this laboratory school (aka a teacher training program) is in complete remote learning mode. As young children have been at home, Vanek has talked with many parents about how to continue building skills while also being receptive to a child’s age, developmental stage and interests. 

Vanek notes that parents concerned about building their child’s “school” skills during this unprecedented time have begun using worksheets or traditional workbooks. Vanek says that these tools often neglect the creativity and the social and emotional competencies that are important for children to be successful in school. These include how to take turns, how to interact appropriately when you want to engage others and how to effectively communicate. 

“The value in play is the ability to meet the child where they are, and where their interests are, as well as the opportunity to build other skills,” Vanek says. 

Kama Ricks of Maple Heights, and her son Noah Andrews, 3, practice the flashcards provided by his teacher. PHOTO BY KIM STAHNKE

Noah Andrews, 3, went from an in-person school setting to an individualized at-home learning program due to the COVID-19 pandemic and his underlying condition of asthma, says his mom Kama Ricks of Maple Heights.

She says the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland’s Head Start preschool program has a learning through play concept. Noah works with his preschool teacher one day a week for an hour and a half. His teacher also provides him at-home learning materials. Ricks does the homeschool activities with Noah throughout the week.

“‘Learn through play’ is more hands-on,” says Ricks. For example, she and Noah may practice math skills by counting beans the teacher provided in food trays. “I like it because (the teacher) is solely focused on him. I am more involved and feel more connected to his learning, which makes me feel good.” 

Most times, during joyful play, preschoolers are actively learning, but they don’t realize they are learning. These are the times that parents can connect with their children and build skills needed for future success.

Promote Learning Through Play

Though parents may be missing the resources and support of a preschool classroom for their child’s learning and development, Vanek says families can integrate many of the tools and strategies that quality early childhood classrooms use in order to promote play and support learning in their own home and daily routines.

During a time like this, purposeful play is more important than ever. “When a child engages in play-based learning, whatever is going on with that child or for that child, you learn where they are physically, emotionally, and cognitively,” Vanek says. 

Vanek offers these tips for promoting purposeful play:

• Promote play by empowering your child to be the “director” in their play. Ask them open ended questions, such as “What happens next? Why? What do you think?” And allow your child to explore. A preschooler’s imagination may take his or her play in unusual or even silly directions, but empower and support your child.

• Integrate purposeful play into daily routines. For instance, to develop literacy skills, play a game of looking for a certain letter as you are driving around town, such as “Let’s see how many Ms we can find,” then find the M on a sign and say the word that M is a part of.

• Label simple things around your home. In an early childhood classroom, nearly everything is labeled. Using simple masking tape or index cards, label things in your home, too (i.e., cupboards, sink, trash can). Regular interactions become meaningful moments when young learners see the value of the printed word. 

• Find ways to interact with and build upon outdoor explorations. For instance, a tree was cut down in Vanek’s yard. Interacting online with the preschoolers she works with at the Teaching Learning Center, she and the children noted the letter “O,” which they found when looking at the rings of the cut tree. Recognizing and then counting the “Os” together is an example of how Vanek uses everyday experiences to extend and enrich a young child’s learning. 

• Use dramatic (pretend) play to build skills such as writing. For example, setting the table or getting ready for dinner can become a playful “trip” to a restaurant. Your child can use paper and a crayon to create a menu or take someone’s order.  Don’t be concerned about the specifics of letter or word formation. Children’s self-esteem can be affected when they are asked to write between the lines before they have developed those skills, Vanek notes. The value is in developing fine motor skills (the ability to hold a crayon/pencil) and in connecting that letters, symbols and words have meaning. It’s also important to remember that all children develop differently. 

• Support social-emotional development and communication skills by providing opportunities for children to take turns and to have their voices heard as part of a conversation. Families can practice these skills by Zooming with family, wherever they are, and simply having meals together. 

• Read books and create stories. This activity can take many forms, including making up stories together or engaging in traditional book reading. Seeing, while hearing, the print being read aloud is vital in literacy development. Predicting what will happen, sequencing of stories (beginning, middle, end) and even acting out stories are important skills for literacy. Some children need more stimulation to engage in stories, Vanek says. She suggests that using Play-Doh to “build” characters or re-create scenes is one way that children may stay engaged. Additionally, Vanek encourages families to think about acting out favorite stories or even songs together. The physical expression of language is another way to provide meaning and joy. 

• Provide opportunities to encourage independence. Vanek notes how challenging the physical care of young children can be. She understands that many families are balancing work responsibilities differently while also caring for their child, so she recommends considering how to set up the home environment for children to get their own snacks or  pick out their own clothes. Or, perhaps families can create a homemade placemat using pictures to show how to set the table, so a child can follow the drawing and be successful in helping themselves and the family prepare for a meal.  

By using a few of these suggestions for purposeful play, you will not only see the value of your child’s play, but provide the opportunity for more joyful explorations to help your child develop and be ready for traditional educational environments. 

Ricks’ advice for parents is that patience is the key.

“Be mindful of learning patterns and what makes them successful when learning,” Ricks says. “Maybe it’s the time of the day (if your child struggles learning at a certain hour). You have to understand your own child and their needs. As a parent, it’s your job to guide your child and the process of learning.” 

Jeannie Fleming-Gifford has a master’s degree in family and consumer sciences with a specialization in child development and is the executive director at Fairmount Center for the Arts. Her passions include outdoor adventures, volunteering to raise potential autism service dogs and writing. 

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