The Benefits of Play-Based Preschools
Debora B. Wisneski, PhD, is Associate Professor and the John T. Langan Professor in Early Childhood Education in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She is Past President of the Association for Childhood Education International and former Steering Committee Member of the US Play Coalition. She serves on the local board of directors for Educare of Omaha, The Rose Theater, and Spielbound. She has taught for over 30 years at the preschool, kindergarten, and higher education levels. She is a reviewer for the professional journals- Teaching and Teacher Education and the American Journal for Play- and serves on the Editorial Board for the Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education. Wisneski earned her BSEd. And MEd. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in early childhood education at the University of Missouri-Columbia and earned her doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in early childhood education.
- The preponderance of the research evidence continues to support play as an appropriate and valuable learning medium for young children.
- When looking for a child care or preschools for young children, parents will want to look for programs that offer a wide menu of play opportunities throughout the day.
- There are many different types of play-based approaches to early care and education and many roles the teacher plays in these approaches that help children learn and grow.
Much research has supports the critical place of play in education of young children (Stegelin, Fite, & Wisneski, 2015; Weisberg, Hirsh‐Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2013). For many families who are searching for quality play-based early childhood education programs, the following descriptions may help them to know what learning and teaching looks like in these types of programs
How many ways can a child play? Block building, pretend, dress-up, storytelling, inventing, creative play, social play, doll play and puppets, body play and movement, object play, discovery play, dancing, singing, making music, nature play, games with rules. Each of these ways of playing allow children different learning opportunities, so a wide menu of play experiences are often offered in play-based preschools.
Some preschools offer play opportunities through the traditional play centers with interest areas such as blocks, dress-up or pretend corner, book corner, science area with natural materials, board games or other manipulatives, writing, and art center, maker space for building. Some programs may have similar materials but focus on one particular aspect of play such as forest schools or nature schools where children are outdoors most of the time, or Reggio-Emilia inspired programs that focus primarily on the artistic representations of children. While other programs will offer children a chance to “study” the world through play while incorporating scientific concepts (See Hamlin & Wisneski, 2012) or offer the chance for children to tell stories as the teacher takes dictation and children act them out for their classmates (See McNamee, 2015).
While it is important to have materials and structure available to children to learn, it is also important to have an early childhood teacher who engages fully with the children’s learning process through play. Jones and Reynolds (2011) have documented how teachers can support learning through play in the following roles: planner, stage manager, director and mediator, player, observer, scribe, assessor, and communicator. Here is what an ECE teacher is doing when teaching through play:
Even before the children enter the room, the teacher has been planning for play. She may be collecting books and special materials for a topic of inquiry that children have shown interest in while playing. She may be arranging for a bee keeper to visit the class room, if the children are fascinated with bees. She will be collecting art materials that would be appropriate for children to make their own bees or hives if they desire. She will be thinking about the developmental abilities of her children. What about the child who loves to build with blocks but needs help with fine motor skills? What play experiences will support the child who is a social and is learning how to draw and scribble her ideas? The teacher then plans the day’s schedule, transitions, and routines so the play can happen smoothly.:
As the stage manager and director of play, the teacher presents the materials in a way that is accessible to the children and provocative. As the children enter the play areas, the teacher helps direct them to the materials, provides suggestions or may model play to help children get started. While the children are playing she may facilitate or guide the play, by questioning the children about their thought processes, asking children what they need, commenting on what the children are doing and adding in rich language to match the children’s play. She may also mediate arguments or help children problem-solve situations that arise through play, such as, how shall we share the materials or space fairly? Or what is the best way to make this block tower stand straight? The teacher will play with the children. Perhaps she will sit in the art center and model use of a new material or maybe the child pretending to play doctor needs a patient.
Sometimes, the teacher will not be involved in the play at all. She may realize a child needs time to figure a problem out on his own. She may be taking notes or photographs to document what and how the children are playing. In this role, she is the observer and scribe. If learning is happening through play, the teacher will need to document that play in some way to later interpret it and understand the learning. She may see a skill displayed in the play and use this observation as a form of assessing the child’s learning or development. She may also use the observations to help her plan for the next day’s activities or later instruct the children on a new idea or concept to enhance their learning and play. She may later decide to directly teach a concept like counting but through games or through the children’s self-directed play. These observations and documentation will be used to communicate to parents how their children are growing. The teacher’s professional decision-making is always needed to decide what balance of these roles are needed to support the children.
Hamlin, M., & Wisneski, D. B. (2012). Supporting the scientific thinking and inquiry of toddlers and preschoolers through play. YC Young Children, 67(3), 82.
Jones, E., & Reynolds, G. (2011). The play's the thing: Teachers' roles in children's play. NY: Teachers College Press.
McNamee, G.D. (2015). The High-Performing Preschool: Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Stegelin, D., Fite, K., & Wisneski, D. (2015). The critical place of play in education. US Play Coalition. South Carolina: Clemson University. Retrieved June 6, 2017 https://usplaycoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/PRTM-Play-Coalition-White-Paper.pdf.
Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(2), 104-112.