Play’s The Thing

Play’s The Thing


Most parents understand that children learn primarily through play. Yet, when their child attends a play-based nursery school, they may wonder whether he or she is being challenged, being thoroughly prepared for elementary school, being exposed to “academics.”

Studies show that rote learning at a young age does not stick. Children may develop a temporary edge over their playing peers, but it is just that, temporary. And while they are being taught and drilled, they are missing valuable opportunities to practice social behavior, to learn by trial and error, and to problem solve.

Some parental worry may be caused by assuming that nursery school teachers are just sitting back and watching children play. Seeing her child on the floor with cars and trucks every day makes a parent feel that the same experience could be had at home. But in a play-based program, teachers are active and involved. Once the child’s interests are established, good teachers find a way to use those interests to teach academic concepts.

Here is an example: the teacher will use the child’s interest in cars and trucks to teach math concepts like counting and sorting. The vehicles can be sorted by color. They can then be sorted by function, a higher concept. “Which vehicles go to a construction site?” “Which go to a fire? Which go to a car accident? How many in each group? The teacher may invite the child to create a story about a truck. By writing it down and reading it back, she is reinforcing literacy skills. Problem solving skills come into play when the child builds a garage for his vehicles. “How will the trucks get up to the second floor of your building?”

In the dramatic play area, the children may be stuck rocking their “babies” and playing with pretend food. Again the teacher acts as a catalyst for more complex play. “Your baby looks a little sick. Why don’t we take him to the doctor?” Adding a doctor’s coat, instruments and a cot will spur the children to take on different roles. On a another day, the teacher might say, “I’m hungry. What kind of food do you serve in this restaurant?” Again, the children are challenged to become waitresses and cooks, to use menus and “write down” orders, to use more sophisticated vocabulary, to assume different social roles and further develop their thinking and language skills. All these experiences are terrific preparation for educational success.

A good teacher uses the children’s interests to help them develop skills and dispositions. This method is a lot more effective than pressuring a child to come to the table to learn to write the alphabet or add numbers, which will result in resistance and a feeling that school is boring.

Play-based nursery school, with an involved teacher who continually adds nuance and problem-solving opportunities to the children’s play is exactly what every young child needs. Literacy, number and social skills will flourish; self-confidence will soar, and success in elementary school will come naturally.

Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years of experience in working with young children.