Category Archives: learning through play

Game On!


It is becoming less common to see a child playing a board game in this day of technology, where video games, iPads and phones with game apps are everywhere. What children seem to desire and need more than anything is time spent together with the adults in their lives. Why not grab a board game and show a child that you have an hour or two to focus on having fun while teaching many lifelong skills?

Board games reinforce many social skills such as sharing, waiting, taking turns, self regulation, interacting with peers and winning and losing gracefully. Children benefit cognitively from board games as well, developing skills such as sorting, matching, classifying and problem solving. Executive function is vital to social emotional development and growth. Board games foster executive function skills such as flexible thinking, memory and self control. Children learn to predict the outcome of alternative moves. In a game as simple as Candyland, children are developing one-to-one correspondence while counting. Games such as Memory, Bingo, Checkers, and Dominoes get everyone involved in a hands-on activity as they are learning many important skills through play.

As educators, we know that children learn more when they attempt to explain their reasoning. Take the opportunity while playing a game to ask children open-ended questions such as, “Why did you choose to make that move?” or, “How did you decide which way to go?” These questions will allow them to grow intellectually by explaining their thought process. Preschoolers are capable of absorbing and memorizing facts much quicker than adults. Give them the chance to be successful and gain self confidence during a board game in the classroom.

Encourage families to play board games at home by sharing the many benefits for children. As a bonus, board games can help grandma and grandpa as well! Games and puzzles, along with other thought-provoking activities, keeps memory function performing at a higher level. Your preschooler can help grandparents avoid the risk of memory loss! Share this resource on the top preschool board games with families in your program.

As I reflect on my childhood, some of the most precious memories I have involve playing games with my dad. There was not a night that went by in my childhood when my dad wasn’t up for a game of Checkers, Connect Four, or a long competitive UNO championship. I can still remember my excitement when I used my last DRAW FOUR card just when my dad was just about to say UNO… Looking back, it was not just the game I enjoyed, but the undivided attention my dad gave me while taking the time to play with me. It was that joy of competition he instilled in me that makes me enjoy winning to this day. If this is still one of my favorite memories almost 40 years later, imagine what a gift we are giving to our children when we make time for them. No matter how you look at family game night, everyone wins!

Block Play: What Are Children Learning?

block-playEarly childhood education is focused on children learning through play. Research has proven children learn through “hands on” engagement and through social interactions with adults and other children. One of the struggles I see educators facing is explaining this to parents. As teachers, how do we explain to families that yes, their child is playing with blocks, but as they play they are strengthening several areas of development? As I thought about this question several cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills came to mind that educators can share with parents. The following is a list that you can share with parents about the different skills their children are learning as they play with blocks, and the learning domains that go along with each skill.

When building with blocks, children are:

  • Using oral language in a variety of situations (Language/Literacy)
  • Matching objects in a one-to-one correspondence (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learning appropriate social skills for group behavior (Social, Emotional)
  • Using vocabulary to designate quantities (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—Math)
  • Using vocabulary to designate relationships (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—Math)
  • Demonstrating concepts of part/whole (Cognitive—Math)
  • Using vocabulary to compare objects (i.e., same/different or more/less) (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—math)
  • Forming groups by sorting and matching objects according to their attributes (Cognitive—Math)
  • Knowing and discussing the consequences of actions in social relationships (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—Science)
  • Acquiring non-locomotor movement skills (Physical/Fine-motor)
  • Creating, repeating, and/or extending patterns (Cognitive—Math)
  • Developing hand-eye coordination (Physical/Fine-motor)
  • Observing and following safety rules (Social, Emotional)
  • Learning ordering (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learn mapping skills (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learn physical representations of addition and subtraction (Cognitive—Math)
  • Develop classification skills (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learn size and shape recognition, differentiation, and relations (Cognitive—Math)
  • Discuss ways people help each other (Social, Emotional)
  • Understand gravity, stability, weight, and balance (Cognitive—Science)
  • Think, create, and implement plans (Cognitive, Social, Emotional)
  • Discover properties of matter (Cognitive—Science)
  • Discover the names and functions of buildings (Social, Cognitive, Language)
  • Develop respect for the work of others (Social, Emotional)
  • Make choices; make decisions (Social, Emotional)

 Children are doing so much more than just playing in your classroom. How will you communicate this to families? How can you advocate for play in your program/community?

Kindergarten Readiness Begins at Home

kindergarten-readinessThis time of year, we begin to hear the buzz of parents, teachers, and others discussing kindergarten readiness. “Is my child ready academically?” “Is my child ready socially?” Teachers work hard all year to prepare little ones so that they are ready for kindergarten. Parents depend on information from their child’s preschool teacher to assure them that their child is ready for the next step in their educational journey. Parents also seek opinions from family members, friends and fellow dance and soccer parents. “Should I hold him back since he has a summer birthday?” “Should I send her even though she seems immature socially, yet ready academically?” What can you do to help educate the parents of children in your preschool program about kindergarten readiness?

As early childhood professionals, we know that children will be screened for readiness in five critical areas known as Learning Domains and that there are developmental standards that a child will need to meet in each domain before they can begin kindergarten. Teachers in preschool programs work with children on these during the day, but do parents in your program feel equipped and understand the importance of also working with children at home?

So much learning takes place when children are engaged in play. Encourage parents to find simple moments in each day to help children become “kindergarten ready.” You can share this list with parents of things they can do at home to promote school readiness.

Keeping the lines of communication open with parents is key to successful school readiness. Sharing the results of screenings and assessments helps the parent understand where the child is developmentally, and what areas need to be improved. Keeping parents informed of the a child’s progress helps them reinforce what they are learning. There are many resources that you can share with parents. Five to Thrive is our local campaign to promote kindergarten readiness and registration information. Share the “Readiness Check-up Quiz” where parents can assess their child at home to see if they are developmentally on track.

Let Children Stop and Smell the Roses

Let the children play!Over the years I have observed in dozens of preschool classrooms, and there is a recurring theme that seems to appear in each room at some point: rushing the children. To start a task, to finish a task, to think about a task, you name it and they are told to do it quickly. We as teachers are natural planners, and as you know, planners have schedules and schedules are meant to be followed. So if there are 20 minutes set aside for circle time, as we watch the clock for 9:50, we are ready to rush the end of the story, ask the children to stop in mid-thought or sentence, and move along to the center time. As children are dismissed to go to the various interest centers, they are told to move along, they must not stop to play with toys, dance on their way to the table, or pause to admire a friend’s sparkly new shirt. As an observer, I have seen children working so diligently on a project only to be told, “That’s enough; you need to finish up.”

Children are naturally curious. So much of their learning comes from hands-on exploration and investigation. There is value in a preschool child taking more time at the art table to create a rocket ship than the 20 minutes the teacher has set aside. If we give children time to analyze, problem solve, brainstorm, and compare and classify, they will become independent critical thinkers. Granted, there is not always unlimited time, but allowing children to be creative, appreciate the details, and be active problem solvers takes time.

  • If you are doing a cooking activity and the children want to crack the eggs and stir the batter and you have the urge to do it so it gets done faster, resist the urge. Let the children teach you to slow down and live in the moment.
  • When you are walking outside and a child holds up the line as he kneels down to look at an earthworm, try to encourage his curiosity instead of extinguishing it.
  • If you ask a child to get an instrument out of the music box and he stops to shake, play and strum each one he picks up until he finds it, try to stop and listen to the music. He is learning about the world around him and all the possibilities.

We tend to say children are “distracted” when they stop to notice 10 different things while on the way to complete a task. Perhaps they are not distracted, but engaged in life and appreciating the details. Maybe we as teachers can benefit from small distractions as well.

We teach our children that if we don’t hurry up we are going to miss the next thing on the agenda. I truly believe that in the process of being rushed we are missing so much more. Next time you wait patiently while a preschooler puts on a feather boa, cowboy boots, two crowns, three necklaces and the perfect purse, try to remember how many times they have waited patiently for us. If we let our children stop to smell the roses, chances are we will learn to do the same.

Let Mother Nature Do the Teaching

Take a hike! Let mother nature do the teaching.

Take a hike! Let mother nature do the teaching.

Welcome Kelly Ely, 4C for Children Professional Development Specialist, to the blog team for 2016!

Exploring the outdoors is an incredible way to promote development in preschool children. The opportunities to encourage children’s inquiry and learning are endless. Experiences in nature can allow teachers to focus on all developmental domains—including cognitive, social emotional, physical well being, language and literacy, and the child’s approach toward learning. Children are naturally curious; therefore a nature trail is the perfect environment to prompt children to ask questions that lead to higher-level thinking.

Think of the woods as an outdoor classroom. The teacher can call attention to specific items seen on a hiking trail, such as animal homes, rocks, various trees, and plants. Often times in a classroom, teachers ask students to “stop talking” during lessons. While taking a nature walk, children will undoubtedly be inspired to talk to one another, fostering language development. Teachers can ask questions such as, “What do you think birds use to build their nests?” and the children can work together to discuss their hypothesis with other students. Collaboration is one of the keys to successful social emotional development. Successful team work creates a positive climate in the classroom. Students are empowered by the idea that they are explorers working together to get answers. Empathy, another important social emotional skill, can be encouraged in such as teaching children to be gentle with nature and not destroy or damage animal homes.

The opportunities for physical development in nature are endless. Beyond students running, walking, bending and following a trail, teachers can use this time to engage their fine motor skills. Picking up leaves, small rocks, and other small objects enhance children’s ability to use their pincher grasp with their index finger and thumb. Children love the challenge brought by this hands on task.

Items both large and small can be brought back to the classroom to further investigate and examine in depth. Student’s will enjoy activities that allow them to be “scientists” as they compare, contrast and classify items that they have discovered.  Children feel trusted and independent when teachers give them tools and ask them to investigate their findings and report what they see. A love of science grows from learning that exploring can be fun, as well as educational.

Before taking children on a nature walk, I would suggest reading a well-illustrated nature book as an introduction. This provides a great opportunity for children to become familiar with things to look for on the walk. It also allows provides a time to brainstorm with the children about what they already know about nature and what they would like to learn. Teacher’s can take learning to the next level after the walk is completed by placing books in the library relating to things seen on their adventure.

These teachable moments are not limited to preschool teachers; parents can share these same experiences at home with their children. If you do not have access to a nature trail, look no further than your own backyard or school yard for these opportunities to expand your child’s learning. Remember as you create lesson plans for your classroom or plan learning experiences for your child… there is a whole world of possibilities outside waiting to be explored!

Technology and the early childhood classroom

classroom tech

I have a love/hate relationship with technology in early childhood education. On one hand—I believe that children construct knowledge through play, and I don’t believe that technology is as useful in that way. On the other hand—technology is becoming more and more of a necessity in our society. So, should children have opportunities to explore technology in our ECE classrooms? As children advance to kindergarten and beyond, using technology in the classroom is mandatory. Some children have the opportunity and resources to be introduced to technology in their homes—through gaming systems, computers, iPods/iPads and their parents’ smart phones. Let’s face it; some would even argue that technology/televisions are becoming our children’s playmates at home.

Since many children have all this exposure to technology at home, why would we need to incorporate it in our preschool classrooms? Something to consider: this exposure doesn’t occur in every home. Some children do not have the opportunity or resources to be introduced to technology at home or it might be something that is off limits. For example, when my son was younger, he was not allowed to play on the computer. Since it was not something I could easily replace at the drop of a dime, I could not take the chance of it breaking. I saw my computer as being a necessity for survival and my family’s future, to be used only for work and to continue my education; it was not toy. Some may say he was at a disadvantage entering kindergarten due to his lack of technology experience at home.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about balance. As educators, we know children learn through play, hands-on experiences, interacting with their peers and conversations with their teachers/adults. I personally would love to see more teachers using technology as an opportunity to enhance development through investigation and exploration with children. Too often I see children plopped down at the computer playing some kind of “interactive” game in silence. These children are typically isolating themselves—escaping social interactions with their peers and teacher. They sit and watch the screen, clicking the mouse occasionally. Instead, I would love to observe teachers becoming co-researchers with their children! Incorporate technology to follow the child’s lead and expand knowledge. Teachers can use technology to take advantage of teachable moments with children, for example, when a child asks questions about where an animal lives or what they eat, that’s the perfect opportunity to pull out technology to further their knowledge. As educators we want to encourage children to be curious, thirsty for more knowledge, and lifelong learners.

Ask yourself these questions before implementing technology in your classroom:

  • What is the purpose?
  • How will the children use it?
  • What will the children gain from it?

Even though children who don’t get early exposure to technology may be at a disadvantage in that area when they begin school, they do catch on quickly! Since my son started kindergarten, he hasn’t missed a beat with technology. In fact, he’s even taught me a thing or two. My son had been equipped for future learning in his early years because of the quality of engagement from his teachers. If technology is not an option for your early childhood program, remember that the most important thing that we can do for children is to offer them opportunities to gain knowledge through meaningful interactions and engagement.

There’s more than one way to address a behavior

address behavior.JPG

It turns out preschool boys are full of energy and can team up together to create an environment that feels chaotic and out of control. One preschool program that I often visit has entered a challenging phase, where the boys seemingly run the room. It also seems like the child care providers in the room hardly have time to engage with all of the children meaningfully because they are constantly “putting out fires.”

What makes this situation difficult is that it’s not only one or two children who need some very intentional proactive strategies to feel successful, it’s like seven. What I have observed is, these particular children, who happen to be boys, like to impress each other. It’s almost like they feel peer pressure to act a certain way. It’s become a pattern that some children will run around the playground when it’s time to line up to go inside. Every day some children do this. They run around the playground and taunt the child care providers, saying things like “You can’t catch me!” At first the providers tried a trusted strategy—get to children before it was time to line up, to hold their hand. In some situations, this works for those children who are “runners” because they do not want to have to hold the teacher’s hand, so this method takes one or two times to be effective. However, in this particular situation, that strategy didn’t work. The biggest reason is there are more children that habitually run than there are providers’ hands to hold.

What we know about children this age is that they have become increasingly more aware of and connected to other children. Other children become much more important than they were in earlier years. Most preschool children have friends and value being a friend. Fortunately, this program has access to an early childhood professional that has a strong knowledge base on the social and emotional needs and development of young children. After observing the behaviors and interactions of the children all day, he had a great insight that made perfect sense. Instead of talking to the children about their own good or bad choices (which I have used as an effective strategy in similar situations), talk to the children about what good friends would do. Whether the behavior was running around the playground when it was time to line up or hitting another child, most children of preschool age (and in particular the boys I’ve been referring to) know what kind of behavior is right and what kind of behavior is wrong. Good friends help their friends do what is right. Children at this stage are still learning what it means to be a friend. If asked, these particular children would likely say that the other boys are their friends. They would also say they want to be a good friend. So, encouraging them to help their friends do what is right might be effective. While they are focusing on supporting their friend, they are also doing what is right themselves.

In any situation where children are “misbehaving,” it’s important to be flexible. Just because one strategy to address a behavior worked with a different child (or group of children), doesn’t mean it will work every time. Sometimes you need to be open to trying a different strategy!