The expectations put on teachers and students in the early grades have become more intense over time. As a result of increased emphasis on performance and testing, learning in the early childhood classroom has increased in rigor, while play has often been left on the sidelines.
This does not have to be the case. With strategic planning and creativity, early learning can be both rigorous and full of play. In fact, play provides a number of benefits for pre-k through grade-three learners, academically and beyond.
Here are a few benefits of incorporating play into your early childhood classroom.
Play deepens understanding.
A strong teacher can spark student interest in almost any topic by creating an effective “hook,” reading an informative book, or exploring the topic through group projects. These methods of learning are important and can be very effective; however, when students are given the opportunity to interact personally with a topic through hands-on play and exploration, their understanding of the topic at hand goes even further.
Imagine your class is studying weather. You would likely read books about weather, observe and track weather changes day to day, and compare and contrast seasons. However, in order to give your students a deeper understanding of weather, you might consider turning your dramatic play center into a weather center, as pictured in the slideshow above. Through this play-based center, students will take on roles as weather reporters and pretend to dress for and interact with the weather, which will further their understanding of the changes in weather across time and space. This play is beneficial because it gives students an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired in an authentic way.
Play promotes social development.
In every early childhood classroom, there is a big emphasis on helping students to develop positive social skills and habits. Students are encouraged to develop language and experience positive interactions with others throughout the day. Approaches to encouraging proper social development may vary between classrooms. Some teachers may set out time to formally teach social skills, while others reinforce these skills through behavior management systems. While both of these approaches get results, students need time to practice these skills on their own, through play.
When students take on roles as cashier and customer in the “classroom store” center, they are not just increasing their familiarity with coins. These students will also be practicing using social skills learned throughout the year as they use kind words, take turns using materials, and problem solve around scenarios and conflicts that arise during play. Giving students a real-world application for using social skills will make these skills stick as students develop socially.
Play is developmentally appropriate.
As mentioned before, early learners are under more pressure than ever to perform academically, often causing schools and educators to look past suggestions for developmentally appropriate practices. Just as direct instruction and assessments are a necessary part of any academic program, so is play.
Play takes on a number of different forms, with varying degrees of structure. Preschool students might experience developmentally appropriate play while building and creating with blocks, while for first and second grade students, play might take the form of reader’s theater. The bottom line is, all early learners still need to, want to, and will benefit from play, as it is a natural part of a young child’s development.
Play is student centered.
There is a growing interest in student-centered learning. Teachers today are going to great lengths to ensure students are actively engaged in learning by providing opportunities for collaboration, projects and activities that cater to student interests. Fortunately, with thoughtful planning, play is naturally student-centered.
When students play through centers, group games, or even during recess, they are given the opportunity to engage in playful activities and learning that meet them where they are. Through play, students are able to identify and develop their interests and strengths, as well as challenge themselves socially, creatively and academically. Play gives students an opportunity to explore and learn independently, in their own way.
There are endless benefits to and arguments for play in today’s early childhood classrooms. As challenging and important as it is to balance academic instruction and the pressure of the high expectations set out on teachers and students today, it is equally important to find ways to provide opportunities for play in today’s classrooms. Plan carefully, get creative, and watch the benefits of play unfold in your classroom.
For more information on play and learning visit the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) page on play and learning.
How do you incorporate play into your classroom? What are some of the benefits of playful learning in your classroom? We want to hear from you!