Preschool play offers learning opportunities that benefit children throughout their lives

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really
the work of childhood.
–Fred Rogers

If you think play is just a way for children to pass the time, think again. The learning benefits that come from play can propel children forward in profound and important ways. From messy painting and dress-up to building blocks and riding trikes, preschool play allows children to develop crucial skills that can help them succeed at school and in the workforce. These skills include:

  • Verbal Skills
  • Persistence
  • Investigating
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Sharing
  • Confidence

ECE is the 21st Century Meeting Place for Children

Children take pleasure from being together, but many families today have fewer children and often live far away from cousins. ECE offers kids the opportunity to play together in shared spaces outside of home and family life. By sharing their imaginary worlds and discovering how things work together, they become a community of learners with natural curiosity.

Play is Crucial to Preschool Learning

2 to 5 year olds are especially responsive to shared play experiences because it helps build their brains for language, thinking, and well-being. Custodial care may keep children safe and nourished, but it does not boost critical language and thinking skills.

High quality early childhood education environments offer preschoolers play-based learning that benefits them in three main areas: 

1. Language
In ECE programs, back and forth conversations with educators and other children expose kids to new vocabulary. The print-rich environment is filled with books and this propels them forward from oral language to print and numerals. 

2. Thinking
Children are not born with planning and problem-solving skills; these are built through persistence and figuring things out. In high quality ECE programs, educators ask questions that require children to think things through, experiment, and seek more information. Educators probe to find out what children are thinking and what their ideas are.

3. Well-Being
ECE embeds social and emotional learning into daily routines and play experiences. Children who play together develop empathy while learning to care for, and negotiate with, each other.

Play is the Most Important Part of Childhood

Playtime is crucial to the development of children, but the time they spend playing with each other is diminishing. The rise of screen use, structured activities, and less outdoor time is causing an increase in social, emotional, and physical well-being challenges that include anxiety and obesity. In response to this, the Canadian Paediatric Society now recommends daily active play for all young children.

Play-based Learning

Early childhood education embraces the Continuum of Play approach that includes both educator and child-led activities. Five types of play provide children with a variety of learning opportunities and outcomes:

Free Play:  Self-directed and uninterrupted by educators, this includes pretend play that allows kids to try out emotions and ideas. It establishes a shared imagined world that involves planning, coordination, and dispute resolution. Free play also includes exuberant outdoor activities like running, jumping, and climbing. It lets kids test what is physically possible and what they can do.

Inquiry Play:  Child-initiated, inquiry play lets kids figure out how something works and express their ideas through drawings, paintings, dance, and song. Educators then ask questions and encourage kids to explore further. By extending the play, educators give kids the opportunity to practice problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and communication skills.

Collaborative Play:  Child and educator-directed, collaborative play involves taking turns, sharing, following rules, negotiating, and compromising. Children who engage in collaborative play work together on projects to reach a common goal. It builds on inquiry play by incorporating information, skills, and ideas that educators introduce to help boost learning.

Playful Learning:  Organized by an educator around a child’s interests and abilities, this planned play focuses on prescribed activities with playful elements. Playful learning activities give kids the opportunity to evaluate what they have accomplished, set new goals, and adapt.

Learning Games:  Prescribed with specific rules and structure, learning games promote mathematical, physical, literacy, and inquiry skills. Children practice taking turns and resolving differences while educators assess specific learning outcomes and follow-up accordingly.
The Continuum Of Play Chart

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Frequently Asked

What is the Continuum of Play?

Developed at the University of Toronto, the Continuum Of Play includes five distinct categories of play: Free play, inquiry play, collaborative play, playful learning, and learning games. Each presents important opportunities for personal, social, and academic growth while incorporating various levels of adult involvement. This continuum, with a broader and more concrete definition of play-based learning, helps to enhance the practice of play-based learning pedagogies for educators.

What Good Quality ECE Looks Like

The impact of ECE on children’s outcomes relies on essential elements of quality. This includes:

  1. Educators who  intentionally guide and create opportunities for children to learn. Effective educators use a repertoire of strategies such as modelling, demonstrating, open questioning, speculating and explaining, as well as direct instruction.
  1. Structured and unstructured opportunities for children to play with each other, especially outdoors.
  2. Spaces designed by - not for - children with materials they can move around such as sand and water tables, craft and block centres, dress-up nooks, miniature kitchens, and soft places to read or nap. Outdoor ECE environments are open spaces with natural elements that invite physically active play, exploration, and investigations.
Early Learning Environments Time, Space, People Things

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Play is the Anchor for ECE

The play-based learning that takes place in quality early childhood education programs fuels a child’s natural curiosity and learning. Playtime offers creative, emotional intelligence, and problem-solving skills that will help them succeed in the 21st century workplace. However, changing technologies and economies require revised education policies beginning in the preschool years. Prioritizing play builds leaders, organizers, and innovators who will benefit future workplaces, and society.