Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Learning To Play; Playing To Learn

I was at a play activity with some people in one of my moms groups, and one of the parents complained that since his daughter didn't meet the cutoff date, she'd be almost four before she could go to preschool. I mentioned our co-op preschool, and ones like it in nearby cities, that offered classes from age 1 or younger!
Other Mom (OM): "But it's not a REAL school, is it?"
Me: Excuse me? "Well, they have circle time, sing songs, have different activity stations, art projects, sensory play, pretend play, and indoor- or outdoor-playground time."
OM: "Yeah. But they don't really teach anything. Not like a real preschool."
Me: "Well, first off, I don't know about the older classes, since we've only done the 1-2-year-olds class. But she learns to share, wait her turn, listen to the teacher, stay with the group... You know. Social stuff. Plus she improves her fine-motor skills and verbal skills." (Since no one else can automatically interpret her speech like I can, she has to learn to say it clearer, or use different words, so she can be understood.)

The girl's father, who had been the one looking for a preschool, just brushed the whole thing off, based on this one mom's snobbery (her child was older and already in preschool.) Look, buddy. You wanted a preschool for a child technically too young to go to other schools. What exactly were you expecting? Yale for toddlers? My child learned the alphabet from watching an Elmo DVD. I don't need them to ram it into her at school. Offer it? Sure. But at 1-2 and 2-3? Please. Next year we start the 3-4 class, and I'm eager to see what we get to do. I know they have a whole slew of fun stuff that we've only glimpsed at Open House night.

Even my sister scoffs at our preschool. It happens to be in a church, but not run by the church. But she just views it as a fancy daycare. I found a co-op out near her, through a community college, and still it's not good enough for her. She waited until her eldest was old enough to go to a Montessori preschool (which is my goal, but Z just wasn't ready for a 4-5 day drop-off this coming school year. *sigh*) But then complains that her daughter seems to slip through the cracks because she's quiet and low-maintenance. And the other kids are all at least half-a-year older or younger than her, so no one at her developmental stage. So, say what you will about preschool for under-3. But no one in our class ever got ignored or left in a corner by themselves the whole class! And for me, having Z learn to respect and listen to another adult is a huge accomplishment. Even if the only interaction she'd have was to go tell the teacher she wanted to go into the Mommy room to be with me! (*sigh*)

But all that disrespect for a "non-scholastic" preschool made me want to write a post about how even the simplest of play activities is really subtly teaching them. They're learning all the time. Even when we think we're too lazy to do anything enriching, we probably really are, and just don't know it!

Playing with blocks: Creative expression and construction. Teaches sizes and shapes, bigger and smaller, weights and balances, height and depth, and possibly colors and textures. Counting, numbers. And when playing alongside a friend, sharing and cooperation. Possibly even teamwork, as they get older. Hand-eye coordination. And exercise: fine motor skills to balance blocks or place them exactly where they want, as well as broader exercise when moving around for larger creations. Problem solving. Sequencing. Spatial relations. Likeness/differences. Matching and classifying. Introduction to math concepts.

Playing on the playground (or gym class... okay fine! McDonald's PlayLand. Whatever): Learns physical abilities and limitations. Learns safety and caution. Learns to take turns and share pieces of equipment. Experiences joy and pride in achieving new skills. Large muscle development, balance, coordination. Energy/tension release.
Playing with puzzles: Satisfaction in completion, building self-confidence. Improves hand-eye coordination. Spatial relations. Matching, likeness/differences. Can work alone or as a team. Skills learned while doing puzzles help with learning to read later: putting letters to sounds, making words with letters, and making stories with words.

Playing with sand and water (or other sensory media; rice, play-dough, beans, corn, etc): Learns size and measurement, experimenting with different sized containers, cups and spoons. Opportunity for solitary, parallel or cooperative play. Cause and effect. Experimentation: will this float? Sink? Basic science concepts. There is no final product, no "right way;" low frustration. Soothing to feel sand or water running through fingers, pouring. Relaxing, so attention can be centered on tasks. Tension outlet.

Playing pretend: Learns what the roles of mothers, fathers, children, firefighters, doctors, princesses, etc are. Uses imagination. Starts learning how to think or feel like someone else (empathy.) Learns how to cooperate with other children. opportunity to act out life experiences and feelings. Emotional outlet. Understanding family relationships.

Playing with paints and crafts: Uses imagination. Small-muscle development (controlling the brush, placing the sticker, painting details with fingers.) New sensory experiences. Self expression. Tension outlet. Choices and decisions. Emotional satisfaction in getting to make choices and express themselves. Learns about doing things for others (making a card for Nana?) Learns how to use different materials/tools like scissors, squeeze glue, glue sticks. Sense of pride in accomplishment. Learns about shape, color, size, textures. Whole/part relationship.

Playing with manipulatives (ie: toys, play-dough): Explores new concepts. Creative expression. Practices emerging skills, reinforces learned skills. Fine motor practice. Cooperative play. Learns about classifying, sorting, predicting, problem solving, and analyzing results. Symbolic thinking ("this rock is a cookie") which leads to reading skills ("this squiggle is an 's'.") Develop knowledge of the world around them by using real objects and concrete examples. Learns how to learn.

Playing with puppets, dolls, stuffed animals: Creative expression. Able to verbalize feelings. Can begin to understand the feelings of others (empathy.) Role-playing. Explore situations that may disturb or confuse them, and find solutions. Stretches imagination. Cooperative play.

Playing with computers and other technology (smart-phones, anyone?): Learns how machines work and how they can help them learn more. Using the mouse helps hand-eye coordination. Touch-screens use fine motor skills. Computer games and apps help with problem solving, making decisions, and uses imagination.

"Helping" cook: Learns to follow directions. Stimulates and uses all 5 senses (hear the instructions, names of items, etc; see the measuring and changes each step; touch, taste and smell the ingredients, each step, and final product. Learns to recognize colors, shapes and uses from different kinds of foods and kitchen utensils. Has an opportunity to improve small motor coordination by using different tools and equipment.

Listening to stories or looking at books: Learns to listen. Hearing new words increases vocabulary and hearing them in context improves syntax. Learns about different concepts, people and places. Learns to enjoy books and reading. Stimulates the mind; visualizing what is being heard.

Singing, dancing, listening to music: Learns to appreciate music from different countries, cultures and time periods. Learns to express self and ideas. Increases vocabulary and speech development. Gains satisfaction for participating in a fun, physical, enriching activity. Awareness of different sounds, rhythms. Learning to listen, follow directions, take turns. Respect for others' ideas. Visual, auditory and memory. Cooperative play. Listening to melody/rhythm leads to pattern recognition, which is used in early math skills.

Snack Time: Opportunity to practice social skills and manners. Practice pouring, passing. Nutrition awareness. New taste experiences. Listening, following directions.

Field Trips (ie: running errands, eating out): Gives a variety of experiences. Helps form accurate concepts of the world. Learning how to behave in a variety of situations. Awareness of environment and community. Cooperative participation.

Cleaning up: Teaches responsibility, respect for property. Sense of cooperation and orderliness. Satisfaction in helping and completing a job.
[Yeah... no pictures of this. I can show oodles of pictures of NOT-this, though!]

So you see? Set them down with some blocks and they're learning! Blocks 101! Talk to them while they're playing (about what they're doing; what color/shape/texture it is; which one is bigger/smaller, lighter/heavier; how many are stacked up in that tower; where are all the yellow ones, etc) and it's like a Master's Degree for them!
Even if they're just watching TV while you're (ahem) blogging, periodically ask them questions about their show. "How do you think that made Elmo feel?" "Wow. It sounds like he's angry. How would that make you feel?" "Dora needs you to say 'Backpack!' Say 'Backpack!'" "Oh, you want a Pillow Pet now, do you? Did you know that commercials try to make you buy stuff? Yeah. That 'show' is really an ad to get you to ask me to buy you that toy. Did it work? Did they convince you that you had to have one? Does that make you feel tricked?"
And while it may make you feel like a total fool, talk to your kids. All the time. Narrate your life. From infancy. We were out with a friend, and he scoffed at me for pointing out a mannequin in a store window as we walked past on our way to dinner. I explained to Z that it was a statue to show off clothing, for a clothing store. And then inside the restaurant, there was a Chinese soldier statue. And she points at it and says "Mah-kin. Sta-shoo." See? New vocabulary, categorizing/sorting (both items were humanoid and statue-like, thus in the same "category.") And she's interested in the world around her, since we help her learn new things about what she sees. (Our friend rescinded his scoffing as she continued to wow him with her growing vocabulary and observational skills.)

But I'm still bitter about our preschool being disparaged.


  1. You're so right - kids learn more than we ever will, by "just" playing. But some people just don't get it. Maybe some of them will read this excellent post, and start to have an inkling. So don't be bitter. Just feel good in the knowledge that you are giving your child all the advantages you can (and if your kid is a little ahead of theirs when they hit grade one, then you can look back and feel NOT AT ALL SMUG. Really...!) :)

  2. Absolutely! Kids learn all the time, everywhere they are. I never understood why people feel that "real" learning has to be done in an "organized environment" anyway.

    Great post!

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  4. Your baby and your blog are beautiful! Thanks fo hosting the bloghop.Blessings, Melissa @ MelsDeals


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