Let Them Play 

As your child emerges from toddlerhood and gets ready for preschool, you’re likely to have all the feels. Sadness over your baby growing up. Pride in your intelligent little human. Anxiety over getting their education started out on the right foot.  

This last one is the clincher. Although pre-K enrollment isn’t mandatory for Ohio children, research shows it improves school readiness, and the state is backing it up with funding to improve preschool access to 3- and 4-year-olds. As a result, the number and types of preschool programs available can be overwhelming: half-day, whole-day, full-week, partial-week, STEM curriculums, literacy-focused instruction. With all these things to think about, it may be easy to overlook one very important aspect of your child’s academic development that should be part of their preschool experience: play.  

The Work of Children 

Believe or not, play is critical to a preschooler’s learning. As they say, “Play is the work of children,” and it’s true. Through play, children develop a number of critical skills that set them up for academic success in kindergarten and beyond, including:  

  • Creativity 
  • Communication 
  • Complex language abilities 
  • Problem-solving and reasoning 
  • Relationship-building 
  • Spatial awareness 
  • Impulse control 
  • Increased attention 

Yes, your child can really get all of that from playing with blocks and performing puppet shows. Or, as Jason Hanzy — co-teacher and co-founder of Little Schoolhouse in the Woods, a nature-based preschool in Cincinnati — sees it: “bake” with sand and “build fires” with sticks. 

The motivation and purpose of play often stems from an internal desire to explore and interact with the outside world,” Hanzy says. In fact, research shows that people better absorb information when learning hands-on. 

At the Little Schoolhouse in the Woods, their days have a routine that includes directed activities like circle time, lunch and rest, but a majority of the time is devoted to child-selected play (or free play) a time when the children’s imaginations come to life.  

“My role as an educator is to supervise, observe and maintain safe boundaries, Hanzy says. “I rarely direct or dictate the play during this part of the day.”  

After eight years of watching children move from his preschool, where play is the norm, he has seen child after child thrive in kindergarten and beyond.  

“Children who had lots of time to play in preschool years tend to have a better grasp on the social skills necessary for kindergarten and grade school,” Hanzy says. “They have developed their language skills for asking for what they need from their friends and their teachers. They are better able to physically handle their rapidly growing bodies. They have great self confidence by overcoming the physical challenges of the natural world and the social challenges of learning to play and share with their friends.” 

Decisions, Decisions 

So back to making that difficult choice: Where to send your child to preschool 

A nature-based preschool may sound like a childhood dream come true, but even if it’s not, it’s important to figure out what you want out of the preschool experience. Every child has unique needs, and it may benefit you to list some qualities you expect out of a program before you begin your search. If an emphasis on play is important to you and if you believe the research, it should be ready to ask questions of the various preschool programs you visit: 

What is the curriculum? A school that focuses heavily on academics and worksheets may not be the best environment for a child to engage in play, Hanzy says. 

What is the program’s philosophy on play? Do they consider play to be essential to learning in the early years? Is at least a third of the day (hopefully more) devoted to play? 

What is the daily routine like? Ask for a schedule or to observe a classroom. Are children engaged in various learning activities with a variety of materials? Are different areas of the room are set up for play? If a large part of the day is devoted to group activities, this could indicate a lack of play time.  

Do the teachers articulate a difference between child-led and directed play? Observe if the teachers are engaged and asking open-ended questions of children during play this can be helpful in developing critical thinking. However, be skeptical of those that are too hands-off or overly involved in directing play.  

Homework Time 

Regardless of where you send your child to preschool, your home is one of the richest leaning (and play!) environments for your child, so don’t let the fun stop when the school bell rings. Allow time on evenings and weekends to play as a family.  

First things first, Hanzy says: Turn devices off. When your kids aren’t caught up in the drama of a television show or a video game, their imaginations have room to soar.  

Play doesn’t have to be overly complicated. There’s no need to “entertain” your kids, and you can include fun in some of the normal parts of your routine. Play “I spy” while on a walk around the neighborhood. Build a fort outside. Sing songs together. Cook together. Above all, enjoy being a family together. Before you know it, they will be off in the real world, and you’ll miss this cherished time.  

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