Tag Archives: preschool

Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

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In the U.S. most programs for children tend to be limited to children who are all close to the same age – for example, the children in a kindergarten class all turn five somewhere between Sept 1 of that year and August 31 of the next year. But some programs (like Montessori schools, Sunday school programs at churches, or scout troops) are multi-age, with a broader age range. (For example, I teach a multi-age STEM enrichment class for ages 3 – 7). Here’s why I love them:

Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

  • Knowledge and Skill Development: Younger children learn from older children. Older children reinforce and deepen their own understanding of a topic or skill by teaching it to the younger kids. This knowledge is passed on in a variety of ways:
    • Unintended modelling – when an older child is just doing something they want or need to do, (like using the potty or drawing a picture of a dog), they may not even be aware the younger child is observing and absorbing. But children love to learn about what other kids are doing.
    • Social play: The younger ones are exposed to things like better emotional regulation and more sophisticated problem-solving which helps them learn these skills earlier. The imaginary play is also richer as the older ones give ideas to the younger ones and have to figure out how to articulate those ideas so the younger one can play along.
    • Casual mentoring. When an older child wants the younger one to participate in a game or activity, she will just quickly explain it to the younger one so they can have fun together. When the older one is slowed down by the younger one’s lack of knowledge, sometimes they move in to help rather than waiting for the teacher to help. (Like putting on boots so they can go outside for recess.)
    • Resources: Younger children learn which classmates they can go to for help with various tasks, and may seek out their help before asking a teacher. (At one lunch, kids were given fortune cookies. All the non-readers went straight to the kids who could read to ask for a quick answer to ‘what does this say?’)
    • Intentional teaching. Sometimes teachers will ask a child who has mastered a skill to teach it to a child who hasn’t yet mastered it. The learner benefits by gaining information in a way that may be more fun and more confidence-building than learning from an adult. The child who is teaching has the chance to review his own knowledge from a new perspective.
  • Individualized curriculum, tailored to children’s unique skills, not just their age
    • Children are more able to learn at their own pace, making continuous progress rather than having to “wait till second grade, when we cover that.”
    • Some kids are really advanced in some areas and a little behind in other areas. Being in a multi-age classroom makes it more likely that they’ll find peers to fit in with in both those areas.
  • Children may stay with the same teacher for multiple years.
    • The teacher gets to know the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and is better able to tailor the lesson plan to meet that child’s unique needs.
    • There is a stronger parent-teacher relationship.
    • For the child, there’s the benefit of consistency, and a sense of safety and security in the classroom which enables better learning.
  • Less competition / labeling.
    • In a single age classroom, it’s easy to compare kids and say that some are gifted, some are delayed. In a mixed age classroom, it may be clearer that there’s a range of development: the one who does best in math class may have the hardest time in music class, regardless of age.
    • A child who struggles more with social skills might be ostracized by their age peers, but might find companionship in the younger kids in the classroom.
  • A more cooperative, caring learning environment.
    • Older kids learn to be patient, nurturing, responsible. (With guidance from adults!)
    • Role-modelling. The older children learn how to set a good example. “When the teacher asked the older children who were not observing the class rules to remind the younger ones what the rules were, the older children’s own “self-regulatory behavior” improved.” (Katz)
    • In group time, I find that the younger ones are better at sitting still and focusing because they see the older kids do so. The older kids like to show off their knowledge and can often answer the questions the younger ones ask – this builds confidence for the older ones and the younger ones are more excited to learn things from the big kids than they are to learn from a teacher!

The Race Car Brain

There are some children whose brains and bodies always seem to be racing. The parent may feel like they start playing with blocks with the child and then the child runs off to paint and while the parent is still putting blocks away and cleaning up paint, the child has already flipped through a few pages of five different books and is climbing the bookshelf.

Talking to them may also feel like this – they ask a question, and as you start to answer it, they ask another question, and before you can answer that one, they tell you what they had for breakfast. Parents (or teachers) may feel like they can never quite catch up.

It’s easy to fall into patterns of continuously scolding them to “stop!” or “pay attention!” It’s easy to see them as problem kids. However, they have a lot of important strengths, like curiosity, enthusiasm and energy.

Dr. Ned Hallowell* would say to these kids: “Your brain is very powerful.  Your brain is like a Ferrari, a race car.  You have the power to win races and become a champion. However, you do have one problem.  You have bicycle brakes.  Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control the powerful brain you’ve got.  So, you can’t slow down or stop when you need to.  Your mind goes off wherever it wants to go, instead of staying on track.  But not to worry… we can strengthen your brakes.”

Strengthening their Brakes

We can do several things to help them slow down and learn new skills, like a longer attention span, persistence, and impulse control:

  • Routines: having predictable schedules, where they know what to expect and know what is expected of them. Visual schedules may help.
  • Break it down: they may have a very hard time doing a big task, but find it easier if you break it down into small specific tasks. So instead of saying “clean up this mess”, say “we have four steps – the first step is to put the Legos in the basket – when you’re done with that, let me know and I’ll tell you step two.”
  • Practice sticking with a task: try setting a timer and say “we’re going to do this activity together for at least five minutes. When we give persistence muscles a workout, they get stronger.” (Before you do this, try to get a baseline of how long they typically stick to a task. If they typically can do 3 minutes, you don’t want to set a timer for fifteen… that would be too much of a stretch.)
    • Use a timer they can read and see the progress on (like an hourglass where they can see that their time is halfway up, or a kitchen timer, where they can see that the dial is halfway toward zero are both easier to understand than a digital countdown)
  • Tell them what to focus on. Instead of just saying “focus” or “pay attention” tell them exactly what to pay attention to: “I’m going to tell you the three things we need to do today, so I want you to listen till you hear all three things.” Or “right now the priority is eating breakfast – can you focus on counting each bite you take till you get to ten?”
  • Physical supports: Some children focus better in a class when they sit on a ball where their body can wiggle or they spin a fidget spinner while their brain pays attention. My child could focus better when he wore a weighted vest because the pressure gave his brain some tactile stimulation. Some children focus better if there’s some white noise or quiet background music. (It’s over-stimulating for others.) Experiment to see what helps your child.
  • De-clutter. Too much stimuli can over-activate these kids. If they’re in a room with just a few toys, they do fine. If they’re in a room full of toys and decorations, they flit from one to the next non-stop. (Read about “How Many Toys is Enough.”)
    • These kids LOVE novelty! But instead of buying more toys, I like providing new experiences outside the home – taking classes or going on field trips gives their brain the novelty it craves while still keeping a home environment that helps to settle them with familiar items to explore in depth.
    • You can also mix up existing toys without having to add new – like putting the toy dinosaurs with the blocks, or using toy cars with the paint.
  • Connect to their interests. If there’s something they have to do, but it doesn’t capture their attention, find a way to make it more engaging. For example, if they need to practice writing their letters and they are dinosaur fans, you don’t have to practice writing the words a teacher assigns – they could practice writing pachycephalosaurus.
  • Brain and body breaks: Make sure they do have plenty of opportunities to play and burn off lots of energy.
  • Spend more time outdoors. Nature can be very calming to people whose brains are always racing.

Discipline and Race Car Brains

It’s important to know that some discipline techniques that work well with other kids don’t work well with these kids. Parenting advice is not one size fits all.

Check out: 8 practical tips for parents of children with challenging behaviors. For my racecar kid, I found the book Incredible Years by Stratton had the most helpful discipline tools. I wrote several posts on discipline based on these techniques. Find links to them here.

I also find neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s writing on brain development to be very helpful. He says the “downstairs brain” is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. These take years to develop. When a child is very upset, extreme emotions block their ability to use
their upstairs brain. They “flip their lid” and regress back to the downstairs brain. When they’re in this state, you can’t reason with them, you can’t ask them to make choices, you can’t expect them to “use their words.” Learn more: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_upstairs_and_downstairs_brain.

So, if you have a racecar kid in the middle of a meltdown, you’re not going to be able to reason with them or have long discussions about the implications of their choices. They can’t pay attention to a deep discussion when they’re at their best, and especially not if they’ve flipped their lid. They’ll do better with clear rules, concrete statements of what behavior you want to see, and quick consequences for misbehavior. See more tips in the Discipline Toolbox.

Is it ADHD?

*Note: Hallowell, who coined this metaphor, specializes in ADHD, so he is using race car brain to describe the ADHD brain. I am using it more broadly.

Many toddlers or preschoolers who may seem like racecar kids may slow down as they get older and develop better brakes, so may not ever be considered ADHD. They still benefit from this early learning of skills to slow themselves down and you’ll benefit from using these tools to keep those early years a little calmer

However, many race car brain kids do get diagnosed eventually as ADHD. About 9% of children do have ADHD. Learn about criteria for an ADHD diagnosis and deciding whether to have your child assessed for ADHD, and how to access testing.

Types of Preschools

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).

A play-based preschool typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose, spending as long as they want at an activity. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations to further the learning. (Here is a research summary about play-based learning: https://www.easternct.edu/center-for-early-childhood-education/about-us/publications-documents/science-in-support-of-play.pdf) Most play-based preschools include circle time to provide some balance between structure and free play. Learn more about play-based preschool and activity stations at a play-based preschool, and how play-based compares to academic.

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.

Brand Name Teaching Methods

Here is my summary of the methods. You can find many more descriptions online, including helpful comparisons at https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/comparing-preschool-philosophies-montessori-waldorf-and-more and www.privateschoolreview.com/articles/180. But remember that the actual practice of a school may differ from the theory of “the brand”.

  • 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.
  • Rudolf Steiner/ Waldorf – Nurturing, predictable structure and routines. Natural materials, with time outdoors, baking bread, working with wool, wood, and wax materials, no plastic. Lots of imagination and oral story-telling, but no electronic media (families are discouraged from having any screen time at home). Reading is not taught until age 7. Learn more www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoW0pCIG-FM and www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmAX5adCl0 and www.movementforchildhood.com/uploads/2/1/6/7/21671438/heardaboutwaldorf.pdf
    Note: Waldorf requires all teachers and schools to be certified, so there’s much more consistency between schools with the Waldorf name.
  • 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.
  • Head Start. For families whose income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level (i.e. less than $25,000 in 2013). Provides preschool for child, but also: medical, dental and mental health screenings, meals for the children, and support for the parents. Fact sheet: http://wsa.iescentral.com/fileLibrary/file_71.pdf. To register for Head Start: http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family/for-families/Inside%20Head%20Start/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%20%28FAQs%29/HowdoIapplyfo.htm

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.

Stations at a Play-Based Preschool

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.

Dramatic Play

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.

Check out the overview of play-based preschools.

Play-Based Preschool

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

[In a separate post, I cover these stations in more depth, with more pictures and concrete examples of what the children learn at each: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2022/02/13/stations-at-a-play-based-preschool/]

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.

(More about the role of the teacher in a play-based class: http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/teaching-play-based-curriculum.html)

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.

If you are in Washington state, check out the co-op preschools sponsored by parent education programs offered by our community colleges. (Full list of Washington programs: https://www.opepwa.org/contact.) Learn about these programs and find links to all the programs in King County here: https://gooddayswithkids.com/parent-ed-at-colleges/. I teach for Bellevue College Parent Education and the photos on this page are from our co-op preschools and our art and science enrichment classes.