Look into my preschool classroom, and you'll see a colorful space where a group of 4-year-olds are happily playing. Some are making towers out of wooden and foam blocks. A few are "cooking" dinner in the play kitchen. Students are painting with watercolors and gluing yarn onto empty tissue boxes. Two more are pouring water in and out of cups and funnels in a large table. It looks like so much fun, you might wonder: What does this play have to do with learning?
A lot, as it turns out. And that's why we pre-K teachers get more than a little irritated when people call us "babysitters" or otherwise imply that preschool isn't a "real" school — just because a child isn't hunched over a desk puzzling over a worksheet doesn't mean they're not learning.
For decades, child development experts have supported the "discovery learning" theory, which states that young children learn about the world through their own explorations. Many preschool teachers embrace the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, which basically means that a teacher should offer just enough help with a task to allow a child to figure the problem out for themselves. So a good preschool environment is filled with appealing materials that children can explore at their own pace, while the teacher offers suggestions, asks questions, and provides support.
When you see your child playing at preschool — or at home, for that matter — they're actually developing the cognitive and social skills that will carry over to kindergarten and beyond. Here are just a few of the things young children learn during their playtime:
1. Algebra via building blocks
One of my college professors once remarked that of all the learning centers a preschool offers, the block center is the most important. Kids learn a wide variety of skills through blocks, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC): problem-solving, socialization, self-expression. Building with blocks also introduces children to such math concepts as size, measurement, symmetry, and even algebra. Just as older children learn that the variable in 3x=6 is 2, a small child can figure out that four small square blocks laid out in a row are equivalent to one long rectangle block.
2. Social skills while playing house
The pretend-play area of a preschool classroom (sometimes referred to as "dramatic play") is where kids act out the routines they know from everyday life. Sometimes teachers set up their dramatic play area to simulate a grocery store, doctor's office, or other familiar setting. As they interact, children learn how to share, cooperate, resolve conflicts, and express themselves verbally. They set their own rules ("You be the mommy and I'll be the baby") and work out their personal anxieties (a child afraid of getting shots at the doctor might enjoy playing a doctor giving vaccinations to a doll).
3. Fine motor skills by way of play dough
Yeah, the stuff is notoriously hard to get off tables (and almost impossible to scrape out of sneaker soles), but a good preschool should still have buckets of play dough available for young artists to pound and twist into imaginative shapes. The slightly tough, squeezable material is just what little hands need to develop their fine motor skills, such as the pincer grip necessary to manipulate a pencil. The NAEYC noted that play dough also helps boost math concepts such as color, shape ("I made a circle"), and size ("My dog is bigger"). Some teachers might even add a textured material, like sand, to the dough for added exploration.
4. Science at the splash pad
Many preschools are equipped with sensory tables that can be filled with water, play sand, or other tactile materials. It makes for messy fun, but at the same time, some serious scientific discoveries are going on. An article in the journal Dimensions of Early Childhood explained that water play builds knowledge of science concepts such as physics (which way is the water running?), buoyancy (will this object sink or float?), chemistry (what happens when I add oil or food coloring?), and measurement (how many little cups does it take to fill this big container?). Teachers supply students with water tools to enhance their exploration, and encourage higher-order thinking by asking them to predict and theorize: "What do you think will happen when you drop the penny in the water?"
5. Sequences from sing-a-longs
There's a reason why songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and "B-I-N-G-O" have been a part of the preschool repertoire for generations. Not only are they catchy, but they also teach the essential concept of sequencing: the ability to put objects or events in a specific order. It's a skill we use in everything from writing to counting to cooking. Even a song like (heaven help us) "Baby Shark" has a memorable sequence: Mama Shark comes before Daddy Shark, followed by Grandma Shark, and so on. So next time you think you'll lose your mind if you have to hear these songs again, tell yourself that it's the preschool equivalent of studying.
6. A sharp memory from card games
In a preschool classroom, you're more likely to find a child playing bingo or Candy Land than reciting numbers or filling out a math worksheet. That's because board and card games are an age-appropriate way to teach math concepts to young children, educators told The School Run. Many card games require players to sort by an attribute such as color, suit, or number, according to Queens College (CUNY) professor emerita Sydney L. Schwartz, author of Teaching Young Children Mathematics. Preschool teachers often challenge students' memory skills by laying picture cards face-down and having them search for matching pairs.
Certain board games can also boost kids' math skills. In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, as reported by Parenting Science, two psychologists conducted a survey of preschoolers and discovered that the kids who played a lot of board games were better at math skills such as counting and numerical magnitude comparison (choosing greater vs. smaller) than children who didn't. The team investigated further and found that the most benefit came from playing Chutes and Ladders or similar games. Why? These number-based games require players to "count on" from the location of the playing piece (like landing on a space marked 6, rolling a 3 on the dice, and counting 7-8-9 to the appropriate space). Being able to count this way is linked to greater number sense.
7. Their own limits on the playground
4-year-olds are little bundles of energy, and they need time and space to burn it off. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites numerous benefits of recess in school, such as increased focus in the classroom, improved socialization skills, better health, and "free activity for the sheer joy of it." Preschools that offer unstructured outdoor free play give children the opportunity to enhance gross motor skills such as jumping, climbing, and running. And though moms cringe at the sight of kids climbing up slides or hopping off stairs, some experts argue that children need the opportunity to challenge themselves physically. Occupational therapist Angela Hanscom told Children and Nature Network that risk-taking on the playground actually improves kids' sensory and vestibular (balance) systems. "Renegade parenting" expert Heather Shumaker recently told the Today show that climbing up slides is both natural and necessary. "Young kids are testing personal limits because their bodies keep changing," she said. "Once they can figure out their limit, they stay within it."