Five Reasons Why Learning Through Play Works


  1. Children are naturals at play. Infants are born ready to learn. From the first moments of entering the world, they begin to figure out how to get their needs met, which is vital to survival. Through strong relationships and trustful bonds, children are then propelled into their new world and will reach, grasp, pull, mouth and skootch to things that they find interesting. Children are naturally curious and will play with EVERYTHING. It is important to set up the classroom environment in such a way that this curiosity can be supported.
  2. Play builds the brain. Play directly affects the brain. The part of the brain that allows humans to control emotions, make plans, fix problems, and find solutions takes over 20 years to develop. Research has shown that play and plenty of it is what allows the brain to develop to its full potential.
  3. Play improves social skills. Play allows children to practice prosocial skills. In group situations, other children are part of those surroundings. It is important that adult expectations match the children’s developmental level. Taking turns and sharing are long-term goals for children, yet adults should not expect children to share just because it is a social norm. It takes time and patience when supporting children’s ability to learn these skills. If and when conflicts arise, it is important to take the time to work with children to figure out the solutions to the problem. This can be done by saying something like, “It looks like you both want the truck. How are we going to fix this?” For mobile infants and young toddlers, who do not have enough language yet, it may be appropriate to offer them a toy that is similar or redirect them to another activity. For older toddlers and preschoolers, adults can encourage children to come up with ways to solve the problem.
  4. Play is the pathway to helping children learn academic skills. Kindergarten readiness has been at the forefront of early care and education for years. So much so that kindergarten classrooms resemble what first-grade classrooms used to look like, and preschool classrooms are being run more like kindergarten classrooms. This can also be seen in toddler classrooms, and sadly, infant settings. The truth of the matter is that learning language and literacy, math, science and social studies can be done during children’s play. It does not have to be done by making children sit for long periods of time at circle time or at a table doing worksheets. When adults sit with children, they can model, label, ask questions and respond to children’s play such as saying, “You put the blue block on the red block” or “You added another block. Let’s count them.”
  5. Adults are important to children’s play. Children don’t need help to learn how to play. They will work at play as they see fit. Play is a child’s job. The adult’s job is to figure out when to be part of that play. The biggest part of the adult’s job in play is to add language. Say out loud what you see a child doing. Add descriptive language when you are talking to children. Label items as well as asking open-ended questions.


Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work I Go

off-to-workWorking in the same early childhood program where your own child is enrolled is quite the double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re right there in the same building as your little one. Over my 20 years in the early childhood field, I have listened to many parents lament over having to leave their child in someone else’s care, and how great it would be to be closer to them. The daily struggle that is being a working parent is made just a little more bearable when you can peek in and check on your pride and joy from time to time.

On the other hand, YOU’RE RIGHT THERE IN THE SAME BUILDING. You have to work to focus on your own classroom and not on what your child might be doing down the hall. Or, if your child is in the same room as you, you have to work to maintain your objectivity. The child/parent dynamic has to become student/teacher. This can be a challenge for you to uphold, and can often be confusing for young children.

I’ve seen educators handle this situation many different ways, and have experienced it firsthand with both of my youngest children. Here are some tips for how to get through this often sticky situation:

  • Set boundaries with your child’s teacher. Have a conversation with him/her about how you do (or don’t) wish to be involved in everyday classroom situations. If you’ve recently gone back to work after having a baby, you may want your child’s teacher to let you know when he/she is hungry so you can come in to breastfeed, pump, or give them a bottle of formula. As your child gets older, you may find it works better to have less contact with him/her at school. I always tried to let my children’s teachers know, if it wasn’t something they would call another child’s parents to come to school to handle, then don’t bring me into the classroom, either. I trusted their judgement, and it was often more difficult for my children to separate from me more than once during the day. This was so important to me that if I even had to walk past my son or daughter’s classroom I would crouch down and sneak below the classroom windows so they wouldn’t see me!
  • Have conversations with other program staff about your wishes. During my days as an administrator, other well-meaning staff would poke their heads in my office from time to time to let me know when my children were upset about something. Try to work on anything else when you get this message—just try! Your natural parental instinct to tend to the needs of your offspring overrides any work responsibilities you may have. In a work setting, however, you can’t let that happen. You have a job to perform, that you are being paid to do, and there are other program staff members who are responsible for caring your child. Trust that they can handle it.
  • If your child is old enough, talk with your child about school vs. home expectations. Include things like behavior expectations, how outwardly affectionate you’re both comfortable with being at school, and what you and your child will call each other (my husband, who works in my daughter’s afterschool classroom, has her call him “Mr. Fuz,” like the rest of the kids, at school, but “dad” anywhere else).
  • Set and maintain boundaries with your child. The line between school and home can easily be blurred when you’re in this situation. Even though you may have argued with your child about what shoe they could wear when getting ready for school that morning, try not to let that bleed over into classroom interactions. Your child deserves the same blank slate that every other child gets when they start their day with you. In the same vein, inappropriate behaviors at school should be left at school. Holding a grudge and enforcing a punishment on your child at home for an indiscretion earlier in the day at school isn’t fair to your child either.

For me, the pros of having my children in the same program as myself far outweighed the cons. I’ll be the first one to admit that at times, it wasn’t easy. But, now that my children are older, and I’ve left that program, I look back on those years with certainty that this was the best decision for my family. My children were lucky enough to have fantastic teachers during their earliest years—I wish the same for yours!

Screen Time Replacing Playtime?

screentime-classroomWith the colder temperatures looming still over our area, we are spending less time outside playing and more time inside trying to find ways to have fun. I have seen parents (and some teachers) put smartphones and tablets out as an alternative to playing games and bundling up for some outdoor fun. I know that life is busy and parents have limited free time, but are large amounts of time spent on devices really good for the kids in our program?

Here are some numbers from a parent survey sent out by Common Sense Media:

  • 98 percent of homes with children now have a mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone
  • 42 percent of young children now have their very own tablet device — up from 7 percent four years ago and less than 1 percent in 2011.
  • Nearly half, 49 percent, of children 8 or under “often or sometimes” use screens in the hour before bedtime, which experts say is bad for sleep habits.
  • 42 percent of parents say the TV is on “always” or “most of the time” in their home, whether anyone is watching or not. Research has shown this so-called “background TV” reduces parent-child interaction, which in turn can hurt language development.

With all of the exposure to technology, I noticed the above statistics when I was in my program.  Children learn best through play with objects and hands-on activities. Exposure to new things makes learning more fun and causes cognitive development, language skills to blossom, and social-emotional development to occur! Interactions mean so much more with people! We can use this knowledge to change the way we use technology in our programs and at home.

Schofield Clark at the University of Denver who has done studies on media and the effects of disadvantaged youth suggests, “making interactions intentional and meaningful by the way you can spend the time: showing a kid how to use a laptop, how to do Internet research, picking out highly rated educational apps or steering a child toward programs with positive messages.” Set aside a block of time each day to make sure that a child gets interactions with adults and peers.  Check out a great blog post from 4C Quality Programs Specialist Jenn Malicoat for more ideas to do inside!

Make the moments count. Spend more time interacting with one another playing with and using materials to enrich and nurture learning, as it is better for everyone in the long run.

A Crucial Conversation


“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford

Kenny was a quiet, happy two-and-a-half-year-old-boy who loved music, and liked to spend most of his time playing on the floor. He could often be found driving cars on the carpet, or lying on a pillow, gazing up at his classmates’ creations that hung from the ceiling. His classmates would play near him throughout the day, and would occasionally try to include him in their play, but Kenny never met their gaze and would always keep to himself.

As months passed, and Kenny celebrated his third birthday with no change in his demeanor, my co-teachers and I began to have conversations about his social/emotional development. We weren’t doctors and were in no way qualified to make a diagnosis, but according to our knowledge of child development, Kenny was exhibiting behaviors that led us to believe he may have been experiencing some developmental delays.

We came to the conclusion that we should have a discussion with his parents about what we were observing in the classroom. Parent/teacher conferences were coming up in a few weeks, but we didn’t want to wait that long. Besides, we knew the conversation we were going to have would be a sensitive one, and we wanted to take the time necessary to adequately address everyone’s questions (instead of the 20 minutes we were alotted at a typical conference).

I called Kenny’s mom at naptime and scheduled a meeting with her for the next day. It was her suggestion that we meet so soon. I could hear the anxiety in her voice over the phone.

Prior to our meeting, my co-teachers and I pulled out Kenny’s portfolio and reviewed all of the observations we had been making on him over the course of the year. We were nervous about how to have this conversation with Kenny’s mom, so we practiced what we wanted to say. In all honesty, as young teachers in the first few years of our careers, we were all secretly hoping that the anecdotal notes, photos and work samples we had collected would lead Kenny’s mom down a path of realization on her own, without us having to find the right words.

The next day, when Kenny’s mom arrived in the classroom, she was on the verge of tears. It was obvious to all of us that she was dreading this meeting. My two co-teachers, Kenny’s mom, and I sat down to talk in a private room. We began by talking about the things Kenny loved to do at school, how much he loved listening to us sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” We talked about all the pieces of documentation we had collected as Kenny’s mom sat and quietly listened.

“What does all this mean? What are you trying to tell me?” she hesitantly asked, as we came to the last item in Kenny’s portfolio. “Well,” I said, “the social skills a three-year-old usually displays are listed here” (at which point I showed her our school’s child assessment tool). Before I had the chance to even finish my thought, Kenny’s mom blurted out “And Kenny isn’t doing those things, is he?!” Her face turned beet red and she began to cry.

We tried to comfort her as best we could, and then we all took a little break – a few minutes to process what was going on. When we sat back down, Kenny’s mom was silent. “Okay,” I said, “now that we’ve laid all of this out on the table, would you like to talk about what we can do to support Kenny?” The look on her face told me that this was not what she was expecting me to say. “You mean he can still stay in his classroom?” she asked in surprise. “Yes, he can,” I replied. “Now let’s talk about how to help Kenny get what he needs.” Together, Kenny’s mom, my co-teachers and I came up with the first step of our plan – for Kenny’s mom to take Kenny, and the information we had discussed, to the pediatrician.

We all wanted Kenny to be successful in our classroom, and for the remainder of his time in our care, we worked together to do just that. Kenny’s mom kept us apprised of what was happening with him outside of the classroom, and brought us information from the medical professionals she was in contact with. We kept her informed of how things were progressing for Kenny at school. At the end of the school year, she gave my co-teachers and I each a warm hug – “Thank you for helping me help my son,” she said.

Beat the Winter Wiggles!


Colder weather can sometimes limit the amount of time children spend outside playing, but it is important to continue to make time for physical activity! Children need opportunities to release energy throughout the day and your indoor classroom can still be the perfect place for this to happen. Here are some ways to keep your children moving inside when it’s too cold to head outside:

Dance—An easy favorite for any age! Put on some tunes and let the children show off their moves! Some different variations of the activity can mix things up. Freeze Dance (children dance while the music plays and then freeze when the music stops) and songs with motions (Tooty Ta by Dr. Jean, Shake Your Sillies Out by the Wiggles, the Hokey Pokey to name a few) are quick, easy, and so much fun!

Activity Dice—Using any small square boxes, create two activity dice by adding some paper to the outside. Have the children come up with six ways to move around (jump, skip, frog hop, jumping jacks, stomp, crawl etc.) and write these on one box. On the second box, write the numbers 1-6. Children can take turns rolling the two dice to see how many times they have to perform an activity (3 jumping jacks, or 6 stomps)!

Act out stories—Let the children become the story by acting out their favorite books! Practice positional words by going on an adventurous bear hunt (“We’re Going On a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen). Grab a large white sheet and watch your students turn into forest animals looking for warmth in a giant mitten while you read aloud “The Mitten” by Jan Brett. A great way to work on reading comprehension while having a blast!

Obstacle Course—Use items in your classroom to create a safe and active obstacle course. Whether students are crawling under tables, balancing on a beam of masking tape on the floor, or tossing beanbags through a hula hoop, they are using many different muscles throughout the course.

Balloon ball—Blow up a single balloon and have the children work together to see how long they can keep the balloon from falling and hitting the floor! If team work is tough for your age group, give each student their own balloon for the same activity.

Scavenger hunt—Give clues for children to find specific objects around the classroom. For a simpler version, give everyone a color or shape and have children find items throughout the room that fit the category.

Follow the Leader—Quack like a duck, put your hands on top of your head, or spin around three times, the choice is yours! Lead your students through a series of actions to keep them moving. Let your students take turns leading their classmates and see what they come up with!

Pretend sports—Who needs actual sports equipment when we have our imagination? Pretend to dribble a ball down the court for the winning shot or throw a baseball for a friend to catch. We can still work on the moves even without the materials!

New Year, New Perspective


2017 coming to a close has inspired me to really think about who I am as a person—and as a professional. Child care providers get overlooked in this category sometimes. We have had specialized training. We have spent countless hours searching thrift stores and garage sales for fun items that we can add to our learning spaces for our children. We know our librarian on a first name basis because finding the right story to set the tone for our lessons makes it so much more real for the children.

Finding your own professional identity can be hard sometimes when you have parents and others labeling you as a “babysitter.” This bothered me to no end! I knew I was more than a babysitter so why were people calling me one? To quote one of our trainers, Becky Howard, here at 4C: “Whether you call yourself a teacher, caregiver, aide, assistant, or anything else, if you are in a classroom or home care setting with young children, you are a teacher. If you get paid to do it, you are a professional in fact, and should also be a professional in attitude.” Attitude is everything! If you do not believe enough in yourself and trust your judgment as a professional in the early childhood field, who else is going to?

There is a lot going on in the world today that can definitely put a damper on someone’s attitude and outlook. “Sadly, in toxically stressful environments filled with poverty, violence and illness, the seeds of optimism are weakened and often die.” -Steve Gross, Founder/Chief Playmaker of the Life is Good Kids Foundation.

Be and bring your best—ramp up your confidence and optimism!

To fill your bucket, make some new goals and resolutions for yourself, personally and professionally. 4C for Children can help you with the goals that you would like to accomplish in your program/classroom this year.  You can take some courses/training that pertain to a topic that you are interested in to further your education. Getting your Child Development Associate (CDA) credential is a great first step to furthering your professional education. Get parents involved to see what it is that makes you a shining professional and why their kids loving going to your program.

Believe in what you do, believe the work that you do is so important, and you will help shape not only young minds but the minds of their parents and others around your program as well. I believe in you, and I hope you can believe in yourself too!

Four Things That Don’t Help Children Learn


I recently read a blog titled, 4 Things Worse Than Not Learning to Read in Kindergarten. This blog made a huge impact on me because it is written from a parent’s point of view. I have had to have many crucial conversations through my experience in the early childhood field, around developmentally appropriate goals for children during their early years. This is in spite of how it has been proven that children learn best through play and being allowed to follow their interests. The thing that concerns me the most is that many programs, schools, and families are putting pressure on children who are entering preschool that is not developmentally appropriate.

Using the same four “worse things” that are presented in the blog, I hope to capture the disturbing similarities that are happening to not only preschoolers but infants and toddlers, as well.

Limited time for creative play. There is such a focus on learning the ABCs and 123s that children are losing valuable time just getting to be children. During free play, teachers are often caught up in preparing for teacher directed activities rather than spending time observing, interacting, modeling, and wondering with children while they play. When children are permitted to have choices on where to play, they are many times stopped from taking a toy from one area to another or use materials in a manner for which they may not have been originally intended. Group times are spent going over posters of colors and shapes, calendar, and weather rather than having a “meeting of the minds.” What do children want to learn about? What is new in the room they will get to explore? Are there any changes to the routine or a new activity that can be discussed that could help limit challenges to transitions and set limits or explain expectations? Or perhaps a formal group time isn’t needed at all. Offer several opportunities throughout the day to read books and sing songs just because it is fun and that is what children want to do in that moment.

Limited physical activity. Children need action! Movement helps to build the brain. Children are wired to move. They need to experience the verbs of life not just learn about what they are. They need to have ample opportunity to push, pull, carry, hop, run, chase, crawl and climb. Not only is gross motor and outside time limited, children are expected to wait for long periods of time, to sit a particular way, such as crisscross applesauce or to catch a bubble while walking through the halls. How long can you sit with your legs crossed? When was the last time you walked with your peers and refrained from having a conversation in the hallway? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to teach them how to sit comfortably so that they can listen to the book that is being read? Maybe they need to wiggle or would like to lean against their buddy/friend while they listen. Too many times, I hear adults telling children how to sit or to be quiet that it takes twice as long to read a book and then the children who were interested at the beginning of the book become uninterested.

Teaching that focuses on standards and testing. Yes, standards and assessments have made their way into early childhood settings just as they have in elementary, middle and high school. When used appropriately these standards and assessments can shed light on how to plan, provide a roadmap for consistency and measure learning and development. When used inappropriately, they drive decision making around funding and put unneeded pressure on teachers, which ultimately affects the children. I have often been asked, “How am I going to teach everything that is in the assessment?” The purpose of the assessment it to track learning, not dictate what must be taught.

Frustration and a sense of failure. In my opinion, this is the worst of the “4 worse things.” No child should ever be made to feel less than human for not being able to perform. Especially when it is based on expectations that are practically unattainable such as a stringent focus on academics and lengthy group times. Children should be treated with the same respect that we expect from others. I often try to help teachers see things from a child’s perspective by putting them in a similar scenario such as long lines at the grocery store check out or an unexpected deadline that doesn’t fit in your schedule. Hopefully, adults have learned the skills that are needed to be successful in these situations, yet we know that isn’t always the case. How can we expect children to have those same skills? They need to be supported and guided to learn how to sit for long periods of time, not by sitting for long periods of time but by being able to work at the level they are ready for and work towards new goals. Children should feel safe with their teachers and know that it is okay to make mistakes because making mistakes is how we learn to make changes for the better. If children are shamed and humiliated for the mistakes they make, they will become scared of making mistakes and could ultimately stop trying altogether.

All in all, I encourage readers to read the original blog. It has links to the research behind why there are four worse things than learning to read. Young children learn best through play; they need to practice skills over and over again in order to get them right. This includes social interaction and mastering their sense of self. Children should be allowed to be children for as long as possible—to play and love life so that they foster their own love of learning.