In my science class for kids, we make “discovery bottles” when studying chemistry. These are clear plastic bottles filled with liquid and glitter – when shaken the glitter swirls up and is suspended throughout the liquid, then it gradually settles back out. In this video, the glitter settles very quickly – if you want to slow it down and keep the glitter suspended longer, you can add glycerin, corn syrup or dish detergent to make the liquid more viscous.
Mindfulness bottles can be used in several ways:
A visual metaphor for escalated emotions: you can talk with a child about sometimes our feelings and thoughts get all stirred up – maybe we’re running late, and we spill our milk, and we can’t find our favorite toy – everything feels so chaotic and upsetting. If we can slow down and breathe for just a moment that helps de-escalate those big feelings.
A calm-down tool: When they’re feeling overloaded or escalated (in the yellow zone), they can shake the bottle, and then as they watch it settle, take some deep breaths to let go of the too-big feelings and too-busy thoughts and settle down.
Learning about the Brain: Heart Mind Kids says “You can use a glitter jar as a tool to explain how the brain works, in conjunction with the hand model of the brain. When your emotions are rising up, the brain (the bottle) floods with cortisol (the glitter) and you flip your lid (shake the bottle), losing access to the prefrontal cortex, its flexibility and reasoning capabilities. As you breathe, the cortisol dissipates (the glitter settles to the bottom of the bottle) and you feel calmer and the prefrontal cortex comes back online, making it easier to feel calm and make better decisions.”
Transition Tool: give to a child when one activity is winding down and it’s time to move on to the next. Having a moment with the glitter bottle may help them shift their attention and be ready to move on. These bottles can work especially well with someautistic children, helping them to focus and to calm down as the swirling glitter settles.
Timer: If you have one that takes a long time to settle, you can use it as a timer. “Shake the bottle, and when it settles down, then it will be someone else’s turn with the toy.”
Take a Break from Conflict: If some people are caught in an argument, talking over each other, have someone shake the bottle and everyone has to be quiet and breathe and calm down while the glitter settles.
Managing a VERY Bad Day. In the book Moody Cow Meditates (Video), a grandfather helps a young cow calm down by having him share all the bad things that happened that day, and as he shares each one, sprinkle a little glitter in a jar. Then he shakes them all up to see how he’s feeling now, and lets them all settle down. Note: this book is really long for a children’s book, and the first half is all about miserable stuff happening to a kid. I would probably just start reading in the middle, when Grandpa enters, introducing it to a child as “once there was a cow who was having a super bad day, just like you’re having right now.”
Find It game: Include one special item – maybe a heart shaped sequin or a star shaped sequin. When they shake it up, they then search / I-spy for that one special item in the swirling glitter. Good for increasing focus.
Fidget: Some people keep a bottle on their desk so when they’re distracted and need a brief brain break, they can shake it, watch it settle, then get back to work.
Lots of early childhood programs moved online in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. The majority have moved back to in-person, but online preschool programs will likely always be an available option in the future.
When parents hear that toddler classes or preschools are meeting online, they may have questions about whether it could be an effective method for learning. It is definitely not the same as in-person learning, and it is more developmentally appropriate to be in-person, hands-on, with lots of happy children interacting in the same room. However, there are lots of possible benefits to an online preschool or toddler program if that is the best option for your family, whether that’s due to health issues or disability, or to living in a location without access to good in-person options.
Here’s what can be gained in online preschool:
Routines: having a predictable activity in your weekly schedule helps to provide some structure. It provides an event to look forward to and reflect on.
Other Faces and Voices: seeing other children and a teacher can be delightful, your child will learn by observing their peers, class can also expose them to diversity and broaden their world, plus we know that children learn language better when they hear a wide variety of adult speakers.
A Listening Ear: for classes where they offer sharing time, children will have someone else to share their exciting ideas with, and will have a chance to practice their expressive language skills
A Chance to Practice Manners and Classroom Skills: one of the important aspects of an early childhood experience, whether that’s story time at the library, Sunday school at church, or preschool is that children get to practice sitting still, listening to someone else, participating in a group activity, and taking turns – they can practice all these things in an interactive call on Zoom.
Learning New Things: whatever the content of the class – music, stories, dance, art, or science, your child can easily learn new ideas from an online teacher, and if you’re listening in, you can reinforce the learning much more effectively than you could have reinforced what they were taught at a drop-off preschool.
New Inspiration: your child will get new ideas and you will get new ideas for things to try out at home and explore and learn from – you don’t have to feel responsible for coming up with all the learning ideas on your own.
If you’re considering an online preschool, then you’ll want to ask many of the same questions you would ask of an in-person option: What do they teach? How do they teach it? Who is the teacher – what is their background and why do they choose to teach? And who are the other students? Learn more about these questions: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2014/01/17/questionsforpreschool/.
One major provider of online learning is Outschool. I have taught many classes there and my son has taken many classes. I wrote a comprehensive review of Outschool – the benefits and possible downsides. Many of these would also apply to other online programs.
When you start looking at preschools, you discover a whole world of jargon you never knew: play-based, emergent, teacher led, benchmarks, coop, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so on. It can be overwhelming. And to make it more confusing, different people use words differently.. two schools that both call themselves “child-led” or “play-based” may look very different in practice.
A couple big picture ideas:
Structured vs. Play-Based: A structured preschool might use group time, worksheets, and individual projects to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. All the children are expected to be engaged in the same activity at the same time – they are all working on a craft project together or it’s math time for everyone. (Think of your elementary school education – structured preschools are using similar methods moved down to a younger group).
Teacher-Led vs. Child-Led: A teacher-led curriculum (may also be called didactic or standards-based) means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (it might be their own creation or they may use a curriculum written by someone else) and sticks to it. The teacher is active, the children are passive.
A child-led curriculum (may also be called emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests. So, for example, the teacher may know the math concept of the week is more than/less than. But instead of teaching that in a formal scheduled way, she asks the children playing with trains whether there are more blue trains or red trains, then asks the children playing with blocks which tower has more blocks in it, and asks the child who loves dinosaurs whether they think velociraptors ate more than T-rexes or less.
Classic Montessori: The teacher sets up learning centers around the room, with “self-correcting” materials (e.g. a puzzle where the child can tell if they’ve done it right or wrong and thus can work to fix it themselves if it’s wrong.) Children work independently at their own pace, and are in a multi-age classroom.
Note: Montessori schools can range in quality and in how tightly they adhere to Montessori methods. The word Montessori is not tightly controlled, and anyone can use it, no matter what teaching methods they use. Some schools use it because it’s a known brand name that “sells” well, but the classroom experience may only have a very loose connection to Montessori practices.
Reggio Emilia. Child-led investigations. Project-based: when the children come up with an idea for a project, the class focuses for a few weeks on it, finding out together what they need to know to make it happen (including pre-reading and math.) They document projects with photos and journals. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVv5ZL9nlgs
Nature-based or “forest kindergartens“. Common in northern Europe, they are newer to the States. There are several available on the Eastside of Seattle (My son attended Tiny Treks). Children spend most, or all of their time outdoors (yes, even in the winter). Child-led, play-based, emergent curriculum where teachers respond to children’s interests, rolling in math and science where it fits logically, often doing story-time, snack, and circle outdoors. To learn more, search for “forest kindergarten” on YouTube or check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBoXaQKoWL0
Academic preschools. There are preschools that have an academic focus that are taught in developmentally appropriate ways. But there are also schools which drill rote facts into children. That may mean the children will in fact learn to read words younger than they might otherwise have done, but this doesn’t appear to give them a long-term advantage. An occasional worksheet is a good experience for kids as preparation for future school experiences, but a worksheet-based curriculum is not appropriate for a 3 year old. (Read more: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/01/07/academic-preschools/)
Cooperative preschools. Most are balanced programs with time split between play-based learning at learning centers (e.g. dress-up area, block area, art, sensory), circle time (includes story time, literacy skills, and concepts like days, seasons, colors, etc.) and outdoor or big motor play. There is a professional teacher who plans the curriculum and leads structured activities. What distinguishes co-ops is parent involvement. For a 3 year old, they might attend preschool three mornings a week. On some of those days, the parent drops off. On one morning, the parent stays and works in the classroom with the children. This means there is a very high adult to student ratio. Co-op isn’t the best answer for a parent who needs child care so they can work or do other activities. However, for parents who have the time available, many report that they enjoy the time spent in the classroom, and like knowing more about what their child does at preschool and who the other children are in the class. Parents also have the opportunity to build friendships with other parents. Note: Cooperative preschools tend to be much lower cost than other options.
When considering which method you prefer, it’s worth keeping in mind what we know about brain development (see this post): Children learn best through hands-on experiences with tangible materials, through interaction with engaged human beings, and in environments where they feel safe and happy.
I wrote a full post about play-based preschool that provides an overview of how it works, and what the benefits are. This post gives specific examples of the types of activities you might find at a play-based preschool and has concrete examples what children learn from each.
Blocks / Building Materials
The Invitation to Play: the teachers may offer construction toys (like Legos, blocks, Magnatiles) or other creative building supplies (TP tubes, toothpicks and gum drops). Children are encouraged to use them to build any structure they choose. Teachers often mix in other supplies for inspiration: for example, add a toy giraffe and an elephant and children may build a zoo. Add cars and they’ll build roads and cities. Add pictures of famous buildings and they’ll build their representation of the Eiffel Tower. If one child wants to build a stable for her toy horses, and the other wants to make a spaceship, they have to negotiate how to share the blocks fairly.
When children build, they learn the basics of physics, spatial awareness, an understanding of what makes something stable. They learn about sizes and shapes and patterns – essential math skills. They problem solve and experience logical consequences that guide them in how to try again and build it better. They view themselves as competent creators.
Puzzles, shape sorters, manipulables
When a child puts a puzzle together or works with specially designed early learning materials, they learn important ideas about shapes, sizes, patterns, the relationship of the part to the whole, eye-hand coordination, small motor skills, and problem solving. However, many parents don’t buy many puzzles or pattern blocks, because they may be something a child just does a few times and masters. But at a preschool, they may have a whole cabinet full of spatial challenges for your child to explore.
Sensory Play and Play Dough
Sensory Play was once a staple of most preschools and many kindergartens. As public schools have shifted toward teaching academic skills that can be evaluated in standardized tests, sensory play is often phased out.
But when children play in a sandbox, or in a sensory bin full of rice or pompoms, or a water table, or on a light table, this multi-sensory experience can teach so many things. They build eye-hand coordination as they pour and scoop; learn concepts of empty and full, volume and weight – relevant to math; properties of solids and liquid in motion, that the amount of a substance remains the same even when the shape changes, and that some things sink and some things float (science!) They get comfortable with their hands being messy. (This is an important life skill – sometimes we all have to do messy things!)
In the sensory tables, and with play-dough, they can explore how to use so many tools: tweezers, tongs, spoons, scoops, shovels, funnels, rolling pins, cookie cutters, egg beaters and whisks, pipettes and eye droppers, scales, measuring cups and spoons, potato mashers, pizza cutters…
Playdough also gives children the opportunity to
express feelings, squeezing and pounding
learn about negative and positive space when they cut out shapes with a cookie cutter (this helps with reading)
build finger muscles
Art Process / Writing Practice
Preschools often have an easel set up every day, with various kinds of paints and various kinds of painting tools – brushes, rollers, sprayers, or sponges. Children are free to paint anything that they choose to. Many preschools have a “creation station” for collage, offering cardboard and paper for bases, glue and tape, and miscellaneous things to glue on: pompoms, googly eyes, plastic lids, tissue paper scraps, styrofoam popcorn, pretend jewels… almost anything! Many preschools have a writing station with office supplies – paper, markers, pencils, pencil sharpeners, staplers, hole punches, scissors, stickers, rubber stamps, envelopes and so on. Children can make cards for their parents, signs to support their pretend play, booklets, anything they choose. We also do wacky things like salad spinner painting or painting with cars or putting a paper plate on a record player and drawing as it goes round and round.
These are all process-based art activities. No one is dictating what they must create there or what the final product needs to be. It’s completely up to the child to envision something and to make it real.
The children learn how to use all the tools and all the media, they build their finger muscles and their pencil holds, they learn names of colors and how to mix new colors, they learn to recognize shapes and to create shapes, they learn about symmetry, balance, and design. The art is a creative outlet for expressing their feelings and learning that their ideas have value.
Art Projects and Crafts
In addition to art process, we also have projects. These are activities where the teacher creates a sample and puts out all the materials for kids to make a project similar to the sample. It’s up to the child whether they want to use the materials in that way or do something else with them. But we do encourage them to try re-creating some projects, because it gives them practice with following multi-step directions. It lets them practice close observation skills and learn how to imitate or re-create what they see. We can build new skills into these projects they can then apply elsewhere, such as a project where they practice cutting curvy or zigzag lines.
Cars and Trains / Doll Houses / Play Farms
We have toy trains, toy cars, bulldozers and more. Children learn how wheeled vehicles move through the world and what happens when they crash. They learn how things need to be pushed up hills, but going downhill, they go fast on their own (physics!). And, because these toys tend to be very popular with our active, high energy kids, they also often provide opportunities to practice sharing and conflict resolution!
We have small dolls and doll house furniture. We have small plastic farm animals and farm equipment, woodland animals, and zoo animals. Kids may play with these and the cars on their own or they may be combined with the blocks, sensory bins, art supplies, pretend houses we made, and more. When children play with these small worlds, they do a lot of sorting (“I’ll put all the cows in this stall and all the horses in this stall”), counting (“I have 7 racecars that are ready for the race to begin”), and story-telling (“the lions were all roaring at the elephants”). They also co-create with other children – playing side by side sometimes, but then having their horse talk to the other horse, or their doll call the other’s doll to the table for food.
Most preschools have a play kitchen full of pretend food, dress-up clothes that allow children to play out many roles, plus baby dolls and stuffed animals to practice nurturing skills with. Many of those materials may be available every class during the year so children have lots of chances to explore them and use them in many ways. Teachers may also have special themes for dramatic play: maybe a farmer’s market in the fall, a gingerbread bakery in December, a valentine post office in February, or a spaceship and mission control.
With dramatic play, children learn to use their imagination, try on different roles, explore other cultures, imitate parenting behaviors they see in their lives, role play a variety of careers, and explore gender roles. Lots of complex language practice happens during pretend play. This area also builds social skills as they have to negotiate about which roles each child will play and what the story line will be.
Board Games and Active Games
Whether it’s Candyland, Bingo, Hide and Seek or Tag, all games offer practice at understanding and following rules, learning how we all get along better when we can agree to and follow the same rules, and learn how to be a good sport – winning with grace, and recovering from the disappointment of losing.
Books and Literacy
Stories are always available in a preschool classroom. Some schools (like Waldorf) use only oral storytelling, but in most, there are books available. They may be used during group time, but also available for independent exploration. Literacy practice may also be incorporated elsewhere: signs or menus in the pretend play area, books on CD to listen to, board games, and in art projects.
Children learn that letters on a page represent words – language written down, then learn to interpret pictures and to follow the development of ideas in the plot of a story. Most important, they see that learning to read is important and enjoyable.
Large Motor Activities / Outdoor Play
So much brain development happens in these early years, and children form the foundation of all the skills they need for a lifetime. This is especially true of motor skills. In addition to all the fine motor practice of puzzles, writing and playdough, preschools also offer lots of opportunity for large motor practice indoors and outdoors. Playing in the playground or on tumbling equipment indoors, throwing balls or throwing paper “snowballs”, digging in the sandbox or running on an ever-evolving obstacle course.
They are building physical strength, coordination and balance as they build all the key physical skills of running, jumping, climbing, and rolling. They learn to take some risks and be bold, while also learning when they need to be cautious, and learning to emotionally regulate through it all. There’s also important skills in taking turns on the slide, watching out for other people before moving, and moving around others carefully. As our kids ride trikes madly around the playground they’re learning skills they’ll need in driver’s ed someday!
Snack and Clean-Up Time
Snack time can always include practice at choosing and trying new foods, practice using silverware and table manners, learning to sit with others while eating, and practicing social conversation. Many preschools also involve the children in making their own simple snacks, which can include practice with cutting with a knife, stirring, spreading, sprinkling, measuring, and so on. Learning these life skills at an early age builds confidence and competence.
Children also learn confidence and competence as they help out with clean-up time. They may help put all the toys away, wipe tables, sweep the floor, put lids back on markers, and fold up the tumbling mats. This teaches life skills, teaches them that they can make meaningful contributions to a community, and motivates them not to make too much of a mess in the first place! But also, putting away toys is a great exercise in sorting things into categories (a key science skill) which requires noticing details, observing similarities and differences in object, concepts of color, size, and shape.
Those of us who teach preschool often use the term “play-based preschool” and often forget that may not mean anything to the average first-time parent looking for their first preschool! You may be wondering: what does play-based preschool look like? And what do kids actually learn if they’re just “playing”?
The Big Picture
In a play-based preschool: The teacher sets the stage with engaging materials and supplies for fun activities. Then the children explore through play: observing, experiencing, wondering and discovering. The teacher is nearby to observe, ask questions, make suggestions, or play along. But each child decides which activities to do, which toys to play with, what to do with them, and for how long. Play is spontaneous, fun and creative, and the focus in on process, not product. Play is done for its own sake, not to accomplish a task. It involves lots of exploring of possibilities, experiments, trial and error, and repetition which reinforces learning.
In some settings, such as outdoor preschools, the teacher may do little “set-up.” They may just wander and learn about whatever they discover as they go. However, the majority of play-based preschools have a center-based approach, also known as activity centers or stations. The teacher makes a very conscious set of choices about what activities to offer so there are options that help children grow in all areas of development and build all types of intelligence. There are fresh new activities each day, but there is also a lot of consistency where the same materials may be available for many weeks straight. This respects what we know about brain development – children need a combination of novelty and repetition to learn.
Stations and Classroom Set-Up
During free choice time, children are encouraged to move freely between stations. Some children will spend an entire class at one station if it’s really captured their attention. Some will flit between all the stations, trying everything out. A child might be playing alone for a long time, or they might be in the midst of group play. That freedom to move helps them self-regulate based on their mood and their energy level, lets them opt in or out of social play, lets them focus on what they most want/need to learn and allows for lots of practice with decision-making.
Typical activity centers include:
blocks and other building toys
sensory bins, water tables and light tables to explore with all of their senses
art process activities like play-dough and painting at the easel
craft projects where children practice following directions to create a specific product
book corner, writing center, puzzles, and board games to learn pre-academic skills
doll houses, dress-up clothes, and toy kitchens to tell stories and role play things they see in daily life and things they can only imagine
large motor activities like climbers, tumbling mats and riding trikes to build physical strength and skills
a snack station where they learn to prepare their own food and clean up after themselves
a nature and science station for learning about the world around them
Some teachers refer to the classroom materials as “the third teacher.” (Parents and teacher are the first two.) Setting up materials in an intentional way helps to guide children’s learning. Teachers consider the skills they want the children to work on and find ways to set up an “invitation to play” that will inspire kids to engage. For example, if a teacher notices a child is resistant to holding a pencil and lacking the finger strength to write well, they might choose a variety of small motor muscle building activities for that child, like using tweezers to pull sunflower seeds off the sunflower, and working with Legos and play-dough, and popping packing bubbles or pulling velcro open to make that cool noise.
The Teacher’s Role
You might envision “teaching” as a teacher sitting at the front of a classroom, teaching one skill to everyone at once. There is absolutely a time and place for this sort of direct instruction – it’s the best way to teach some specific skills or facts. However, during this time, as the teacher is active, the children are often passive. Some may be very engaged in the learning, some may be distracted. Some may have already mastered the material that is being taught, and some may not yet be ready for it.
During free choice time in a play-based school, the teacher’s role is very different and much more individualized to the learner. As the children play, the teacher moves around the room, facilitating play and extending learning. There might be two children working on cutting paper for a craft – one has mastered scissors, the other has not, so the teacher offers guidance to the child who needs it. If a child is building with blocks, the teacher might ask open-ended questions to extend the child’s learning, or scaffold learning by making a few suggestions about how to build a stronger foundation for their block tower. If children are engaged in pretend play in the “kitchen”, the teacher might pretend to be a customer and place an order, and encourage the children to write it down and to count the pretend money. Sometimes the teacher just follows along with child-led play, which is a great way to practice communication skills. Sometimes the teacher will encourage the child to move on and try new activities if they feel like one has been mastered.
There is a lot of intentional planning and support that goes into a good play-based preschool, but sometimes it’s hard for the parents to see exactly what is being learned, so let’s look at some example activities and how children benefit.
Group Time / Music
Most play-based preschools spend part of their day in group time. This might include: singing songs or playing instruments, story time, learning about the calendar, watching demos of activities they could choose to try during free choice time, learning about a key concept for the weekly or monthly time, celebrations like birthdays or VIP, and chances for children to show and tell.
Lots of school readiness practice is happening here: learning to sit still, listen to the teacher, wait while others are talking, take their turn when it’s time, take an instrument when offered and return it when asked. They are exposed to new ideas and new vocabulary during theme discussions, learn core music skills like rhythm and tone, and build their memory skills as they remember the words of songs and poems.
Don’t all preschools incorporate play?
Of course! (And if you find a preschool that doesn’t incorporate play, avoid it!) At almost all preschools and daycares you will find many of the elements described here. But some focus on this more than others.
You’ll get a sense of which schools truly embrace play-based learning by looking at their schedules and talking to their teachers.
For example, at one of the preschools I work with, they are very play-based – the schedule is a five minute group time for a good morning song and a little preview of the day, then 100 minutes of free choice time, clean-up, ten minutes for a story-time in a group, 20+ minutes of free play outdoors, then some music time outdoors to end the day. That adds up to less than a half hour of structured group learning, and over two hours free choice time indoors or outdoors, and the play-based learning has plenty of opportunity to unfold. They have several sessions on a theme, where the primary art project might change, but most of the other activities stay the same. The balance between novelty and repetition matches what we know best supports brain development. If you talk with the teacher, they will definitely share their view that free play in a rich environment is the best way for children to learn..
I lead a STEM enrichment class for 3-6 year olds that mixes direct instruction and play-based learning. We have 30 minutes of discovery time where the children explore the stations for the day, then a 30 minute group time where we use a non-fiction book, a song, and demos to teach the science concepts of the day, then 40 minutes of tinkering time where the children return to the stations to apply the concepts that they learned. After a quick snack break, we have 20 minutes of group time to wrap up the ideas for the day, read a fun book related to the topic and play a fun related game. So, that’s 50 minutes of structured direct instruction and 70 minutes of free choice play-based learning. And it’s a different theme every week, so there’s almost no repetition of activities. This is great for providing children with novelty – new experiences and new ideas – crystallized knowledge. But, it’s not as powerful as the preschool for providing the opportunity for children to stay with an activity for as long of periods of time over many class sessions – that repetition could build more mastery of the concepts and skills. So, my program is play-based… but not as pure about it as the preschool. (Note: the reason I feel OK with this is the class is a parent-child program where they participate together, and I encourage the parents to talk about the ideas outside of class, and watch optional videos to review or preview the ideas and repeat their favorite activities and games from class, so that parent involvement offers opportunities for reinforcement outside of the class.)
An example of play-based learning
Yesterday morning at the preschool, I had a spontaneous interaction that provides a good example. I didn’t have any particular plan in mind when this started. One girl had found our basket of plastic toy dogs and had picked out one dog. I said “you have one white poodle.” (number, color, and vocabulary learning) I asked: “are there any other white poodles in the basket?” She then looks through the basket until she finds all the white poodles and we count them together. (Practicing observation skills, sorting, and counting.) A couple other children have joined in. We decide which type of dogs each one will seek out, and we line them all up by category, counting how many we have of each type and comparing that. (Social negotiation, sorting, counting, organizing, and comparing quantities. I also taught the vocabulary of names of dog breeds and talked about their characteristics – color, size, fluffiness, etc.) We added up how many we had total. (56!)
At this point, we are probably 10 minutes into this spontaneous exploration and I’ve got four kids completely captivated in this process even while other children were doing many other activities around us, and another who is enjoying the joke of adding his duplo horse into the mix as we try to count and we laugh that it doesn’t fit! I was ready to extend the play, so I suggested maybe we could use the blocks to build a zoo for all the types of dogs. That stretched into a 15 or 20 minute block session where all these children stayed with it the full time and a few others wandered in and out. I was closest to the blocks, so they would ask me to pass them blocks. I asked them to tell me what shape and size they wanted, so we got all sorts of practice in quantity, comparing sizes, and learning names of shapes.
One child who rarely speaks aloud to anyone in the class was speaking to me easily and freely as it helped her get the materials she needed for our joint game. They practiced building skills, I suggested ways to make structures more stable, they negotiated for ways to share the materials when someone else had what they wanted. We managed the frustration of having someone accidentally knock over something you were working on. Other children brought over some dolls, and we added visitors to our zoo. They also brought signs so we practiced reading those and talked about which ones we could use. (Literacy practice.) The children were so relaxed and focused on play this whole time, even while they heard excited shrieking from the other room where there was a new piece of climbing equipment. I was ready to move on and check in with other children, but reminded them that we would all need to work together later on to put away the blocks, since we had used almost every block on the shelf in our big project. Later on they and the other children helped put back all those blocks – each type of block has a specific spot on the shelf, so they put all the squares in their zone, and all the arches here, and all the triangles there, and so on, and put all our dogs back in the basket. So much spontaneous learning, all starting with one question to one child.
But was this the only thing happening that day? Not at all! This was a co-op preschool with 20 kids, 3 staff, and 2 parent volunteers that morning. The kids who wanted to engage in what I was doing did so for as long as they wanted. But in the meantime, other children were in the “gym” climbing on the climber and rolling down the mats. Others were in the library looking at books and putting puzzles together. Others were stringing beads and putting heart stickers on valentines in the art area, and others were busy in the kitchen area making pretend soup. Each had the ability to choose whatever most inspired their curiosity and joy that day.
Where can I find a play-based preschool?
One great option is to see if you have co-op preschools in your community. They are almost always play-based. Forest kindergartens or outdoor preschools are play-based, with even less structure than the station based experience I describe here. You may also find some preschools that are what I call the “church basement” preschool – sometimes run by the church but sometimes rented out by a non-profit preschool that has been there for 40 years. Many public school districts offer a preschool but these tend NOT to be play-based as they are often taught and administered by people trained in k-5 education and standards-based curriculum and may not be as informed about the best learning methods for young children. For other preschools, you just have to check out their websites and brochures and see how they describe themselves and their schedules.