Putting Play at the Center of Early Learning

A simple formula can help teachers and child cares help children with their #1 job – playing.

According to Maria Montessori, “play is the work of the child.” As early childhood educators, it is our job to ensure children have active and engaging learning experiences through play. These learning experiences can be as simple as finger movements while singing nursery rhymes or as in depth as purposefully planning your learning centers to include items or themes from the nursery rhymes.

The subject of play is so vitally important; the Indiana Department of Education included it in the Early Learning Foundations as “Approaches to Play and Learning.” In that core early education tool, play’s value is emphasized: “Adults foster the development of executive function skills [in children] through providing opportunities for engaging play experiences.” For early learners to benefit these approaches, the following formula can be implemented into your program:

Learning Through Play Formula

Curious about making that formula a reality in your program or classroom? You can take specific, intentional actions to realize each of these components by following the guidelines below.

Create a Safe & Stimulating Play Space
Make the environment play-ready.

The design and layout of your classroom or program space must be conducive to play. Children need a large enough area for moving around with two or more peers without being interrupted. When creating interest areas in the classroom, pay careful attention to the size of the space for both the dramatic play area and the block area. Because these areas are often the most popular, plenty of room is key.

Your supplies do make a difference.

When teachers provide stimulating materials, they enhance learning and entice children into active, playful learning. Loose parts support open-ended exploration and empower creativity. The right supplies encourage children to think, plan, and carry out ideas.

Allow enough time for play.

Ample amounts of time should be provided for all age groups to engage in active learning experiences. Infants need significant periods for tummy time. As children grow older, larger blocks of time should be scheduled for play. For preschoolers, large blocks of time (45-60 minutes) should be devoted to play daily. This gives children time to develop scenarios, get organized, and execute their plans.

Incorporate Purposeful Planning
Invitation to play

Invitations to play can be as simple as gathering some signs of the season, some colorful dough, and a useful utensil to activate learning.

Create invitations to play.

Teachers must be intentional in their planning for play. This includes using their knowledge of growth and development to determine what is age and stage appropriate, individually appropriate, and culturally appropriate for each child in the classroom. Play serves several functions in contributing to children’s social and emotional development when they assume new roles that require new social skills and take the perspectives of their peers. They negotiate roles, share space and materials, express different points of view, resolve disputes, and persuade their peers to assume certain roles (Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, & Gregory, 2007). Children get the opportunity to work out feelings, emotions, and fears that they are unable to address or acknowledge overtly.

Make art about the process rather than the product.

Process art aims to maximize children’s experiences while they’re creating art. If creative time results in a nice end product, that’s great. However, the end product isn’t the focus of process art. Open-ended art explorations that focus on building and creating with materials vs. creating a specific item allow children the chance to explore the world, ask questions, and see how things work.

Foster Intentional Interactions
Engage through active learning.

The peak time for learning is when both the teacher and child are active. Early learning professionals should guide play without giving a lot of direct instructions or creating too many rules. While children play, teachers can model a task, give advice, or provide coaching in order to build upon the child’s existing knowledge. Children thrive when they can play freely and discover ideas, concepts, and skills. 

Learning through Play
It is not play versus learning, but play and learning.
Process Art

Process art invites children to explore texture, tools and color in ways that focus more on reflection during creation than on an end product.

Children learn as they play – and they often play when we ask them to learn. As they practice making decisions, use their imagination, and take active leadership, their confidence and resilience grows. Play is at the heart of early understandings about the world around them. When children have time and support to deeply engage in learning experiences, they more easily master new skills, making rewards and other incentives to learn and behave unnecessary.

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Beth Riedeman directs workforce development-related partnerships and projects, focusing on learning communities and cohorts, strengthening the pipeline of early childhood educators and promoting workforce initiatives. She’s also the mother of a young learner, a very active community member and a steadfastly supportive colleague, a skill she honed in her previous work as a program administrator.